Breweries in bunches: West suburban St. Charles is booming these days, and at the center of its popularity is a quartet of fantastically unique breweries
By Trent Modglin
Riverlands Brewing Company
1860 Dean Street in St. Charles
Details: Jason Arges and Steve Marck were college roommates and friends with Eric Bramwell. In their 20s, the trio shared a place together in downtown Naperville and began homebrewing every weekend. Naturally, over beers during a 4th of July party in 2014, they began discussing the possibility of opening their own brewery (If you ever meet them, ask them about purchasing tickets to Oktoberfest in Munich). Riverlands’ doors opened in March of 2019.
What they’re known for: Riverlands is highly regarded for their successful run of hazy IPAs (Aberration of Light, Neon River and Silt to name a few), which “pays the bills” and gets them invited to plenty of festivals. But the popularity hardly stops there, as their imperial stouts are rapidly gaining attention, especially the barrel-aged options.
“We’re excited about an anniversary stout that’s going to be released in March that’s unadjuncted, which basically means you keep it simple and just let the barrel do the talking,” says Arges.
Part of the genes of (Riverlands) is we wanted to get away from our terrible jobs where we made twice as much money, but knew we had a chance to be twice as happy. And that is absolutely true.” — Co-founder Jason Arges
What caught our eye: Riverlands is a warm, airy and friendly spot. We saddled up to a tree-trunk table that’s a definite conversation starter, as is the cherry wood bar. Modern LED light fixtures, string lights and barn-wood walls that happen to work as a sound suppressor when there’s live music all add a lot of character.
To drink? The Knights of Bavaria dunkelweizen is a quality banana-forward wheat ale. The Grimoire imperial stout is aged in rye whiskey barrels with vanilla beans — and is something you’ll want to take home if they still have it available in bottles — and Murky Waters is a rock solid hazy that lives up to their stellar reputation in that department.
From the brewery: “Overall, we’re very proud of the last three and a half years we’ve been open. To really build a brewery and a community around it, volunteering to do charity work with local groups. Part of the genes of this is we wanted to get away from our terrible jobs where we made twice as much money, but knew we had a chance to be twice as happy. And that is absolutely true. In 2023 we’re going to be making some more staple beers — Dean Street hazy IPA and Kayak Pils and some more we’re still discussing.” — Co-founder Jason Arges
93 Octane Brewery
1825 Lincoln Highway in St. Charles
Details: The name 93 Octane is an ode to the family’s history of running gasoline stations and convenience stores for more than four decades. The empire, run by Mario Spina after taking over for his father, currently consists of 16 Pride Store gas stations, three restaurant concepts, a boutique liquor and craft-beer store, and several other projects in the works.
The staff is so passionate about stocking the best local craft beer at each Pride Store that, during a company meeting a few years back, the idea was tossed out that they should just start brewing their own. Not long after, in late 2019, 93 Octane Brewery opened for business.
What they’re known for: Head brewer Alex Makowski, who was the youngest to pass the Cicerone exam at the tender age of 21, gained valuable experience at several Chicago-area breweries (and in Germany) before finding a home at 93 Octane, which is part of a collection of businesses owned by Spina in the same St. Charles location, including a Pride Store, The Pride Beer & Wine Plus Spirits shop, and the Taco Urbano and Urban Counter restaurants — the latter of which cooks the food for brewery patrons (we’ll get to how good that is later). It’s an ideal combination of businesses, really, that work seamlessly together and provide an opportunity for future expansion.
The food at 93 Octane, to put it simply, is amazing. Some of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere, the reuben was mouthwatering and the jalapeño slaw added the perfect kick.
What caught our eye: Although it’s a smaller taproom (expansion is coming), the exposed brick behind the bar, string lights and neighborhood vibe definitely make it feel cozy, and they do a great job of winterizing the covered patio to keep things nice and toasty. The food here, to put it simply, is amazing. Some of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere, the reuben was mouthwatering and the jalapeño slaw added the perfect kick. Just an outstanding menu.
As for beer, the Pride Piper is their well-balanced flagship hazy IPA with orange, apricot and melon flavors, and we took a liking to the Turbo coffee porter with its rich, chocolatey characteristics and coffee boost. Looking for something light, crisp and sessionable? Try the Swing Lube kolsch.
