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Willow Springs

Imperial Oak Brewery to feature rich, barrel-aged brews in Willow Springs

WILLOW SPRINGS – Two home brewers and a bar owner walk into a bar … actually, they’re already in the bar. 

Grant Hamilton and Brett Semenske have been brewing their own beer for a combined 15 years, the last four as part of a home-brewing club that meets at Brixie’s Bar in Brookfield. 

When Brixie’s owner, Chris DiBraccio, heard Hamilton and Semenske were planning to open their own brewery, he jumped in. He’d thought about making his own beers to add to Brixie’s craft brew lineup and knew his bar-owning experience would help. 

So, early last year, two home brewers and a bar owner walked into an empty garage and, of course, planned to fill it with beer. Imperial Oak Brewery is set to open in late February at 501 Willow Boulevard, on the northwest edge of Willow Springs Woods and steps off the bicycle path along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. 

Hamilton, of La Grange, said bicyclists who ride along the path told him Imperial Oak will attract a bunch of riders and might even send more cyclists to the trail. 

“It has the brewery feel plus the neighborhood kind of bar feel,” said DiBraccio, of La Grange Park. “It’s not just our beer. It’s also the place to come for [community].”

Everything about the brewery will be spoken for in its name. Steps from a forest preserve, Imperial Oak will feature stronger, barrel-aged brews poured from barrel-stave handles and served on a wood-finished bar and tables, all underneath an oak tree painted onto the wall. 

Aging beer in barrels used to hold whiskey or gin, for example, enables a profoundly experimental style of brewing that can produce imperial, or strong, beers. 

“You basically just fill [a barrel] with beer and let it age in there,” Semenske said. “As it does it picks up some of the flavors of the oak and the taste of the spirit that was in there and the other characters of the wood. You also get notes of vanilla and other spices that get their way into the beer. It adds complexity.”

Barrels are kept at room temperature for several months so the wood can expand and contract, effectively soaking in the beer and spitting it out, Semenske said. 

Local distilleries will supply many of the barrels used at Imperial Oak, allowing the brewers to experiment using smaller barrels. Because barrel-aging brings so many variables – the liquid previously in the barrel, the time the beer is allowed to age and the way a certain beer reacts to the content of the barrel – drinking the same beer at Imperial Oak doesn’t mean it will taste the same as last time.

“Part of our business model is when you come in, you’ll have new things to try,” said Semenske, of Brookfield.

Hamilton and Semenske, who will do most of the brewing, are working on several beers they plan to use for promotional events before the brewery opens: Odin’s Beard, an imperial red ale aged in a rye whiskey barrel that features toasted and caramel notes; and I Must Break You, an imperial stout aged in a barrel of bourbon that offers chocolate and coffee flavors infused with honey and molasses and notes of oak and vanilla. 

Imperial Oak will have seating for up to 85 at bar stools and tables, said DiBraccio, who will head the brewery’s management and accounting. 

For information about the brewery and its opening, go to

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