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Lake Bluff Brewing nabs gold in first competition

Lake Bluff Brewing

Where: 16 E. Scranton Ave., Lake Bluff

Hours: noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Thursdays; 4 to midnight Fridays; noon to midnight Saturdays

Contact: 224-544-5179;

Coming up: Second annual homebrew competition, 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 21. See website for details. Registration due Sept. 1

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Updated: October 8, 2013 2:39AM

Lake Bluff Brewing Company has become the little brewing company that could.

The local beer crafter went up against the big boys of craft beer-making in the 2013 United States Open Beer Championship this summer and captured a Gold Medal in the coveted Wood Barrel Imperial Stout category — the crème de la crème of craft brew styles.

Master brewer Mike Dorneker created the winning Kosmonaut Russian Imperial Stout, making the unusual choice of whiskey barrels over the typical bourbon barrels for aging.

“I wanted to be a little different,” Dorneker said.

He’s also big on staying local. So he got six whiskey barrels from Koval Distillery in Chicago that they used to age three different types of whiskey.

Dorneker and Lake Bluff Brewing Company owners Rodd Specketer and Dave Burns each selected a recipe for their first whiskey barrel brews. Specketer picked Black Squirrel Bourbon Stout while Burns opted for an American barley wine called Cosmic Speculation. Dorneker chose Kosmonaut and used the two barrels used to age Koval’s special anniversary whiskey, called 47th Ward.

“When we age the beer in the barrels, it pulls the flavor that gets soaked into the wood from the whiskey,” Dorneker said. “The challenge is to brew the beer based on the flavors it’s going to pull.”

Dorneker adjusted his recipe to what he thought would be a good blend with the banana, coconut, toffee, vanilla and whiskey flavors left in his barrels.

From the first taste at the beginning of the aging process, Dorneker knew he had something pretty special.

“It was really good right from the start — kind of chocolaty and roasty,” he said.

Through monthly taste-tests, the brew just got better.

“It’s a double stout, so it has double the ingredients, which smooths out the longer it’s in the barrel,” Dorneker said.

After aging nine months, the Kosmonaut was ready — some was bottled and the rest served put on tap for sale in the pub.

At the staff holiday party, when each employee had a three-ounce pour, the decision was made to set aside some of the 90 bottles for competition.

“We all knew immediately it was a really, really special beer,” said bar manager and assistant brewer Pato Thornycroft. “It’s just a spectacular all around.”

The judges felt the same way. The win has made a difference for the little brew company in Lake Bluff that already has gained a following and drawn customers from throughout the country and internationally.

“The fact that we made a beer in our extremely small system that could top all of the technology of the bigger brewers ... that’s a really, really big deal for us,” Thornycroft said.

Specketer is thrilled the first award came in “one of the more prestigious categories for any competition.”

While the staff “always knew it was a great beer, we’re very surprised and happy we won a gold,” he said.

News of their first award has gotten out.

“Our business has definitely gone up a little bit,” Thornycroft said. “If we can brew one championship, they expect all of our beers to be great, which they are.”

Though the Kosmonaut sold out in February, Dorneker plans to brew it again — as soon as he can get his hands on some more barrels.

The pub’s brews can be sampled at 16 E. Scranton Ave., Lake Bluff, and at up to as many as eight accounts that offer them on tap, including local hotspots Inovasi in Lake Bluff, Market House in Lake Forest and the Marriott Lincolnshire.

Specketer expects the pub to begin bottling its brews to expand its accounts within a year.

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