Sixty years ago, when Evanston was still a dry town where the sale of alcohol was banned in restaurants and stores, no brewery, distillery or other liquor maker had ever set up shop in town.
In 1855, as Northwestern University prepared to open its doors to students for the first time, the college’s Methodist founders helped ban the sale of liquor within a four-mile radius of the university. Later, female suffragette Frances Willard brought the Temperance Movement to Evanston, which sought to combat domestic violence fueled by alcoholism.
But more than 100 years later, Evanston City Council, hoping to improve the business of local shops and restaurants, voted for a liquor ordinance in 1972. Yet no local brewery does would open in suburban Chicago for another 40 years.
That all changed in 2013, when Evanston native Josh Gilbert founded the Temperance Beer Company on Dempster Street, in a World War II-era building that once housed the Sentinel Radio Corporation. Gilbert told the Round Table he came up with the brewery’s name as an ode to Evanston’s complicated history with alcohol.
“I like to say that Frances Willard was trying to make life better for everyone, including us. We just do it with beer,” Gilbert said. “As Evanston’s first brewery, we had to give it a nod, but it’s not a major. It’s not even tongue and cheek. It is part of our history. The good thing about having this name is that people ask about it, and they didn’t know we had this rich history of teetotalism.
Gilbert, a graduate of Evanston Township High School, went to Wesleyan University in Massachusetts before earning a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After having two children, he and his family moved back to Evanston while continuing to work in a small two-person architectural practice.
But when the 2008 recession hit, his company wasn’t getting enough business to support itself. He was an avid home brewer at the time, making his own beers as a hobby. At that point, the idea crept into his head that he might be the one to bring the brewing business to Evanston.
“The thing about Evanston that I knew growing up was that there’s a lot of hometown pride, so I thought if I could do it right, Evanston would be like, ‘Oh, we have this brewery now. You have to come and try it,” Gilbert said. “It also helped to be the first, because people were really excited.”
Several years later, after taking a course on starting a brewery and making various business connections, he found the place on Dempster where he could make Temperance a reality. The first head brewer he hired for the company was someone he met through the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild bowling league, whom he joined to find people who might interested in coming to work for the new Evanston brewery being developed.
The Temperance Bar officially opened for the first time on December 20, 2013, marking Evanston’s history by serving locally brewed beer. Gilbert remembers being blown away by the turnout of community members that evening, with the brewery being so busy his mother even had to help clean glasses and clear tables all night.
In the years since, Temperance has become a community staple, hosting frequent fundraising events for nonprofits and serving throngs of patrons gathered on its outdoor patio on hot summer days. . Once a month, the brewery hosts Temperance Trikonasana, a $30 yoga class that raises money for different local nonprofits. Attendees can enjoy a post-class beer while listening to leaders from the Nonprofit Beneficiary of the Month.
“We knew we weren’t going to raise thousands of dollars, so we looked for smaller nonprofits that would benefit from a few hundred dollars,” Gilbert said. “The last [in March] was the Childcare Network in Evanston, which is two blocks away, and a ton of people showed up. So they got a lot more money than they expected.
The most recent yoga class in April raised money for the Justin Wynn Fund, which works on youth outreach and mentoring children in Evanston.
Additionally, Temperance recently brewed a new beer called “Where I’m From”, a Hazy India Pale Ale. 100% of the proceeds go to the City of Evanston Repair Fund, and Temperance has raised over $15,000 for the fund through beer sales so far.
The brewery also offers a draft beer called “Things We Don’t Say”, which is part of a nationwide effort by craft breweries to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention. A portion of the proceeds from this beer goes to Hope For The Day, a non-profit organization focused on creating mental health resources for those in need.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Gilbert said he really didn’t know if the business could survive. He and his team immediately set up a drive-thru for regular customers to pick up beer directly at the dining room, and Temperance eventually opened outside and in the parking lot behind the building, but the dining room indoor itself was closed for 447 consecutive days before reopening in May 2021.
He said Temperance only lasted through the darkest days of the pandemic because of community support and government help through stimulus packages passed by Congress.
“The community was incredibly supportive when we were in the real s—, when it was just drive-thru,” Gilbert said. “People were buying gift cards and buying more beer than they needed or could drink and handing it out to neighbors. Hopefully we won’t have to go over this again, but at least we know we have a very supportive community.