Everyone knows you can lead a horse to water, but did you know you can lead a cow to a watering hole?
Todd McLester of Byron does. He took the cow by the hair and brought it to his hometown, where his bar and grill is serving up home brew, home cooking, and more.
Hairy Cow Brewing Company, on the banks of the Rock River, opened in December with a focus on keeping the Cow’s offerings as close to home as possible, from its menu to its music. The business – the first brew pub in Byron – offers 22 different beers brewed on site and liquor from Illinois distilleries, it serves food made with as many local ingredients as possible, and it’s a place where local musical talent can take the stage.
“We do as much local as we can,” McLester said.
His goal, according to the business’ Facebook page, is to make Hairy Cow Brewing Company a community gathering place and hub of activity in Byron.
Even his distinctive logo is a hairy nod to his hometown. At first glance, the logo looks like a hairy cow – with follicles designed to look like hops, a flowering plant used in the brewing process – but look closer and the cow’s nose resembles one of the cooling towers from Byron’s nuclear plant.
The unusual name comes from McLester’s other business: raising Scottish Highland cattle, which just happen to be hairy cows.
The bar’s brewing area has an 8½-barrel system, which can hold about 263½ gallons. Among Hairy Cow’s nearly two dozen brews are a few seasonal varieties – such as a pumpkin ale in the fall – and other special occasion beers. The bar typically has four or five of their varieties on tap. Plans also are in the works for canning their beer. They’ll fire up their canning machine and sell 16 oz. cans.
Jon Lambert, the company’s head brewer, has been brewing for about 15 years, and he can thank his wife for that.
“His wife bought him a home brew kit, and it just kind of took off from there,” McLester said.
In addition to the homemade suds, the bar also serves liquor from Illinois distilleries, Whiskey Acres in DeKalb and Koval in Chicago, to name a few. Hairy Cow also serves up seasonal mixed drinks.
On the food side, the business uses as many local, fresh ingredients as possible in its menu offerings, which includes appetizers, salad, burgers, wings and its signature dish: pizza, nearly two dozen varieties in all. The pizza dough is made fresh daily with a special ingredient – Hairy Cow Beer – and aged for at least 24 hours, giving the beer and yeast plenty of time to work together to give the dough its distinctive texture. And if you’ve still got room after a slice, you can try another slice, of fresh-made cheesecake from more than 20 recipes, a different one served each week.
If you prefer a cup of java to a glass of beer, Hairy Cow recently added gourmet coffee, espresso and lattes, featuring brands from around the state, including Intelligentsia Coffee out of Chicago.
The bar also offers its own line of merchandise: shirts, hats, jackets, glassware, and growlers.
McLester has lived in Byron since 2004. He grew up in Rockford, where he was on the city’s police force for 25 years. Before he had a Cow, his life had gone to the dogs.
“I had a dog boarding and grooming kennel at my home, but I closed that when I decided to do this,” he said.“I was sitting in the kitchen looking out the window one day and thought, ‘We should put a brew pub in Byron.’”
Now that he’s found customers who are wild about Hairy, McLester has other plans brewing for his business. He’s working on a landscaping project that will include a beer garden and access to the back of the business via boat docks. And in keeping with his emphasis all things local, look for Hairy Cow to be involved in community events, including the Frontline OCR obstacle course, which the business helps sponsor; Beer Fest; and the Tiger 10-miler trail run in the fall.
It’s all part of the plan for a man who traded mug shots for mugs and found a new calling, going from serving and protecting to serving up suds and good times and making his pub a hub of activity for the town he calls home.