Black-owned Chicago brewery reigns supreme in Samuel Adams craft brewers competition

The founders of Chicago’s Funkytown Brewery went from brewing beer in a garage to winning the national brewing competition.

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Funkytown Brewery co-founders Richard Bloomfield Gregory Williams Zachary Day Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship craft beer competition

Funkytown Brewery co-founders Richard Bloomfield, Gregory Williams and Zachary Day have won the Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship craft beer competition. “To actually have the owner of Samuel Adams, Jim Koch, drink your beer in front of you and tell you that he can smell the hops exploding, it was a surreal moment,” Day said.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Funkytown Brewery, helmed by three lifelong friends from Oak Park, has emerged as the winner of the 12th annual Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship craft beer competition.

Fueled by their passion for ’90s hip-hop, devotion to their community and a shared love for craft beer, co-founders Rich Bloomfield, Zack Day and Greg Williams have transformed their humble beginnings into a flourishing business.

Funkytown was among nearly 50 initial entrants for the competition and ultimately selected as one of six finalists for the Crafting Dreams Beer Bash held June 23 in New York. The beers were judged by both official Samuel Adams judges as well as guests at the event. Their victory means the trio can now head to the Great American Beer Festival in September and collaborate on a new beer with Samuel Adams at the company’s Boston brewery.

Day said the three friends were excited to learn they won the competition and see it as an opportunity to develop their brand and products while gaining national exposure.

“To actually have the owner of Samuel Adams, Jim Koch, drink your beer in front of you and tell you that he can smell the hops exploding, it was a surreal moment,” Day said, referencing the flower that’s typically used in the craft brewing process.

As part of the Samuel Adams Experienceship, the three friends also will get mentorship and access to capital.

Funkytown Brewery began in 2017 when the co-founders began taking brewing classes at Brew and Grow, a beer supply store. They went on to purchase their own brewing equipment and asked Day’s parents permission to use their garage to begin home brewing.

“As long as we gave them some beer and let them be the taste testers, they were cool with it,” Day said.

Funkytown Brewery awards beers Bastille Day French Market Lincoln Common Chicago

Funkytown Brewery’s past awards and beers are on display at its tent in 2023 at the Bastille Day French Market at Lincoln Common in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

There was lots of trial and error learning to brew beer, Day said. The three often visited breweries, built connections with Chicago brewers and tried various craft beers to perfect their craft, even watching YouTube tutorials to learn more about the brewing process.

Their big break was in 2021 when they auditioned for a spot at Pilot Project Brewing, a brewery incubator with locations in Chicago and Milwaukee, and became one of the company’s partners, Bloomfield said.

The company launched its first beer, a pale ale named Hip-Hops and R&Brew, a few months later. Most of their products are a play on words that reference ’90s hip-hop and R&B, music the three friends grew up listening to together, and other Black cultural images and sayings.

Funkytown Brewery co-founder Richard Bloomfield beer

Funkytown Brewery co-founder Richard Bloomfield shows off one of his company’s beers in 2023.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Bloomfield said when the three would go to craft beer shops, they did not see images representing Black communities on cans. Representation became an important part of Funkytown Brewery’s marketing and branding efforts.

The image on the can for Hip-Hops and R&Brew is inspired by the artwork for The Fugees’ album “The Score,” Bloomfield said. The artwork of the second volume of the beer is inspired by Mary J. Blige’s album “What’s the 411?”

“We just saw a lane out there for us to do the outreach and get craft beer to more diverse groups or underserved groups,” Bloomfield said.

Bloomfield said Funkytown Brewery’s target audience is primarily Black and Brown people, women and people across different intersections of gender identity. But they also target white men, who are commonly seen as the key craft beer consumer base.

“We want everyone to feel like they’re a part of Funkytown,” Williams said.

This year, Funkytown Brewery partnered with The Simple Good, a Chicago nonprofit that teaches youth social emotional learning through art, and raised about $40,000 for the organization, surpassing an initial goal of $35,000, Day said.

To date, Funkytown has developed 12 craft beers with products available in more than 500 locations in the Chicagoland area, including Jewel-Osco, Binny’s and Whole Foods. The craft beers are also available at Pilot Project Brewing’s Milwaukee location and will soon be available in northern Indiana, Bloomfield said.

Bloomfield, Day and Williams said they hoped to focus on the business full-time — they all work other jobs outside of the brewery — and create a product in which everyone sees themselves represented. They say winning the Samuel Adams competition is a key step that allows them to continue to expand their company.

“Our first beer looked like beer but tasted like water,” Williams said of their first home brew. “Now we’ve actually won a competition and we’re going to get coaching from one of the top craft breweries in the nation. I’m very excited to start working with them. I know they’re going to help tighten our organization.”

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