From Bud Light Kid to the South Side of Chicago’s Craft Brew Champion
How one entrepreneur is using beer to change the dialogue on Chicago’s South Side.
In an old carpet store on the South Side of Chicago lies a brewery. This brewery is a bit different than most; it’s one that’s walls are as decorated as its menu of beers which boast brews made from ingredients like pomegranate, cinnamon, cherry wheat, mead, chili peppers and cacao nibs (at one point, many of these were all packed into one beer – but we’ll get to that later).
This is Horse Thief Hollow, a brewery and restaurant, soon-to-be coffee distributor, art gallery and community beacon all-in-one. Neil Byers is the entrepreneur behind the multi-faceted operation. The chef-turned-home brewer-turned-restaurateur behind Horse Thief Hollow started it just three years ago and with a revenue as strong as his IPA, he’s managed to create a space that celebrates the kaleidoscope that is Chicago’s South Side.
The South Side of Chicago is a broad community, often catching international headlines, particularly for its gun violence. He knew he was entering tough territory, but not one laden with crime. Horse Thief Hollow is located in Beverly; a tough neighborhood in the sense that it’s a strong Irish community. Stubborn and spirited, often particular and set in their ways, when starting up a local business owner told Neil something along the lines of, “Nobody drinks craft beer here – good luck.”
But it was Neil’s personal mission to open the eyes of the community he grew up in to his crafty brews and incredible (incredible) food. And he did. Though as life as an entrepreneur goes: the bigger fight is ahead. Neil is on a mission to change the dialogue about the South Side of Chicago and focus the nation’s perspective on the thriving artisan community that resides within it’s borders — and good beer is just the start.
So, who are you?
I am Neil Byers. We are inside the brewery at Horse Thief Hollow on the South Side. I’m from the South Side, born and raised. I am the President and Manager of Horse Thief.
You started it?
Yeah. Founder, whatever. All those things.
How old are you?
That’s really young for all that you’ve built.
It’s what they say.
I interviewed you once before when you won the James Tyree Award last May. The Award celebrates a really great Chicago entrepreneur. What’s the story behind that great entrepreneur – what were you like as a kid?
I was a pretty normal kid. My parents raised me a little bit differently in that they would take me to restaurants, and we would eat Filet Mignon and things that were a little bit more sophisticated, for a five or a seven-year-old. I was pretty independent early on. I made breakfast for myself at a very young age – I was scrambling eggs at five years old. I wasn’t outside of the pack per se, I wasn’t this complete renegade, I was somewhere in the middle, I guess like most people. Went to Catholic high school, Catholic grammar school, and culinary school. I got out in a year-and-half – pretty quick. Straight A’s through all the culinary classes and C’s and D’s through all the Gen Eds.
I was very focused then something happened when I was probably in fourth or fifth grade. My teachers were frustrated because I hit this point in fifth or sixth grade where all of a sudden I was either a great student or a terrible student. Something in my mind clicked where if I was interested in it, I’d put everything towards it and if I wasn’t, then I just didn’t care. That carried through high school and college, and then I graduated and moved to Charleston to cook.
Was cooking your first passion?
When did beer come into play?
I guess beer came into play probably when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. [My dad] was working Battle Creek or Grand Rapids or something, and he got me a case of Founders. I was not having it, I could not drink it.
It was just way different. I was a Bud Light kid. I saved [the Founders] for some reason, and then all of a sudden things changed, as life does. I grew to appreciate beer, and then I started home brewing. There is a great correlation between being a chef and being a brewer. You are creating something from raw ingredients. It was a natural transition when I got into brewing and experimenting with these different beers and stuff. It wasn’t too far fetched.
We were talking earlier and you, in my opinion, have some crazy beers. What’s the craziest craft concoction you’ve ever made?
It’s called Broken Gasket. That was supposed to be our sweet potato French Ale, but one of the gaskets broke in the transfer, between the mash tun and the boil kettle. One of the gaskets that connected the two pipes broke. We lost a third of the work, so we couldn’t use it for the specific beer that we wanted to. We just had this Frankenstein of a beer, which is like a Brown Ale with coconut, cacao nibs, and cinnamon and there are some chilies in there. It’s cool to experiment with it.
I feel like there’s a lesson in there because you’re an entrepreneur and we’re talking for Trep Life here. When you are an entrepreneur at times everything goes wrong, or it’s not always easy. I don’t know if that’s the case for you, but in this case, you were just like, “welp a gasket blew, so I’m going to go ahead and make a new beer”?
Certainly have to make decisions – are you going to start over? Or are you going to make what you have work and get creative? My kind of vision is like nothing’s ever perfect and in failures there’s opportunity. This is an opportunity to possibly make a great beer. Who knows, you never know, so we’re going to do a funky different yeast. We’re going to do this cacao nibs, and coconut and stuff. If it’s terrible, well we would have dumped it anyway, but now we have an opportunity to produce something that’s memorable.
