Pizza and beer have long been entwined in a committed relationship in Chicago with locals pairing a variety of styles of pies and brews in harmony. But low and behold, a love triangle may be emerging in Logan Square where over the last year Middle Brow Brewing has been slowly introducing its own wine.
This could rock perceptions of the Midwest which is something Middle Brow’s Pete Ternes relishes. Chicago and the Midwest aren’t about sugary, syrupy juices: “Shit, it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
When Ternes and wife Polly Nevins, along with Bryan Grohnke, opened their brewpub in 2019, Bungalow by Middle Brow, they brought a certain San Francisco Bay Area charm with sourdough bread, Spanish conservas, and their chewy thin-crust pizzas which ignored the narrative of deep dish versus tavern style. Only after establishing themselves did Ternes pander to locals with a knockout Chicago thin crust.
So, yes, Middle Brow is not only a brewery now. But even as the Reader reported the news back in May, it took a while for the bottles and labels to arrive. The winery makes light, crisp wine that’s low in tannins. It’s categorized as natural wine, a confusing label to many. These wines are produced with low intervention — using native yeast with handpicked grapes that aren’t sprayed with chemicals or mashed by machines. It’s not a new concept, but certainly, one that’s grown in popularity since 2018. It was new to Ternes: “Do I even know what that phrase even means?” he asks.
The production of natural wines shares the same philosophy as how Middle Brow and brewer Ed Brady makes its beers with overindulgence in hops that produce bitter IPAs. They share the same funky characteristics: peppy, fruity, and light. Drinkers could enjoy three glasses and feel good and at Middle Brow, they could even enjoy a few slices of pizza without feeling the need for sweatpants with elastic bands.
Some wines are made with Midwestern grapes. Michigan may be the next hot wine region. Maybe it’s a result of what climate change is doing to other regions, but regardless the more wine lovers are discovering the Mitten and Middle Brow harvest hybrid grapes grown in places like Saugatuck and Traverse City: “We’re at the precipice for a new era of good wine,” Ternes says.
They’ve also brought in juice from California and the juice needs to be transported to Chicago. Ternes recalls the sound of grape juice stored in giant 15-gallon totes as the liquid sloshed back and forth while they drove the harvest back to Chicago. At one point during a 2021 drive, Ternes felt like his truck’s engine was sputtering out. It was fine, that was just the sound of 600 gallons of chardonnay and pinot noir juice in the back.
While Chicagoans love its pizza and beer, pairing wine and pizza isn’t new here either. But there aren’t a lot of wineries in Chicago. Chains like City Winery in West Loop and Chicago Winery in River North produce a little. Middle Brow is also bringing a touch of beer marketing to its wine. The end of the summer means a big calendar of new beer releases in Chicago and in the Midwest, with events bringing together drinkers.
Middle Brow has been throwing similar events for its wine at places like Lula Cafe, All Together Now, and Easy Does It. The beer world is at an interesting crossroads as the situation in San Francisco with Anchor Brewing shows. Ternes notes the changing tides, how beer’s going into a retro phase with cheap domestic macro brews seeing popularity.
“The goal isn’t to make the Miller Lite of wine,” Ternes says. “The goat is to make wine we like and hope the economics follow.”