From the brewery: “It’s been a fun project, to play with the beer creation, labels and beer names, but the No. 1 thing I’m proud of is the quality of our beers. You’ll be able to find your style, and they are exceptional brews. We’re opening a 5,000-square-foot production facility in the spring of 2023 that will allow our St. Charles brewhouse to expand. We’ll have more seating, hone in on our canning line and add a full bar with cocktails and partnered bourbon pours.” — Owner and CEO Mario Spina
Alter Brewing + Kitchen
12 S. First Street in St. Charles
Details: It didn’t take long for Alter Brewing’s second location — its first is in Downers Grove and third, which just opened this past December, is in Oak Brook — to gain notoriety around the popular Fox River Valley.
“When we made the decision on our business model, we were never focused on St. Charles necessarily, but we got to know the community, and that’s even more impressive than the strength of location,” says Alter partner/president Ken Henricks.
What they’re known for: Wow, the food. Adam Tanner, who had a decades-long career as a corporate chef, has created a wide-ranging yet approachable menu at Alter, full of creative shareables, salads, sandwiches and entrees that will have you making reservations for next week before you’ve even finished your meal. Start things off with the smoked boneless ribs or chili garlic shrimp before moving on to the pan-seared German schnitzel, steak melt sandwich, Wagyu meatloaf or citrus honey-glazed salmon. We promise, this menu is worth the trip alone.
Alter’s Ambigram hazy IPA is one of their flagship beers, and keep on the lookout for Swedda Wedda, a smooth and creamy seasonal oatmeal stout with notes of chocolate, coffee and toffee.
I’m most proud of the hospitality experience and the escape that our team gives our guests. People rarely remember what they had to eat or drink … but they always remember how you made them feel.” — Alter president and partner Ken Henricks
What caught our eye: The main main dining room is sleek and visually striking, while the views from the riverscape in downtown St. Charles are incredible. Alter’s year-round patio is at the epicenter of it all. With seating for 100, it’s a sought-after spot in the summer for obvious reasons, but it’s also comfortable even in the winter with a heated enclosure and private globes perfect for small groups or date nights.
From the brewery: “What I’m most proud of is the hospitality experience and the escape that our team gives our guests. … People rarely remember what they had (to eat or drink) or what they spent, but they always remember how you made them feel, and that’s important. And by the way, our food and beer are really good.” — President and partner Ken Henricks
Pollyanna Brewing & Distilling Co.
106 S. Riverside Ave. in St. Charles
Details: Opened in November of 2019, this is Pollyanna’s third location of four (their latest is a cocktail bar a few blocks from the original brewery in south suburban Lemont). One of Pollyanna’s founders, Ryan Weidner, is a St. Charles resident who always had it in the back of his mind that the area would be perfect for expansion. And when the opportunity to purchase the former Chord on Blues music venue presented itself, it seemed like a perfect fit to focus in on live music and a new distillery.
Pollyanna officially unveiled its spirits program here in May of 2021 (with an assist from Whiskey Acres in DeKalb) and is currently producing vodka, gin and barrel-aged gin, with some tasty bourbon on the way in about a year.
What they’re known for: A focus on “clean and consistent beer and spirits with a strong focus on balance.” And this Pollyanna location has quickly become a hotbed for live local, regional and national music acts every Friday and Saturday night, as well as an entertaining “open jam” on the first and third Thursdays of every month.
Pollyanna officially unveiled its spirits program here in 2021. And this location has quickly become a hotbed for live local, regional and national music acts every weekend.
What caught our eye: Its location on the Fox River — just over the walking bridge from Alter — is in the heart of St. Charles’ thriving nightlife district. We look forward to coming back in the summertime, when the lot along the south wall of the building converts to a spacious beer garden with views of the Fox River.
As for the beer, try the Eleanor, Pollyanna’s full-bodied porter that is heavy on the rich, dark chocolates with plenty of caramelized raisins and caramel, but well-balanced with a distinct coffee flavor. In the Cards is a nice hazy IPA, and be prepared to have your socks knocked off by this year’s version of the award-winning Orenda, a Belgian-style quadrupel ale aged in cherry brandy barrels.
From the brewery: “We wanted to differentiate ourselves by showcasing our spirits program that we launched here in St. Charles while maintaining the music venue history and vibe that was here, and I think we’ve done that. Downtown St. Charles has really changed over the last several years, and we’re excited to be part of it. … Our goal is always to be stewards of the community, providing different experiences and a comfortable spot to enjoy some good, fresh beer and cocktails.” — General manager Nick Miller
Also located in St. Charles is D&G Brewing at 303 N. 4th Street.