Business Profile | Born at Twenty

March 2017 View more

It’s hard to walk down the ever-expanding beer aisles at the grocery or liquor store, or stare gape-jawed at the seemingly endless row of tap handles at the local restaurant or watering hole, and think back to a time when craft beer didn’t wield the mighty influence over the drinking and dining landscape that it does today.

But back in 1996, when Jim and Jason Ebel were first dabbling with what was then known (if it was known at all) as home brewing, the idea of trying to parlay those experiments into a business was a fanciful notion at best, an outright delusion at worst. Believing they were onto something special—and pleased to be indulging their twin passions for thought-provoking flavors and curiosity-inspired entrepreneurship—the two brothers nevertheless forged ahead.

“There were definitely some really hard times in the beginning, when the craft beer scene in Chicago didn’t really exist,” Jason says. “I always joke that we were either too stubborn or too stupid, because we probably should have quit a long time ago. But instead we became even more determined to make it work, and eventually the tide of craft beer started to change. We were fortunate to be ahead of that curve—and helping to create that curve—so we were able to ride that wave a little bit.”

The rest is not quite history, so much as an ongoing and ever-evolving success story. Over the course of the next twenty years, the Two Brothers (capitalized now) built a beer into a brand into a movement into a west-suburban family of companies that has come to encompass a full line of well-respected craft brews, a coffee roasting business, a portfolio of diverse restaurant concepts in Illinois and Arizona (including the multi-tiered The Craftsman in downtown Naperville) and a new distillery for artisan spirits.

“When we started out, we thought we’d just be a small producer that made a couple thousand barrels of beer a year, and that was the extent of it,” Jason explains. “But I’m a serial entrepreneur, and I’m always looking at different kinds of businesses and thinking of how I could make them better. So that’s been one of the fun parts about this as we’ve become more successful on the beer side—it’s allowed us to do a few more things while remaining independent. Fortunately, we have a core group of people that really embrace that concept of looking for something new.”

Indeed, throughout this long and winding journey the Ebel brothers have remained steadfast in their independent, family-focused approach to the business, eschewing both outside investors and overtures from the bigger fish in the brewing pond. Out of this spirit, Jason says, the commitment to creating a work environment that breeds happy, long-term employees has grown to be just as important as producing the next great lager or uncovering the next great business opportunity. 

“I think creating a family of companies that really takes care of our employees and wants them to be a part of our success has become a bigger focus for us over the years,” he says. “I get a little passionate about it. I don’t know when or where it changed along the way, but that’s such a big part of who we are now. Eventually when I’m gone and the company is still around, is it going to be more important that we made great beer, or that we all had a great place to come to work every day?”

Fans of Two Brothers will get a chance to see what a great place it is for themselves when the brewery hosts an open house and nail-pulling party (to sample some of the company’s new barrel-aged concoctions) at its Warrenville facility later this month, part of an anniversary celebration that also includes a party at the Roundhouse on March 16 (the date of the brothers’ inaugural brew back in 1997) and a special twentieth-anniversary IPA. Amid all of this looking back, however, the brothers themselves remain firmly fixated on the next twenty years, a future that includes the debut of their spirits division and an as-yet-unplanned twenty-acre expansion in Warrenville.

It’s amazing how things have changed,” Jason says in a moment of reflection. “Chicago has become one of the best beer cities in America, and it’s been very cool to be a part of that. But as fun as it’s been so far, we’re still looking forward, because 2017 is going to be one of the more exciting years for us.”

Anniversary Exclusive

Join the party to celebrate twenty years of Chicago craft with Two Brothers Brewing Company on Thursday, March 16 at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora. The event will feature a live performance by JC Brooks Band and the debut of its twentieth-anniversary beer.