Foreign Exchange Brewing: Purr-fect barrel-aged beers
Ricky Cervantes and his partners had a plan. It was February 2020 and the guys behind Foreign Exchange Brewing Co. had just released the brewery’s first beer.
Then, the world shut down.
“Honestly, that was a little bit of a blessing in disguise,” Cervantes said.
While many craft breweries struggled and even closed during the coronavirus pandemic, others found ways to adapt.
Foreign Exchange Brewing is in the latter category. The brewery, which contract brews at another Chicagoland brewery for now, didn’t just adapt, though. It excelled.
Craft beer loyalists were even more supportive than normal for many breweries, but they couldn’t go in and sit down to enjoy a brew. Packaged beer was selling more.
Foreign Exchange had already gone all-in on packaging.
“We were ahead of the curve,” Cervantes said. “That kind of launched us and gave us a lot of momentum right out of the gate and just that outpouring of love and willingness to support your local breweries helped us out a lot.”
Growing through a pandemic
All that momentum resulted in a successful 2020. The popular beer blog PorchDrinking.com named Foreign Exchange its pick for “Best New Brewery” in Illinois.
But don’t for a second take all that to mean 2020 was a breeze for Cervantes and Foreign Exchange.
To say the first year was a bit of a grind is probably an understatement. His weekdays started at his full-time job, which he kept for a while. Once he got off work, he’d head to the brewery where he was contract brewing.
Once he arrived at the brewery, he would check on the beer. He would then go home, sleep and do it all again.
On the weekends, he’d run around the city, delivering beers to customers.
“It was a lot,” Cervantes said. “It wasn’t until November (2020) that I officially quit my job and did this full-time once I was basically able to sustain myself.”
A brewer who knows his barrels
Cervantes is no stranger to barrel-aging his beers. He first started when he was a homebrewer. In fact, his barrel-aged homebrews are what built him a following and eventually led him to start his brewery.
“Barrel-aging has always been a passion of mine,” Cervantes said. “Like I said, every homebrew was barrel-aged and so when we’re doing this at a commercial scale, that’s the first thing I want to do is start filling barrels.”
Cervantes didn’t waste any time before brewing a beer and getting some of it in barrels. A portion of the first beer Foreign Exchange Brewing ever brewed, Kittywampus, was barrel-aged.
Kittywampus is now one of the brewery’s flagship beers and has inspired a handful of variants, a couple of which are aged in barrels.
“Ever since then, every big stout, big barleywine that we do, at least a portion of that goes into barrels,” Cervantes said. “Obviously, right now, I don’t want to take up too much space in my host brewery, but that’s another thing that we’re going to be focusing on a lot more when we have our Aurora facility open.”
Getting a brewery home of its own in Aurora, Illinois, is near the top of the list of future goals for Foreign Exchange.
For now, though, Cervantes has been focused on brewing at his current contract space and collaborating with other breweries. Collaboration has been one way for him to try the kind of experiments and tinkering that he would have normally taken on as a homebrewer.
“With a lot of experimentation, I kind of use collabs as a way to try new things and not only push myself to experiment and do new things, but also push the collaborating brewery,” he said. “A lot of the experimentation that I would do in a homebrew, I now kind of push to to collab just to kind of do something different, make ourselves stand out.”
Making his name – and beers – known in barrel circles
Cervantes has already proven his barrel-aging chops as a homebrewer. Now, he's making a name for his brewery as being quite good at working with barrels.
Foreign Exchange had the opportunity late last year to bottle a couple of barrel-aged beers for the Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beer’s (FOBAB) to-go bags. The to-go option was for individuals who did not attend the event in person.
Those beers were Barrel-Aged Kittywampus, an imperial porter brewed with milk sugar, Madagascar vanilla and Ugandan coffee aged in bourbon barrels, and Clockwork, an English-style barleywine aged in bourbon barrels.
The brewery also entered those two brews in the competition. Though they didn't receive a medal, Solar Fusion, a beer made by Whiskey Hill Brewing Company in collaboration with Foreign Exchange, won gold at FOBAB in the wild beer mixed culture with fruit (acidic) category.
Cervantes said he was proud to have his beers, specifically Clockwork, available at the festival.
“My favorite brew as a homebrewer is my barleywine and I love that we just started pulling nails on those,” Cervantes said. “I pulled one of those barrels for FOBAB and just seeing 53 gallon bourbon barrels of my favorite homebrew recipe makes me very proud. It’s a very proud moment. It feels like a big moment for me.”
He’s also proud of the relationships he’s been able to establish with other breweries and being able to see his beers at some of the beer bars he’s frequented for years.
“I’m on there with some of the big dogs,” Cervantes said. “That is a very big moment for me and I want to obviously continue that momentum.”
With that kind of momentum built up, Foreign Exchange Brewing Company will be one to watch in 2022.
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