What do community activism and yeast have in common? They both have the innovative and “woke” team behind Middle Brow Bungalow, the new brewpub (2840 W. Armitage Ave.), which has now been open for six weeks.
Middle Brow is the kind of spot where you can start your day sipping on Gaslight coffee and nibbling on their succulent toasts, while basking in the sunlight entering through their picturesque windows framed by majestic plants. And when you’re done working for the day (or at least ready to take a break), you can have a beer, meet a friend for pizza and take some bread home for breakfast the next day.
Pete Ternes, Polly Nevins, Nick Burica, and Brian Grohnke (brewmaster) co-own Middle Brow Bungalow, which brews and serves their Middle Brow Beer brand, founded in 2011. According to Ternes, Middle Brow is inspired by their love for the Midwest—a homage to their middle-class culture. Their beer is not low-brow beer, but it is also not high-brow.
Virginia Woolf in an unpublished letter had apparently coined the term “middle-brow” to refer to the “aspirational class”—middle-class people who consume high-brow art, literature, and music as a means of attaining cultural capital. Bungalows are also typically inhabited by middle-class individuals signifying how Middle Brow Beer has a fixed home now.
“We want middle-class [and working-class] people to appreciate what higher class people typically do for fun, we hope we can provide that for people,” Ternes said.
You might have noticed their employees donning a chic uniform with a minimal, blue shore-coat. Their uniforms are inspired by French workfare typically associated with French and Spanish painters, which are convenient to wear with pockets. These uniforms convey “that we’re all individuals underneath, but we’re all on a team and no one is better or worse than the other,” Ternes said.
“They’re practical and cool looking with a worker’s history. They’re not worn by rich people, they’re worn by working class/middle class people who are doing chores around their bungalow with their hands,” he said.
A Passion for Yeast
The driving concept behind Middle Brow is its love of yeast. You can find a vast array of heavenly toasts, unique spreads, Neapolitan pizzas, and vivacious salads. If you’re not into beer, they also have coffee, tea, and gluten-free Kombucha on tap.
“We’re all nuts about pizza and fermentation, and fermentation brings them altogether. The magic of pizza is in the dough. Beer happens because of fermentation,” said Ternes. “We like playing with yeast—we make a lot of yeast-forward beers. We make bread at home; we’re all sourdough aficionados and we have a place to play around.”
Mickey Neely (Scofflaw, Longman & Eagle, The Moonlighter) is the executive chef and baker Jess Galli (The Mill in San Francisco) directs the bread program. The team aims to feature their bread at night through spreadable meats and vegetables.
Perhaps you are vegan, gluten-free or are avoiding carbs? Middle Brow aims to offer something for everyone such as their visually colorful ful – a fava bean, “acidity bomb” served with crudités. Their vegan and gluten-free options are not just meant to be a “throw-away salad,” Ternes said.
“We wanted to do something big and beautiful that people would secretly consider being just as good as the pizza,” he said.
Their Papas Bravas with potatoes and herbs is a delicious vegan pizza and is one of Ternes’ favorite items. Another standout is their Mushroom pizza with caramelized onions and gooey Fontina cheese with a satisfying and delightful crust. If you are there earlier in the day, you can try their sweet and savory turmeric milk jam with cream cheese on a freshly baked, whole grain toast. Click here for my full review of Middle Brow Bungalow.
In addition to accommodating multiple diets, staying local is also an important priority for Middle Brow. The team purchases their produce, flour, and cheese as locally as possible from farms in Wisconsin and Illinois.
“We like to eat real food from the earth and the crudités along with the ful represent that,” Ternes said, who has experience working on organic farms throughout the world. He worked at a “self-sustainable hippy-farm” and an oyster farm in the South Pacific.
Community Engagement: Free Breakfast and Donations
However, Ternes did not start out in the food and beer scene. He was a practicing lawyer when he and his co-owners started Middle Brow Beer. They had success selling their beer West of the river in Chicago: Lula, Au Cheval, and Bangers & Lace were some of the first spots to distribute their beer. Ternes also lived in Logan Square, which is why it was so significant to open their brewpub here. He also recognized the ever-growing love for craft beer in the neighborhood. They found the perfect spot in that is also large enough for them to have community events and a dog-friendly outdoor space in the summer.
“We want to have engaging community events with actual people in the city,” Ternes said. “I am a self-identified hipster, as weird as that might sound, the whole world calls me that, so it’s true. But I don’t want to just serve people like me. I want to serve all of the people in the city.”
The team behind Middle Brow has clearly been committed to serving a vast array of people in the city. Since 2013, they have been donating half of their profits to charities. They also host a free breakfast once a month on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-11 a.m., which is open to children, families, and teachers from Chicago Public Schools.
“There are people who have been living here for 20 to 30 years so this program is meant for the people who go to school in these neighborhoods and who are being harmed by gentrification,” he said. “I know we’re not helping this process and a way to soften the blow is to provide these communities food during the weekend while they can relax, eat some delicious food, and enjoy craft beer,” he said.
He acknowledged the sobering fact that some families are working three different jobs and don’t necessarily have the time to make their children breakfast on the weekends. The free breakfast program is meant to help address this need in the community. Ternes described how the neighborhood is at a “critical juncture—it’s already been gentrified. Let’s all acknowledge what we’re doing. Let’s pump the brakes on it. Let’s specialize in what we’re good at here.”
The team is also going to institute a work-training program where “at risk” individuals (at risk of drug addiction and gun violence but are currently not involved) from the West side of Chicago are hired for a 6-month run. There will be a part-time social worker on staff who can help assist them with various life situations such as opening a bank account and handling conflict. They also donate their food to Casa Norte and various local shelters in the area.
“It has been an imperative piece of our business since day one to remember how much we have and how lucky we were to have been born in the [economic] position we were born in. We try to remember and give back,” he said. “We don’t just remember and acknowledge it but put our money where our mouths are and help actively where we can in the food industry.”
Other Collaborations: Sleeping Village and Comfort Station
Collaboration with other businesses and organizations to bring experimental events to the neighborhood is also a pillar of the Bungalow’s mission. The owners participate in the monthly Deep Breakfast event at Sleeping Village on Sundays from 11 a.m.– 3 p.m. every month. For $20, you can eat a buffet style hearty brunch from Chef Neely and baker Galli, sip on some beer or coffee while being entranced by the sounds of droning, ambient music.
This Tuesday, they had a launch party for Comfort Ale, a collaboration beer with Comfort Station where the profits were given to the art gallery. Middle Brow is also participating in the Uppers and Downers festival, a coffee/beer festival at Thalia Hall March 30 and is doing a preview party for it March 28 at 6 p.m. at its Armitage space.
Even though Middle Brow Bungalow has only been open for one and a half months, it already has a loyal customer base, ranging from families with babies to studious individuals doing work—and many bikes often locked up the makeshift fence bikerack.
“There is something important about [Middle Brow Bungalow] being a place for everyone,” Ternes said. “There’s a reputation amongst our cohort (“leftie hipster, post-punk, femme, LGBTQ+ friendly”) for not liking children, babies/families because it’s not edgy. That pisses me off because there’s all this talk about inclusion [but] we really believe it—we believe in including everyone all the time.”