Cameron Compton '10 has a thing for beer. Not the “Natty Lights” he drank back in college at the University of Notre Dame. Not the Bud Lights he graduated to when he had a little extra money in his pocket. No, he’s in love with his beer, a hobby-turned-commercial venture called Midwest Coast Brewing, which is among the hottest craft beer breweries and taprooms in Chicago. And March 14, Compton celebrated a milestone: his 343rd batch of beer.
“There’s something about the smell of grain soaking in hot water; it has this wonderful, biscuity smell. I’m in love with it.”
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area outside of San Jose, there was nothing in Compton’s upbringing that would lead one to believe he aspired to be a professional brewer. For that matter, there was no real reason for him to attend Notre Dame. As he puts it, he isn’t Catholic and hadn’t event seen the movie Rudy. However, while a 12-year-old tagging along on his older sister’s college visits, something happened that ignited his interest in attending Notre Dame:
The Bookstore Basketball Tournament, the largest five-on-five basketball tournament in the United States. “I thought it was very cool. There were so many teams, some serious and others in it for fun. I distinctly remember a team called Jesus and the Disciples. Judas kept giving the ball to the other team,” he said.
When it was time to apply to colleges, the good memories of his sister’s college visit to South Bend came to mind. Compton applied and was accepted. Following the advice of a family member to study what he was interested in, Compton chose anthropology. “I love observing human behavior,” he said.
After graduation, Compton returned to the West Coast to look for a job. The San Francisco 49ers had plans to build a new stadium in Santa Clara and needed salespeople to lead the fundraising charge. “I needed a job, so I applied,” he said. “It was tough, but it taught me two things. First, how the real world works in a corporate environment. Although I was in sales, I got exposure to a lot of different parts of the team’s business. Second, I’m not a great salesperson.”
With a challenging day job, Compton and his roommate Aron O’Connor, also a Notre Dame graduate, decided they needed weekend hobbies. They hit upon the idea of home-brewing. They bought a kit with a recipe for an Irish red ale and followed it to the letter.
“That first batch was actually pretty decent,” Compton said. “As corny as it sounds, I was immediately hooked on beer-making.”
After consuming 48 bottles of home brew, the roommates moved on to batch two, an American brown ale. It was so terrible, they dumped it down the drain. Down, but not out, Compton and O’Connor kept brewing. The brewing wins and failures continued, with one epic failure permanently etched in Compton’s brain.
“We used the balcony of our 13th-floor apartment for brewing. One weekend, our batch boiled over, which made a sugary, sticky, nasty mess all over the balcony. As it dried, it became a major problem. Being dumb 22-year-olds, we decided to heat water to wash away the sticky solution. It only partially worked. The melted mess poured over the balcony onto the neighbor’s windows below. They were not thrilled with us.”
Compton kept at it though, and before long he and his roommate were pretty good at brewing. “As we kept going, the thought came to me that maybe someday this could be a business. At the time, the craft beer movement in America was just getting started. There were only a handful of breweries here and there.”
Meanwhile, Compton’s day job had changed from working for a National Football League team to working with a tech company. By 2016, he was ready for a change and came back to the idea of craft beer brewery. With encouragement from his sister, Lanie Veckman and then-girlfriend and now wife, Suzie Smelyansky, Compton decided to pull the trigger on launching a craft brewery.
But where to locate? Both he and Suzie were long-time Californians. She suggested moving to Chicago. Born in the Ukraine and raised in California, she wanted to experience living somewhere different. At first Chicago seemed a crazy idea — Compton still shivers when discussing South Bend’s winters. But the more they thought about it, the more it made sense.
“There are many great breweries around the Great Lakes. The water makes for excellent beer. In 2016, Chicago seemed prime to pop as the next big craft beer town,” Compton said. “Because of Notre Dame, we had friends in Chicago. We knew we knew we had a built-in community there.”
Decision made, it would take Compton more than two years to officially launch the brewery and taproom. Tapping into family and friends, he called on his sister to do the financial modeling for the business and then raised startup capital. A separate limited liability company acquired a 100-year-old, 35,000-square-foot building on Chicago’s near west side. The West Walnut Street location is ideal: 1.5 miles west of downtown Chicago and a 10-minute walk from the United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks. The brewery and taproom became the first tenant, taking 15,00 square feet. A second tenant, a wedding event hall, soon followed.
