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Chicago-Area Brewery Devastated After Weekend Tornado

The beer world is rallying around Skeleton Key Brewing, a family-run business in Woodridge

A damaged bar
A torando decimated Skeleton Key Brewery over the weekend.
Skeleton Key Brewing [Official Photo]
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

When Emily Slayton’s camera feed cut out at 11:16 p.m. on Sunday, she and her family were prepared for the worst. Sunday’s tornado stormed through the Chicago area and hit Slayton’s family business, Skeleton Key Brewing, hard by tearing parts of roof from the suburban Woodridge building. Adjusters haven’t provided a damage estimate, as Slayton and her team were at the site Tuesday morning trying to salvage grain, beer, and any other supplies.

“It’s hard to imagine Skeleton Key in a different space,” Slayton says, pausing to regain her composure.

The storm hit two months after the brewery unveiled an expansion. Slayton, husband Paul, and brother/brewer John Szopa opened Skeleton Key in 2016. The venue houses a taproom with room for 100 people within the 8,500-square-foot space. No one was inside the brewery when the storm hit. Slayton is thankful if the storm hit the day before (Father’s Day), customers and workers would have likely suffered injuries.

A hallway damaged by a storm
Skeleton Key co-owner Emily Slayton says the photos don’t convey the amount of damage.
Skeleton Key Brewery [Official Photo]

News of the damage quickly spread among Chicago’s beer community. On Monday night, Charolette Converse, of Mikerphone Brewing in Elk Grove Village, established a GoFundMe for Skeleton Key and so far the effort’s raised more than $50,000.

“It’s been insane, I can’t even tell you how full my heart is, how incredibly touched I am by this,” Slayton says.

But there’s still plenty of work to be done. Slayton says Skeleton Key has fielded offers from breweries which want to help them brew some of their tried and true beers. She’s not so interested in contract brewing, the practice of when brewery rents space at another facility to make beer. While it’s OK for core beers, for brews that Skeleton Key hasn’t made before, contract brewing poses risks; it doesn’t feel like the beer belongs to them as they haven’t had practice honing the brew. Also, Slayton says the brewery is taproom focused. If they opted to contract brew, they would have too beer as their distribution circle (where the beer is sold) is small.

As Skeleton Key goes through the insurance process, they face another obstacle after surviving the height of the pandemic. Much of the beer was canned, but Tuesday was supposed be the day the began brewing its seasonal Octoberfest beer.

But to Slayton and her family, the brewery is about more than the physical space.

“We keep hearing people are like: were they not insured? Yeah, of course we’re insured!” Slayton says. “It’s just the hardest thing for us is we, as a family business, put so much of ourselves in this… we did much of it ourselves. My father-in-law and I, so many things we made by hand that were painstakingly arranged and decorated. it’s absolutely crushing to see those things destroyed. No amount of insurance is going to get that back, and that’s the real emotional drain.”