Cinnamon, chili peppers, cacao nibs?
Seven chili peppers. Yeah, cacao nibs and coconut. We could try it.
(Writers Note: we did try it after the interview. It was pretty gross.)
The other cool thing is that you are a step beyond the brewery, Horse Thief Hollow is also a restaurant. Talk to me about the restaurant. What’s out there?
That’s a super-loaded question. You want generically speaking or you want emotionally speaking?
Fuck, all right.
Essentially you have 135 seat brewpub that represents a lot of ups and downs, that represents my life’s work.
I was a chef for eight years and then I got into homebrewing and then I took it more serious. I was supposed to open up a fish market in Hyde Park when I was 28. I was two days from signing a lease, and they signed with somebody else and, whatever, just a lot of work went into it, and it was a devastating thing. Then I regrouped…The economy had just tanked it was 2009 or something. Banks weren’t giving any money out. There was an old Taco Bell, and I wanted do a barbecue place…and then I saw this space [the current Horse Thief Hollow]. The space just spoke to me, and this whole crazy vision of culminating everything together of my life. The food that I wanted to do, the food that I believed in, and then the beer and the support of local community, and artists and all these things. Everything came together in like a movie-kind of crazy thing, and before I knew it now Horse Thief was born.
Did you always know that you wanted to have a restaurant?
No. When I was young my teachers in high school knew that I was a little bit different. I wrote a poem and one of them saved it and has read it to the graduating class every year since.
It was basically about doing your best and stuff like that. There were teachers that would come to me and say ‘look you knew that you wanted to cook, and we were like okay but now it all makes sense’. As a kid you have ambitions and stuff but our life always changes and it gets kind of thrown around, but it’s interesting when they come back to me now, and they say you already had a vision. I abandoned that vision when I got burned out from cooking and I didn’t want the late nights. I wanted a family that was normal and that I could go to Michigan with on the weekends. I wanted a nine-to-five kind of thing. I got into sales, selling food for a couple of years – from 24 to 27 years-old or so basically that was my in-between period.
How did you adjust to that?
The second and last boss I ever had told me that I was never going to amount to anything. His company got bought out. The company I was working for got bought by another company, and the new company required us to wear ties and the old company didn’t. I thought it was silly to be wearing a tie in the food business because it is a very back-of-the-house thing. If I’m going to be selling somebody food, I don’t want to come across as being arrogant like ‘okay I’m wearing a tie, and a suit’ and it was kind of bullshit. I felt uncomfortable because I understood what it was like to be a chef and everything. I thought it was arrogant on his part that he required us to wear ties. Soon as the company got bought out, I took my tie off and he looked at me and said, ‘Neil you’ll never amount to anything, and you’re never going to be anything.’
You should invite him over for a beer.
I would love for him to come over and have a beer, I would love it so much.
I guess it fueled you in a way.
There’s fuel. It’s not like a tremendous amount of fuel, but certainly like an eighth of a tank of fuel sitting there.
Those employers – the ones who didn’t acknowledge that extra effort, the ones who, for lack of other words, sucked, – what did they teach you or how have they influenced you on being the boss you are today?
That’s probably the best question I’ve ever been asked.
Ever or just right now?
Ever, because it’s something that I’m really passionate about. I believe that everyone has a special gift. They have something that they could bring to the table and it’s my job as a boss, or whatever, to put everyone in a position for them to be able to succeed. They have to be able to live up to their potential and have the right surroundings and everything to be successful, and then, in turn, I’ll be happy. Often bosses categorize people and they say. ‘You’re not doing a good enough job’, but maybe it’s the boss that didn’t acknowledge a person’s strengths or weaknesses or something like that. I’m really passionate about finding people’s strengths and then placing them where they belong. It might not even be here. If somebody has a talent that has nothing to do with the restaurant industry, I’ll take them away and say, ‘Look you actually would be amazing as a concierge.’ ‘You suck as a busser, but you have this great personality’. It’s a social responsibility, right?
This is the real story. After this place opened I saw minor success and then I saw what my calling actually became, and it was to bring back recognition and support for the artists and the different people of the South Side. Living up on the South Side my whole life we’ve always been categorized. It’s like the New Jersey of “that” area, whatever. The media covers like the North Side like it’s this great thing and then the South Side’s always the wild 100s, the gangs, and all that stuff. It became my life’s mission to then change that.
That’s what I love to hear.
That’s where I am at now. It’s obviously going to be a 30-year thing, it’s not something that I could snap my fingers at, and say ‘okay everyone’s going to respect what we have down here’. It’s not a black and white neighborhood with a high crime percentage or something, it’s artists and it’s cultures, and there’s a lot of talent. There are people with passion, so I’m trying to bring recognition to them. That effort is what helped win the Tyree award. It will just continue.