Of course, the brewery needed a name. With nods to his home state, new hometown and to one of Compton’s brews, an India pale ale that blends bitter, earthy West Coast hops with bright East Coast Hops, Midwest Coast Brewing became official in 2017 although it would take two-and-a-half years before opening to the public.
Compton discovered he wasn’t the only one who believed Chicago to be the next great craft beer town. In fact, it was already competitive with brew masters vying to out craft one another. Realizing he was going to have to differentiate to succeed, Compton made an early decision to make his niche really good classic style beers.
“Craft breweries can get pretty nutty in their flavors,” he said smiling. “It’s part of the fun, right? We decided to stick with the staples; I like to say they are unremarkable in style but are beautifully brewed. Our top movers are our English Pale Ale, American Brown Ale and American Blonde Ale. We also make German lagers, a variety of West Coast and New England IPAs, and we do try to make room on the tap list for some more fun crafty styles like fruited sours and barrel-aged beers.”
New breweries bring excitement and buzz, especially when they’re local. This played right into Compton’s aspiration that Midwest Coast Brewing be a neighborhood hangout. To set Midwest Coast Brewing apart from other establishments, he made it clear the taproom and patio are family- and dog-friendly, a move that’s been well received by patrons. “We leaned into being dog-friendly. Our beer glasses feature an image of our childhood dog Maverick, we have series of beers named after dog regulars and we host dog meet-ups. We just had corgi night with 15 corgis and their owners.”
Midwest Coast Brewing has two distinct businesses, wholesale and retail. The wholesale side sells to restaurants, bars, liquors stores, caterers and venues, and other stores. The taproom sells to the public. The brewery opened in July 2019, with the taproom opening in September 2019. Everything was going according to plan when six months in, the global pandemic struck, and everything was shut down for what was thought to be a short time to get the virus under control.
“We were just getting our feet under us. The taproom was consistently busy, and the wheels were in motion for something great,” Compton said. “The first few months of the lockdown were terrible; our wholesale sales were zero. By mid-April, it was clear the lockdown was not a short-term thing. We had to do something.”
Fortunately, Compton still had financial runway from his initial startup capital. So he used the reserve cash to purchase a canning line. His timing was perfect. The lead time on the equipment was four months. If he had waited another month, he would have had to wait up to one-and-a-half years for a canning line due to extreme supply chain disruptions. “We were very lucky we jumped on that quickly,” Compton said.
The ability to produced canned beer brought back the old customers — bars and restaurants — and opened new ones such as Whole Foods, which began carrying Midwest Coast’s craft beer. Patrons could also purchase carry-out beer in cans rather than kegs or growlers.
By June 2020, the City of Chicago allowed outdoor seating and people began coming back, albeit in masks and socially distant. It was another full year before indoor seating was allowed. All restrictions were finally dropped in February 2022.
“It felt like we were opening again for the first time," said Compton. "People were so relieved. Everyone wanted to come out and get back to normal. March 2022 was a huge month, and the momentum continued to grow throughout the summer and fall.”
The community of Midwest Coast Brewing has flourished in the year since COVID restrictions were lifted. The taprooms “mug club” sold out in two days in 2022 and again in 2023. Special events, discounts on beer, and one’s own special mug are included in the perks. Other events such as murder mystery nights in the brewery and pup meet-ups also draw crowds. Through it all, Compton has continued to do what he loves most: brew beer.
The biggest challenge to date was definitely COVID, which Compton said the team survived by making the best decisions possible in an ever-changing environment. Conversely, the biggest win is the survival of the craft brewery and the community it’s nurtured. “We’ve built a great community at Midwest Coast Brewing. People have met on blind dates here and gotten married. We’ve won awards for our beer. And we’ve only scratched the surface.”
For people considering launching a company, Compton offered this: “Brick-and-mortar businesses take a lot of time. Get to know how local governments operate and what’s involved with permitting for buildings, brewing and liquor licenses. Dealing with the City of Chicago brought its own set of frustrations. Even though a local city councilman was super onboard and supportive, we experienced delays with the city. You just have to keep going.”
Originally published by ideacenter.nd.edu on March 29, 2023.at