“Every day, there’s partial nudity.”
Truer, yet more disturbing words, may have never been spoken by 350 Brewing’s Erik Pizer (above left) as he muses about life inside his Tinley Park workspace. Alongside his longtime friend and co-founder, Todd Randall, I’m watching unedited video clips of random butt cracks of various sizes and depths as they move about the brewery. These clips, which will no doubt shift the age-old stereotype from plumbers to brewers, will soon make their way into the first of 350’s collaboration beer promo videos.
Wisecracks and high jinks such as these have quickly endeared Erik and Todd to the Chicagoland craft beer scene and have helped turn the opening of their south suburban taproom in early September into one of the most highly anticipated events of the summer.
Their senses of humor, relaxed attitudes and occasionally juvenile mentalities are downright infectious. So much so that when I sat down to question the pair, I quickly lost all sense of journalistic integrity, began swearing like a sailor and adopted a crass, smart-aleck interviewing style. The multitude of beers they kept slinging my way probably didn’t help either. So in drafting this article, it only made sense to keep things unfiltered and let these two goofballs speak for themselves.
Who the hell do you guys think you are anyways?
Todd: Pizer and I went to high school together. Then we went to NIU together in DeKalb, and all of our friends went there too. We lived in a house – 350 Augusta Avenue. A lot of fun. Kind of a shit show for sure. We had a blast. School didn’t work out that well, but it was a good time.
Erik: 350 was a really good time. It’s when I first started drinking good beer.
Todd: So Pizer started homebrewing five years ago, and I started going over there and assisting him about three years ago.
Erik: Assisting me in emptying the beers to start with.
Todd: A couple weeks after that, I fell in love with it. I was already in love with craft beer at the time. So I was just like ‘Why don’t we open a brewery?’ And what did you say?
Erik: No. Many, many times over.
Todd: At the time, I was in sales, working at a university in admissions. I definitely wanted to get out of the ‘Corporate American’ scene for sure. I’m the kind of guy who feels he should be his own boss. I’ve felt that way my whole life, because I always have ideas and no one likes them. Except Pizer.
Erik: I like his ideas…most of the time. Todd’s biggest quote according to all of his friends is ‘Fuck off – don’t tell me what to do’ when it was his week to do chores. There’s still dishes in DeKalb that need to get done.
Todd: We like to be creative. All of our lives, we’ve been in ska and punk bands, and writing music. We had our own wrestling federation in our kitchen at Northern. We videotaped that shit! It was called WCVF. That doesn’t stand for anything. It just looked right.
Erik: We put together a pay-per-view in our kitchen with storylines, rivalries, alliances, vampires, costumes and everything. It was stupid.
Todd: It was called ‘Halloween in Hell.’ There were four people and about 30 characters. Hitting people in the head with pizza pans. Oven matches where you had to shove someone’s face in the oven. It can’t go on YouTube. There’s some nudity. So I was always felt like, being in Corporate America, I wasn’t able to be creative like I used to be. So this is the perfect outlet. I used to write music and lyrics and name songs, and now I do the same thing with beers. Heavy Metal Garbage Band, our double IPA, is a song I wrote when I was 17 years old! So getting back to the brewery, I decided to write up a business plan and talk to some people and try and come up with some money. Finally Pizer got on board, and I fell in love with his beer and passion for it. And I’m passionate about other things needed to run the business, so it just clicked.
Erik: I used to be a meat cutter in a previous life, so I really like the idea of taking something and making something out of it with your hands. I bought my own homebrew kit five years ago. Listened to the Brewing Network. Read a whole bunch of different books. I never joined a homebrew club or worked at a brewery. Just brewed a bunch of batches at home.
Todd: We jumped from brewing five gallons two weeks ago to brewing here.
Speaking of…what is all this metal crap in here?
Erik: A couple years ago, I tried a Pipeworks beer…and it was good. Then they won ‘Best New Brewer in the World,’ which is no real small feat, cuz the world is kinda big. So I was pretty impressed. Then I find out they’re brewing on a little Psycho Brew system. Well then we had to have one. Also, it kind of fit the budget…back when we had a budget. Those were the days. So it’s two 100-gallon mash kettles next to two 100-gallon boil kettles. We have 3-barrel fermenters, and this is designed to be a 5-barrel system, so when we upgrade, we’ll get 5- and 10-barrel tanks. So far we’re brewing smaller batches, and so far so good. In my brewing software, I put in one mash and one boil and then I brew it twice.
