However, in an experiment that could reveal just how far craft beer has moved into the mainstream, a small Chicago craft brewery with a Latin theme is being added to the roster.
Fifteen Chicago Chipotles will carry two beers from 5 Rabbit brewery in the coming week: a simple golden ale called 5 Rabbit that is reminiscent of Corona, and 5 Vulture, a dark ale brewed with chiles and spices that is akin to Negra Modelo.
If sales are brisk, Chipotle said, it could expand 5 Rabbit to its approximately 75 Chicagoland stores, as well as add other craft brands. Chipotle’s foray into craft beer underscores a growing mainstream interest in the craft industry that was perhaps best highlighted by Anheuser-Busch’s 2010 acquisition of Goose Island.
That sale came more than 20 years after Goose Island started as a small brew pub on Clybourn Avenue and spent years building its name and reputation. With interest and sales in craft beer booming, small breweries needn’t wait so long to jump into the mainstream anymore.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Chicago-based research firm Technomic, Inc., said that’s because matchups such as 5 Rabbit and Chipotle have become easy wins for both parties. For 5 Rabbit, the deal means an expanded audience, while Chipotle solidifies its position as an upscale casual restaurant with an edgy product, Tristano said.
“Craft beer has become a pretty big driver, and especially for a more affluent crowd,” he said. “It’s very well in their customer base to add these beverages.”
Chipotle and 5 Rabbit are a natural fit in several ways: Founded by a Mexican and Costa Rican who moved to Chicago, 5 Rabbit has positioned itself as the nation’s first Latin-themed craft brewery. For the last 18 months, its beer has been made under contract at six breweries in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. But sales were so brisk that 5 Rabbit sped up construction of its brewery in Bedford Park, which should be in production by year’s end. It produced about 2,000 barrels in its first year and aims to make about 6,000 in 2013.
Chipotle will present the small brewery with its largest and most mainstream audience yet. With the added production from the new facility, brewery co-founder Isaac Showaki said they will have no problem keeping up with demand.
Showaki said he spent eight months trying to get the deal done, highlighted by a meeting in mid-July with a company executive at a downtown Chipotle for which Showaki arrived with bottles of 5 Rabbit to pair with the food. He said he was confident going into the meeting — “They spend all this money on liquor licenses, but the stuff on the shelves is boring. Why not bring in more exciting stuff?” — but also amazed to get the attention of a large chain.
“At a place like McDonald’s, it would be almost impossible,” Showaki said. “The first people they would talk to is Anheuser-Busch and Miller.”
That said, Showaki said, “They want to see results. It’s a go, but it’s a trial period.”
Scott Robinson, a Chipotle marketing strategist for national events, said Chipotle restaurants have carried regional craft beer, but that 5 Rabbit will be the first in Chicago.
“I was impressed with their non-traditional approach of taking these Mexican-style beers and adding a whole lot of personality to them,” Robinson said. “We think the downtown Chicago folks will recognize the beers, and that it will bring some excitement.”
Julia Herz, of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, noted that “in the recent past most craft brewers have not had the interest of the chains.”
“It’s a wonderful sign of the times that businesses update their models to include local brands beyond the mass produced,” she said by email.
Showaki said he has no concerns about being perceived as a “sellout” for taking his beer mainstream.
“To go mainstream is nothing negative,” he said. “We embrace it. The more people that enjoy your product, the better for everyone.”
Laura Blasingame, owner of The Map Room who was an early champion of 5 Rabbit, agreed.
“It says a lot when a big firm like Chipotle knows well enough to serve a good beer with its supposedly good food,” she said. “I think it says they’re waking up and the American palate is changing.”
Blasingame said she has no concerns about pouring the same product available at a fast-food Mexican restaurant. In fact, she said, a keg of 5 Rabbit beer sits in The Map Room cooler, waiting to be tapped.