Brewer Averie Swanson Starts a New Chapter in Chicago
In a word, Averie Swanson felt “untethered.” She was living in Austin, Texas, brewing a couple batches of homebrew each month on a kit she had bought her then-boyfriend. In between batches, she was applying to graduate schools, she says, because that’s what she thought she was supposed to be doing. Then in 2012, her father, to whom she was very close, passed away unexpectedly.
“I really didn’t know what direction to go in,” Swanson, 32, says. “After he passed away, it really put things into perspective where you just realize that anything can happen at any moment.”
It was one of those cinematic and cliche “What do I do now?” moments. Looking for a job that would help, however slightly, fulfill a deep void, Swanson began sending resumes out to local breweries. Jester King, a local Austin brewery specializing in farmhouse-style beers, was the first to respond and the craft brewing world is lucky for the cosmic coincidences that paired them together.
Averie Swanson’s Rise at Jester King
The fact that she fell in love with mixed fermentation didn’t surprise Swanson. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in biology, so she already possessed a proclivity toward obsessive note taking and experimentation.
“I’m drawn to the exploration of mixed culture,” she says. “In some beer, you can pitch one type of yeast and more or less know what the final product will taste like. Using mixed culture, there’s an unpredictability. I like to call it a ‘collaborative engagement with organisms.’ That’s interesting to me.”
Working at Jester King seemed to be a perfect marriage of this continual pursuit of experimentation and creative autonomy. Swanson can recall the exact day — it was her mom’s birthday — that she felt she’d found her proverbial calling. It was a day spent at the Jester King doing the manual labor of love that so often goes unseen in the world of craft brewing.
“We probably started at 2 p.m. and ended at 2:30 in the morning,” she says. “We were all working really hard, drinking good beer, and having a good time. At the end of the night, we were eating pizza off cardboard boxes because we didn’t have any plates. It was one of those unique experiences where you’re surrounded by very kind, very smart people. It was just a vortex of creative energy.”
Over the course of Swanson’s tenure, the Austin outfit became a critical darling, commercial success, and certified beer geek destination in the years since it launched in 2011, and Swanson’s tireless work ethic and attention to detail no doubt contributed.
“[Averie is] highly respected for her talent, as well as her academic approach and accomplishments,” says Tim Adams of Oxbow Brewing Company in Maine, another brewery that specializes in mixed fermentation beers. “She’s given great presentations; she’s accredited. She’s regarded as an international authority of mixed fermentation beers. We’re so happy we’ve been able to work with her as much as we have.”
Always the traveler, Swanson has brewed beer in the mountains of Japan and the Italian countryside. In fact, her reputation as a brewer might only be surpassed by her reputation amongst her friends. She’s equal parts adventurous and outgoing, with a tendency to get introspective; She can seem intimidatingly inquisitive and bright, but is quick to laugh and there lies an accessibility in her voice.
“Averie has a universal charisma,” says John Laffler, co-owner of Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, who often appears on Swanson’s Instagram feed. “She’s one of my favorite people.”
“She is so much fun,” says Adams. “She’s open-minded. The way she approaches the world and her art, there’s this kind of trifecta of adventure, intelligence, and being fascinating to talk to.”
Swanson found herself traveling the world and drinking in everything it had to offer. But even when a person is doing what they love and is surrounded by people who share that same energy and enthusiasm, there comes a time to pump the brakes and reassess where the vehicle is headed.
And so for the second time in her beer life, she found herself evaluating who she was and where she was going. For Swanson, it all added up: Her long-time, long-distance boyfriend lived in Chicago; She’d just passed her Master Cicerone exam in 2018; She had become one of the industry’s more widely-respected voices. The wind was at her back.
In 2018, she left Jester King and Austin behind, and moved to the Land of Lincoln.
“I knew if I took the risk and left, I’d have a lot of momentum,” she says. “It felt like it was the right time for me to quit and move and make a change.”
Her New Chapter in Chicago
She took almost an entire year off to get acclimated into Chicagoland, particularly the food and drinks scene, and to a climate much different than the one she’d lived in her entire life. Then one day, she walked into a brewery.
The way Half Acre founder Gabe Magliaro tells it, the story sounds like a western: Wyatt Earp rolling into town, but instead of a badge and a six shooter, Swanson was carrying a recipe book and an idea. The two spoke in Half Acre’s Lincoln Avenue taproom about her ambitions for Chicago, creatively and professionally, and how her new project–named Keeping Together–can exist within the walls of Half Acre.
Keeping Together essentially allows for Swanson to execute her creative and brewing vision through recipes of her own creation. Magliaro was more than happy to be able to provide Swanson with space within the walls of his own brewery.
“We’ve known [Averie] for a long time and had a deep respect for who she is as an individual and what she was hoping to accomplish creatively,” says Magliaro. “From all angles, up and down, this is good. Just to be around [the Keeping Together project], to observe what she does, we are very fortunate.”
Keeping Together, which came together in the early summer of 2019, is energizing to Swanson. She’s not working 80 hours a week. She’s been able to reevaluate what she wanted her own life to look like. She’d been jaded with the current state of beer and Keeping Together is her response.
“Beer culture has become something I’m less interested in,” she admitted. “Ticking beers, not interested in enjoying the beers, or the company they’re in while they’re drinking those beers. This is my personal response. I want to make beers that are small batch, enjoyable. I’m making them here in Chicago. There will be a little distro, but if you want to enjoy them, come to Chicago and drink them with us.
“I’m not trying to make serious beer. I chose 750 mL bottles less for the larger volumes and more for the reason that they’re more likely to be shared. I want them on the tables at dinners with friends,” she says. “I enjoy the idea of sharing. It’s not intended to drink [the] entire bottle. It’s something that should be shared.”
In typical Swanson fashion, she chose to make her grand re-entrance into the beer world overwrought with splashy releases of high ABV bombs in the most antithetical-to-that way: by making a 3% ABV table beer called The Art of Holding Space. All jokes aside, it’s perfectly Swanson, says Magliaro.
“The beer is not a huge exclamation point,” he says. “Everything is intentional for her. She wanted to invest in nuance and subtlety—come out with a bang without having the beer be incredibly loud. [It] says everything about how she wants Keeping Together to be. This is the type of liquid she wants to make. She’d rather them exist peacefully within someone’s day.”
“[The Table Beer] is a bold and interesting choice,” notes Laffler, perhaps Swanson’s most ardent cheerleader. “It’s one of the things I respect about her. It’s a style most people won’t give a f*** about. The trends she’s looking at aren’t mainstream trends. The Chicago brewing scene is very current, very trend following. For me, having one more of those people who goes against that, who is good at it, and who I love? I’m very happy.”
“I’m very fortunate to make the beer I want to make in the way I want to make them,” Swanson says with characteristic modesty. “There’s not a huge risk. It’s a dream come true.”