Todd: These fermenters have been around the world and back. They were in the basement of the space that we were going to lease in downtown Tinley Park for awhile. Then we had One Trick Pony borrow them for a little bit to be used as serving tanks. Then we brought them back here. It’s worked out pretty smooth aside from a couple hoses exploding and us almost dying a couple times. But other than that, it’s been perfect.
Why in the world would anyone want to come here? Or to Tinley Park at all for that matter?
Todd: We’re both from the south suburbs. I was raised in Harvey then moved to Palos Heights, and now I live in Crestwood.
Erik: I grew up in the always classy Alsip and now I live in Palos Heights. And of all these areas, Tinley is just a bit nicer.
Todd: We wanted to be in this type of environment. We wanted to be accessible to I-80 and the main street here – 183rd and Harlem. We’ve got a convention center right here. We have eight hotels within a half mile. So our clientele will always flip. So it’s nice to have a million people coming from other states to the Tinley Park Convention Center every year and passing by our place. More importantly, we’ll have people from the area to support us, and that’s what we’re all about – the community.
Erik: The taproom has always been the big focus for us. Not the distribution or bottling. The vision all along has been ‘come hang with us here at 350.’
Todd: The main thing here is energy…I want a lot of energy in here. Everyone having a good time. The beer is going to be amazing and always changing. We’ll have some appetizers, and the menu will be changing over time as well. We’ll have a soft pretzel, a cheese dip with our Crook County IPA, pulled pork sliders and chili cheese dip (aka South Side Caviar). We’ll have TVs here and later hours.
Erik: As far as beer goes…I’ve always brewed beers that I like to drink. There’s gonna be hoppy beers and big beers, but I like to drink a lot of beers, so I really like the more sessionable beers. I have a 3.2% English Mild and other sub 5% ABV beers. Craft beer isn’t about being a snob or nerd or being able to tell you how a beer should taste. I don’t care. Do you like it or not? Is it good? Do you want to have another? If yes, then I’m doing my job well. Have a beer you like and have fun while you’re having it.
Todd: There’s a big market here in the suburbs because people don’t know much about craft beer. So once they come in, feel comfortable and have some fun, we’ll help them find their ‘craft beer legs.’
You two probably don’t have many friends huh?
Erik: We had Mike Pallen out here from Breakroom Brewery and we brewed Bang. Bang!, a saison with hibiscus and lemon peel. We brewed a saison with cucumber, lime zest and white pepper with Arrowhead Ales, a brewery just starting up in Manhattan, Illinois. With One Trick Pony, we did a dark wheat beer with a bunch of New Zealand hops called Exacta Box.
Todd: We want to do a collab series every month that will only be on tap here. So the first one with Breakroom will be here when we open. At the end of September, it’s looking like we’ll work with Brickstone. I’m gonna make Tommy (Brewmaster Tom Vasilakis) wear all of his gold medals and never take them off the whole time he’s brewing. A gold medal brewer in here is gonna be fantastic. We’ve talked to Transient, One Trick Pony, Slapshot, Hailstorm, Flesk.
Erik: Plus, we brewed a batch of Crook County at One Trick Pony and brewed Ruckus at Hailstorm. We all bounce ideas off each other all the time.
Todd: Drew Fox at 18th Street Brewery has been really helpful. He’s a bucket of knowledge from every standpoint.
Erik: We love all of the artwork over at 18th Street, so Joey Potts said to call Matt Sharp. He’s our homey now. He’s done so many things like our label art and tap room signs. He gets it. He’s into craft beer. He’s into being stupid like us.
Yeah, you guys definitely don’t seem very bright. So what’s next?
Erik: Opening those fucking doors. I really haven’t thought past that. I’m barely thinking ahead of the next three batches on the brew schedule. That’s hard enough.
Todd: I’m already thinking three years down the line.
Erik: That’s the thing about Todd. He gets ideas and then he makes them happen. It’s hard not to go along when all he does is deliver on things. There’s definitely no one else in the world I’d do this with.
Todd: It’s the perfect balance. I’m way crazy, and Pizer brings me back down to reality, and everything works out.
Erik: I tell him when stuff’s stupid. Not every idea is good. When he’s got a good one, I agree with it, and we do a good job of working together to knock it out.
Todd: The only thing you had to go along with was the butt cracks.