WAUCONDA – Small Town Brewery is one of those local hidden treasures you have to know is there in order to find it.
Located in a cluster of commercial business buildings off Rand Road in Wauconda, its storefront is not showy. A plain black awning underscoring a simple black sign bearing its name and logo are all that announces its presence to customers and passers-by. No flashing lights or signs. It is, in essence, as humble as its founder and brewmaster, Tim Kovac.
Born and raised in the small Wauconda, Kovac drives a 1997 pickup truck to and from his brewery every day, which he has kept in his hometown despite the massive success his business has enjoyed. If you don’t recognize the name of the brewmaster or the brewery, you will probably recognize its trademark beer, which launched to international craft brew stardom in 2015. It’s called Not Your Father’s Root Beer.
“It literally took two years of my life,” Kovac said of the process to perfect Not Your Father’s Root Beer.
He stands behind the bar of his tasting room, which boasts 16 taps of a combination of his newest creations and crowd favorites – Not Your Father’s included. He explains that the road to his signature beer included 78 variations of the evocative brew that didn’t quite embody the beverage Kovac was determined to create.
“I wanted to create a very nostalgic beer that Americans really do love,” he said. “You taste [things] differently than [other people] do as well as myself, so creating a root beer everyone loves is really a tough trick to do.”
Not Your Father’s Root Beer has reached international markets from England to U.S. military bases around the globe. Kovac said he has spotted it in small-time merchants he would never expect to find it, including a small gas station at the end of the Hana Highway on Maui in Hawaii.
“It’s funny,” he said, smiling at the memory. “At the end of this road, at this little, little gas station, there it was. There was Not Your Father’s Root Beer and the ginger [ale]. … It was amazing.”
Kovac attributes much of his success to the brewing legacy his family has passed down from generation to generation in the form of an old leather-bound journal handwritten by his great-great(…) grandfather, brewmaster and captain of the English ship “The Bell” during the 1600s.
His mother presented the journal to him when he first announced his dream of opening his own brewery.
“Getting something from your great-great-grandfather is very emotional,” he said. “Especially when it’s been handed down from generation to generation. You start to read it, and you start to try to understand the English writing, and after a period of time, you start getting into it. So I get to a certain point in the journal and I say, ‘Oh my God, Mom. Do you know what this is?’ ”
Kovac paused to brush away the goosebumps that rise along his arms as he recalls the memory. “So I said, ‘Mom, do you know what this is? These are gruit beers from the 1600s. This is what’s really missing from today’s palette. This is something completely different than what beer is today.’ So she said, ‘Can you use this?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
With each new batch or experimental combination of fruits and spices, Kovac strives to pay homage to what originally inspired him in that family heirloom. Kovac is extremely proud of his new blueberry Kampuchea, which he said was a tricky flavor to capture. The passion he has for his craft is evident in the way he describes the steps he took to harness the blueberry aroma and flavor in this new beverage. Ultimately, he said, he had to combine fresh and baked blueberries to truly embody the fruit’s essence.
Inspiration also comes from other places, people and even random life experiences.
After airport security tried to prevent his wife, Lisa – a flight attendant by trade – from transporting a case of his Vanilla Cream beer onto a flight, claiming it was hazardous material, she presented him with a new challenge.
“My wife says, ‘Tim I want you to create something very hot and spicy,’ ” Kovac recounted, “and we’re going to call it ‘Hazmat.’ I don’t know how to make beer, but I want you to do it.’ ”
Kovac experimented with different spices and flavors, including jalapenos and habanero peppers, and Hazmat was created.
“That’s what we’re doing here,” Kovac said. “This is our test kitchen here, and what we’re trying to do is create new beers that no one else has. That’s the whole point.”