What are the steps you’re taking? What are you doing to bring the artisans in here and to support artisans on the South Side – because a lot of people don’t know it, but the South Side of Chicago has the most thriving, deep art scene in the Midwest, at least I would reckon.
Yeah. One of the greatest genres of music is blues and that is from the South Side so right off the bat we supported blues and bluegrass music and we have live bands here all the time. I love Chicago Blues and Delta Blues and just like that soul that it brings. I was raised on that stuff, like Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor some other great Chicago Blues musicians — and actually Buddy Guy is that tank right there [Neil points to a tank the Brewery].
That’s what that tank’s name is?
Yes, you see Buddy right here?
I see it.
Yeah, Buddy Guy. That’s John Lee Hooker and that’s Howlin Wolf and that’s Pinetop Perkins.
I love that. Your walls are also lined with local art – and you rotate the artists and pieces too.
Right. My cousin is the one who maybe taught me about “local”. When I was developing the concept for this place, I don’t know how it came about, but I was just like ‘I’m going to reach out to artists, and see if they want to hang their stuff on the walls, and it will change every quarter or whatever. We’ll put it for sale.’ And that’s what we do now. I don’t make a commission on it, I don’t care about the money, I just want unique artwork on the walls. I run this with an awesome woman who also lives in North Beverly. She’s the curator and so she’ll reach out to all this artists on the South Side and put together a gallery inside Horse Thief every three or four months. It’s just a great way to showcase talent. I want to showcase the music and then I want to showcase the artist.
So you guys are growing. Tell me a little bit about your plans for the future what’s going on? If you can talk about it.
Yeah for sure, I just got to think about it. We didn’t necessarily know what our identity would be when I opened this place and the beer. I didn’t know exactly what direction we were going. I teamed up with Dave Williams who is my brew master and I met him at a home brew competition, and he was the President of the Home Brew Club. We just hit it off, and we went to a meeting of the North Side of Lake. Everything fit. Now we go fishing together. He bought a house down here. We’ve been able to collaborate on a vision, that can’t be manufactured – it can only be an authentic experience. My culinary background with his brewing expertise. And that culminated when we took a silver medal in the world beer cup, and that was for our sweet potato French Ale.
So you guys are going to start distributing?
It’s really significant. What’s the plan?
Super significant. Tying in your last question with this question. We developed these beer styles that are a little bit unique. We started doing a Pink Pom-Pom for Mother’s Day. It’s pink and it’s refreshing and all that kind of stuff. Then we’d do a Peppermint Mocha Cream Stout style which is my mom’s favorite beer.
That’s so weird.
We do a black current milk stout. That’s our vision. Do we have a really good idea? Yeah, we have a good course, we do all those beers that everyone’s used to, but what our niche is going to be, and I hate pronouncing it that way because it’s so …
Whatever nobody knows how to pronounce it. Niche, whatever.
Can I say niche?
Yes, niche. What’s your niche?
This is going to be our seasonal beers, where it’s combining a chef inspired ingredient with the beer. Then I can go to different restaurants and stuff and say, ‘look we got this beer, we can do this dessert, we can do this appetizer, this would pair well with this all that stuff.’ That’s where we’re going to go. We’re expanding the brewery in a couple of months.
What’s maybe your biggest dream that might scare you a little bit?
Okay so I had that fear of failure when I was younger, and then somehow I went for it and learned to trust my gut, and everything has been fine ever since. That’s not to say that it’s going to be perfect and it’s not designated, that’s bullshit. Honestly, my biggest dream is to have 4000 barrels of distribution and to have people treat – this sounds corny – but like understand and respect the South Side. I don’t want to live in this bubble… but I actually created this business to live in a bubble. I created this world for myself where all these things mattered, and I don’t really care if it doesn’t matter to the outside world, but in my world it matters. People like you respond to it, and more and more people are responding to it and they are responding to the beer that we’re making, they’re responding to the artwork that we’re supporting and all this stuff.
I just want that to continue. It has nothing to do about money.
You have many thoughts, you’re a thinker.
Fucking thinker. I think too much.
I get it. I think that you made the point. You want to make, whether it’s a dent, whether it’s an explosion, a change in a way of thinking about the South Side. Or maybe it’s bringing people together to understand that everything kind of does go together. Art can go with beer.
Well, it’s the cornerstone of society. These things that I believe in.
Maura Gaughan is a documentary film producer, public relations wheeler for a virtual reality company, brand strategist, podcast host, stuntwoman and, obviously, a writer. With a background in Journalism, Maura enjoys producing multimedia communications that creatively tell the story of her partners and clients.