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Chicago Epicurean: Beer of the Day: Harborside Lager guru Jim Kosin

Harborside Lager

About six weeks ago, I was at Binny’s picking up some beer when I met Jim Kosin, owner and founder of Harborside Beverage Group LLC, makers of Harborside Lager. Jim convinced me to try a 6-pack of the lager and – lo and behold – the stuff was tasty. It was clean, crisp, unassuming and, best of all, had no aftertaste. None.

After a bit of e-mail tag, I finally caught up with the 34-year-old Glenview native to ask him some questions about his beer and his company.

So how’d you get into microbrewing? I think it’s a dream lots of people have.

I worked with a beer distributor, Skokie Valley Beverage Company, for about 8 ½ years. I was fascinated with the business and really enjoyed it, and while I was there, I came up with the idea of making my own product. I was able to learn the ins and outs [of beer] distribution. I don’t have my own brewery – I contract brew it, but the big hurdle after creating a beer you want is understanding the beer market and how to sell it. I have that expertise, so that really helped me.

What’s your day job, or are you doing this full-time now?

Making beer is something I try to do full-time, but I do take some part-time work here and there. This last winter, I substitute-taught. I taught everything from Kindergarten to military school to last-chance-before-we throw you out on the street. It was amusing – I haven’t been in a high school in 15 years. You remember what you did to substitutes and now they’re doing it to me.

I look for jobs that are so flexible, I can do things on the side for Harborside. It’s always my primary concern, but as it grows, you try to make ends meet.

How many people work at Harborside, then, or is it just you?

Just me.

What was the first beer you tried, and did your beer experiences influence you when you set out to create Harborside Lager?

I’m getting a little old, but I can’t say what it was. It was a long time ago, and I was probably underage, but I found a Mickey’s Bigmouth under my buddy’s bed. (NOTE: Jim added that Mickey’s wasn’t the beer Harborside Lager was based on.)

During my years at Skokie Valley, I was subject to a vast majority of beer. I saw new samples come onto the market – the blueberries, the cherries – I distinctly remember drinking Old Style by choice and I went on a Guinness wave and drank myself through it.

After drinking these beers, I knew I wanted something that, while it wouldn’t fill me up, would be more satisfying than a mass-produced domestic. From a strictly beer perspective, the gamut of beers was expanding between microbrews and commercial beers, so I wanted to fill the void.

With that said, how would you describe the flavor of Harborside Lager?

I wanted to do something that was better-bodied than mass-produced domestics without using berries, cherries, lemons and limes. I didn’t want it to have the complexity where you’d have three and already be full. It’s extremely simple, extremely smooth. It has the traditional characteristics of an American-style lager. Just a clean, quality beer.

Because Harborside Lager is somewhere between a commercial beer and a microbrew, is it easy to get overshadowed by other beer companies?

Anyone can be overshadowed, but if I think I’ll be the next Sam Adams, the next Miller Lite, I’ll be in over my head. Anyone who enters the market will be one in a million guys out there. You just have to get a following, to do tastings, get featured locally. It’s not something radically different, so I’m not marketing to the blueberry beer drinkers. It’s just a passion of mine, but it can be tough to convey that to people, so I just [sell the beer based on its merits].

But through tastings, I know people really enjoy it. I’m building my own community of Harborside drinkers through word-of-mouth. I don’t worry about being overshadowed.

You’ve recently expanded into Indiana and parts of Wisconsin. What’s next?

It’s funny you ask. I expanded there and Michigan, and I equate it to being the QB of a football team. On the first play, I threw a bomb for a touchdown, but didn’t score it. I expanded into far north Michigan down around the lake into the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin, but [freight costs] forced me to reevaluate. I’ve pulled back from some of those far-reaching markets and trying to concentrate more on a smaller area, including Indiana, Illinois and southwest Michigan. It was something I just did, and it hurt a lot personally, but they’re just smaller markets. I didn’t start selling beer because it’s a million-dollar idea – I’m just happy doing it. I do business where I enjoy being, which is by Lake Michigan.

So where are you doing most of your sales from?

Most of my sales are from Chicago, but I like to keep it meshed through the suburbs where it still sells. You’ll find it at Binny’s Beverage Depot, Sam’s Wine and Spirits, West Lakeview Liquors, Uncork-It, Addison Liquors, Vas Formost and the Lincoln Park Supermarket. With awareness of Harborside where it is, it doesn’t behoove me to go to every corner store, but it’s growing by demand into other outlets.

Draught beer is proving harder to be than I originally intended, but I’m going to start concentrating on bars and taverns in the coming months. Right now, it’s at Hackney’s on Printer’s Row, the Dock Street Café out on Navy Pier, and the Valley Lodge in Glenview.

Last year, I sold just about 4,000 cases and I’ve grown between 15 and 20 percent each year. I’d like to do it again this year, but it’ll be tougher.

(Harborside Lager can be purchased at any of the aforementioned stores.)