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New Naperville brewery experimenting with craft beer

Solemn Oath Brewery President and CEO John Barley, left, and head brewer Tim Marshall are creating Belgo-American beers out of a warehouse space on Naperville's west side. (Melissa Jenco/Tribune)

Solemn Oath Brewery President and CEO John Barley, left, and head brewer Tim Marshall are creating Belgo-American beers out of a warehouse space on Naperville's west side. (Melissa Jenco/Tribune)

Like many of his classmates at DePaul University, John Barley spent his breaks living with his parents.

But for Barley, that meant staying at their home in Belgium, where he spent weeks at a time touring breweries and developing a passion for beer.

“At that time you kind of realize it’s not all light beer. …. The only option isn’t Harp if I want to get exotic,” said the 31-year-old Geneva man.

Barley himself is now adding to the options available for craft beer drinkers with the opening of his Solemn Oath Brewery on Naperville’s west side.

What was once an auto body shop in the industrial park is now a 7,000-square-foot warehouse brewing Belgo-American beers that already are being distributed around Chicago and the suburbs. (See photos)

The beer, said Barley, president and CEO of the brewery, “will have Belgian malts and yeast characteristics and then we still hop them with an American style, so really aggressive flavors.”

“We’re really looking to push the limits with people with what their experiences are,” he said.

For instance, there’s Kidnapped by Vikings, which the brewery describes as “featuring distinct caramel sweetness dominated by grapefruit, tropical fruit and piney hop nodes” and the Oubliette, with “aromatic Belgian malts balanced by bold tropical fruit/ripe citrus hop presence and fruity Belgian yeast.”

The recipes come from the creative mind of head brewer Tim Marshall, 33, of Romeoville, who spent 12 years honing his knowledge of hops while brewing beer at Rock Bottom locations around the country.

Marshall said he constantly has beer on the brain, always looking for inspiration for new brews. He currently is aging several of his creations in barrels that once held Jack Daniels, chardonnay and cabernet.

“That’s just going to add another depth of flavor that we can’t achieve otherwise,” he said.

Barley, who previously had been working in marketing at a non-profit, started thinking about opening a brewery nearly two years ago and said he began formulating a serious business plan in January 2011. Reaching out to other in the industry, he found “business plans started falling on my lap” and said he considers other local brewers like Two Brothers in Warrenville, Half Acre in Chicago and Three Floyds in Munster, Ind. to be friends, not competitors.

“It’s a pretty cool collaborative effort,” he said. “There’s lots of room for all of us to grow.”

Barley chose Naperville for his endeavor due to its reputation as the nightlife hub of the western suburbs and worked with the city to create a new liquor license classification for his facility. Last summer, he brought Marshall on board, then recruited his brother Joe Barley, 35, in November.

The entrepreneur gave the brewery a moniker with ties to his own name, drawing inspiration from a Robert Burns poem in which three kings swear a solemn oath John Barleycorn had to die.

“What they were doing is personifying the grain essentially and vowing to cut it down and make bread and … beer to provide nutrition and food for their families,” Barley said.

Likewise, he said he and his partners are making “a vow to create quality things … for our friends and family.”

The brewery officially debuted in mid-May during Chicago Craft Beer Week. Working with Windy City Distribution, Solemn Oath brews already are being served at the likes of Bad Apple, DMK Burger Bar, Map Room and Owen and Engine in Chicago; Front Street Cantina and Heaven on Seven in Naperville; Tap House Grill in Westmont and the Geneva Ale House.

When Heaven on Seven in Naperville tapped its first keg of Solemn Oath beer, Barley and Marshall were on hand to introduce it to customers. General Manager Russ Hillard said the restaurant likes to offer a local selection and it plans to feature the fledgling brewery in one of its upcoming beer dinners. In the meantime, he said people already are asking to try more of the brewery’s creations.

“You can tell Tim puts a lot of effort into it and obviously has years of experience brewing beer,” Hillard said.

Barley expects to roll out about two dozen different styles of beer in the first year and rely heavily on feedback from customers to decide which ones to keep around.

“We think all our beers are pretty good, but we really want to find the great ones people are going to be after on a constant basis,” he said.

They can get instant feedback from patrons right in their own taproom in the brewery where guests can sit and have a beer or two and purchase a 64-ounce growler to take home. Visitors have a front-row seat to the production with little separation between the solid walnut bar and the stainless steel tanks where beer is fermenting.

“To be able to have this experience for people to come to essentially a warehouse and be able to drink beer and be 20 feet from where we’re actually making it, it doesn’t get more fresh than this,” Barley said.

The taproom at 1661 Quincy Ave., Suite 179, is open from noon to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It does not serve food.

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