The Onion Pub & Brewery is breaking ground this week on a 5,000 square foot addition to expand their brewing operations.
They’ll add additional warehouse and cold storage to the existing brewery, along with a bottling line to package their limited release beers and an IPA. This expansion coincides with the Onion’s Pub & Brewery’s busiest time of the year. They’ve been working overtime to produce their top-selling Pumpkin Ale and Oktoberfest beers and there’s now a whole new dimension to the Kainz family business centered on environmental sustainability.
For Onion owners Mike and Jennifer Kainz, worm farming wasn’t in the original business plan. But with the recent conversion of a junkyard on the Onion’s property into a hop farm, organic vegetable garden—and yes, a thriving wormery—the plan’s always evolving.
If you look eastward over the 11-acre lake that forms the restaurant’s backdrop, you might catch a glimpse of the Onion’s latest projects.
Where abandoned boats once sat, Centennial and Chinook hops now wind their way up 30-foot vertical trellises.
Mike says Hops, or Humulus lupulus, simultaneously add flavor and preserve beers. “They were initially added as a preservative when beer was shipped to British troops in India.”
Now they’re craft beer darlings, taking center stage in brews such as Wild Onion’s Hop Slayer—and the “hopheads” just can’t get enough.
The demand for hops is high, and the supply often runs low. Most U.S. hops are grown in Washington’s Yakima Valley, known for its wineries. “Just a few years ago, there was about a 6-month period where I couldn’t get hops. The price has gone from $1.50/lb. to $7/lb., and some varieties you just can’t get.” Like Citra, which can cost over $20/lb. (that really adds up when you need 4 lbs. per barrel). It just made sense for the Kainz family to start growing some of their own hops.
Now, at harvest time, the hop bines are heavy with flowers. (Yep, that’s bine with a “b”: the hop plant has a woody stalk that helps it climb, and hence is called a bine). If you rub the flower gently between your fingers, the petals open and you see the yellow lupulin oils inside. That’s the good stuff—the oils are what flavor the beer.
Mike says they’ll never grow enough hops to meet their brewing needs: “We’d need 1000 acres for that.” They’re currently brewing at capacity, producing over 4,400 kegs of beer each year (and will soon increase their brewing facility’s size).
But they grow enough hops to craft a special batch, and the number will increase every year. “Right now each plant can produce about 10 pounds of hops. In a couple of years, each trellis could produce close to 100 pounds.”
Normally, hops are dried before they’re used in the brewing process. But there’s another style of brewing called “wet hopping,” and the hop yard’s close proximity to the Onion’s brewing facility makes it possible. “It has to be done within 24 hours of harvest—we’re able to extract different flavors this way.”
The hop plants need good fertilizer and the Kainz family has devised a winning formula. With a focus on sustainability, their approach sets the Onion apart and creates a new model for growth.
It turns out that the malted barley used in brewing produces a nitrogen-rich spent grain that hops love. They use some of this spent grain to mulch the base of the hop plants, with great success.
The majority of their spent grain—about 75 percent—goes to a local farmer in Barrington Hills.
They also make use of food scraps that other restaurants might send to the dumpster. Behind the scenes, the Onion collects and composts all uneaten food to fuel Jennifer’s worm composting operation — vermiculture — to those in the know.
Housed in a hoop house between the hop trellises, the red wiggler worms are happily eating their way through the restaurant’s composted waste. “Sometimes people buy these worms for composting,” Jennifer says. (People like, um, yours truly. Duped.) “We dug ours right out of the soil.” (Ahem. I’ll do that next time.)
Jennifer gamely lifts a handful of soil out of half a sawed-off plastic barrel (yeah, she’s that kind of gal). Suddenly the dirt, which looked still, comes alive: it’s positively teeming with vigorously squirming worms.
“The worm castings (aka poop) are like coffee grounds, and they make the best fertilizer.” They don’t smell, and gardeners pay big bucks for the stuff.
First, though, you have to separate the castings from the compost. “I found this tumbler on Craigslist for $150—I was so excited!” The cylindrical contraption, which Mike describes as “Rube Goldbergian,” is like a giant sifter. The ⅛” mesh lets the castings fall out, then the ¼” mesh lets the rich compost through. The worms spill out the end, ready for more work.
“This year we harvested 150 lbs. of pure castings,” Jennifer says. “It is gorgeous!” (Yes, she is describing worm poop.)
To top it off, the Kainz family also contracts with Prairieland Disposal & Recycling, a Lake Barrington business based right down the street, to haul away 100% of their waste. “It actually saves us money, too—a win-win.” Their vegetable oil is sold to a recycling company too, which turns it into biodiesel.
Mike and Jennifer always had it in them: as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Africa, Mike helped grow food for orphans in Morocco (while teaching himself the art of home brewing on the side). Jennifer also served in the Peace Corps, in Benin, West Africa. She’s trained in zoology, and is now pursuing a Master’s in Conservation Biology. They share a love of the land, and a commitment to running a high-quality business with the lowest possible impact.
Look for the Onion’s increasing partnerships with area schools, too: Jennifer is starting a new 501c3 nonprofit, Mindful Waste. She’ll focus on sustainability education, and hopes to work with schools on reducing their waste. Future worm farmers, unite!
22221 N. Pepper Road
Lake Barrington, IL 60010