Chicago’s Funkytown Brewery, led by three longtime Oak Park friends, 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 shared love of craft beer, co-founders Rich Bloomfield, Zack Day and Greg Williams have turned their humble beginnings into a thriving beer business.
Day said the three friends were thrilled to learn they had won the competition and saw it as an opportunity to develop their brand and product while gaining national exposure.
“Actually having Samuel Adams’ owner Jim Koch drink your beer in front of you and tell you he can smell hops exploding, that was a surreal moment,” said Day, referring to the hop blossom that is typically used in the craft brewing process.
As part of the Samuel Adams Experienceship, the three friends will gain mentorship, access to capital for US food and beverage entrepreneurs, participate in the Great American Beer Festival, and co-develop a beer with Samuel Adams at the company’s Boston brewery.
The Funkytown Brewery got its start in 2017 when the co-founders started taking brewing classes at Brew and Grow, a beer supply store. They continued to purchase their own brewing equipment and asked Day’s parents if they could use their garage to start home brewing.
“As long as we gave them beer and let them be the taste testers, they were okay with it,” said Day.
There was a lot of trial and error in learning how to brew, Day said. The three breweries visited often, formed bonds with Chicago brewers, and tried various craft beers to perfect their craft, including watching tutorials on YouTube to learn more about the brewing process.
Their big break came in 2021 when they auditioned for a position at Pilot Project Brewing, a brewery incubator with locations in Chicago and Milwaukee, and became one of the firm’s partners, Bloomfield said.
The company released its first beer, a lager called Hip-Hop and R&Brew, a few months later. Most of their merchandise is a play on words referencing 90s hip-hop and R&B, the music the three friends grew up listening to together, and other black culture images and sayings.
Bloomfield said when the three went to craft beer stores, they didn’t see images representing black communities on the cans. Representation has become a major part of Funkytown Brewery’s marketing and branding efforts.
The image on the can for Hip-Hop and R&Brew is inspired by the Fugees’ album artwork “The Score,” Bloomfield said. The artwork for the second beer volume is inspired by Mary J. Blige’s album “What’s the 411?”
“We just saw an aisle out there for us to outreach and bring craft beer to more diverse groups or underprivileged groups,” Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield said Funkytown Brewery’s target audience is primarily people, women, and people of color and color who cross different intersections of gender identity, but also cater to white men, who are commonly seen as the main base of craft beer consumers.
“We want everyone to feel like they are part of Funkytown,” Williams said.
This year, Funkytown Brewery partnered with The Simple Good, a Chicago nonprofit that teaches youth about social-emotional learning through art, and raised approximately $40,000 for the organization, exceeding their goal initial $35,000, Day said.
To date, Funkytown has developed 12 craft beers with products available at more than 500 locations in the Chicagoland area, including Jewel-Osco, Binny’s and Whole Foods. Their beers are also available at Pilot Project Brewing’s Milwaukee location, and the craft beers will soon be available in northern Indiana, Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield, Day and Williams said they hope to focus on the business full-time — they all have other jobs outside the brewery — and create a product where everyone sees themselves represented. They see winning the Samuel Adams competition as a key step in allowing them to continue expanding their company.
“Our first beer looked like beer but tasted like water,” Williams said of their first home brew. “We have now actually won a competition and will be receiving coaching from one of the top craft breweries in the nation. I am very excited to start working with them. I know they will help strengthen our organization.