Raising $75,000 in a day, Chicago beer community rushes to aid Skeleton Key Brewing after tornado damage

·4 min read

As word spread of a tornado speeding through the southwest suburbs late Sunday, Emily Slayton checked the surveillance feed behind Skeleton Key Brewery, which she co-owns with her husband and brother in Woodridge.

Within seconds she saw a fence, lashed by wind, twist sideways.

An expletive came to mind. Slayton began to shake.

“And then (the feed) cut out, because there was so much rain and hail,” Slayton said Monday morning while touring the wreckage at the 5-year-old business.

She described the scene as “post-apocalyptic.”

The roof above the brewery shifted, she said, exposing gaps to the sky above. Another piece was gone entirely, “as if there’s a giant skylight,” Slayton said. Windows shattered. Doors splintered. The HVAC system installed in an expansion finished two months ago was hurled across the street.

Slayton said she was prepared for the worst and still surprised at the wreckage. The brewery, housed in a larger structure in an office park on Lemont Road, became so structurally unsound that Slayton and her partners couldn’t access much of it Monday morning.

“It’s hard for me to even imagine how we can fix this,” Slayton said.

The good news, she said, is that Skeleton Key’s brewing equipment appears to have been spared. But even that came with an asterisk: the fermentation tanks are full of beer that was going to be kegged today. It’s probably ruined.

“I don’t know how to get it out of there, or what we’d do with it if we got it out of there,” Slayton said.

There is at least some hope: An online campaign to help the brewery met its $20,000 goal in a mere three hours before skyrocketing past $75,000 within a day of launching late Monday. Among almost 900 donors were a number of local breweries that rallied to help, including Half Acre Beer, Solemn Oath Brewery, Riverlands Brewing, Will County Brewing, Short Fuse Brewing, Garage Band Brewing, Midwest Coast Brewing and Goose Island Beer.

Organizers of the fundraiser said the money would go toward helping owners with immediate relief for staff salaries, moving packaged beer out of the brewery and, hopefully, eventual rebuilding.

Skeleton Key is a small operation, having made about 500 barrels of beer (or 1,000 kegs) in 2020. It is a true family business: Slayton launched the brewery in 2016 with her husband, Paul Slayton, and brother, John Szopa, who is Skeleton Key’s head brewer. The only other investor is Emily and John’s father, Ron Szopa.

Skeleton Key’s sales have historically taken place largely in its taproom, which, like every other brewery, saw a significant downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skeleton Key started canning beer last year to survive, and had canned 250 cases of four brands — a Scottish ale, an IPA, a sour ale, and a wheat ale with Meyer lemon peel and rose hips — on Saturday. They’ll have that to sell, Slayton said, provided they can find a way to get it from inside the brewery.

“We’re scared to open doors and do things,” Slayton said. “Everything is jammed and you don’t want to force it.”

The tornado marks yet another hurdle in a tumultuous 16 months for the brewery. Nine days before the pandemic shut businesses across the state in early 2020, Skeleton Key signed a lease to expand its taproom and open a private event space. It had seemed a questionable undertaking early in the pandemic, but had started to yield results as the state reopened.

“We were literally talking last night about how we were in a good place and moving forward and had plans,” Slayton said. “The minute we opened this expansion, we were doing better numbers than pre-COVID. We were coming back super strong and had just doubled our staff. Now it’s all gone.”

One person in the building safely evacuated when the storm tore through, Slayton said. No one was in the brewery.

“If it was any day other than Father’s Day Sunday, someone would have been here,” she said. “If it were a Friday or Saturday, we’d be wrapping up for the night.”

In that way, she said, she feels fortunate.

jbnoel@chicagotribune.com

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