Walter Ornelas infuses craft beers with Latino flavor

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Brewmaster Walter Ornelas and his wife Adrianna. Photo courtesy of Banging Gravel.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ransitioning from beer drinker to brewmaster was an easy move for Walter Ornelas. The native of Guadalajara, Mexico, moved to Pilsen when he was young and completed a BFA in art education from UIC. However, just like many of us, he has been around beer for as long as he can remember.

“Growing up, I remember going to family parties and having a sip of my father’s beer,” stated Ornelas, the head brewmaster at Banging Gavel Brews. “When I was old enough to go to bars and start drinking, beer just didn’t feel like beer. You want something with more flavor.”

So Ornelas starting leaning away from the Heinekens and Coronas and embarked on his own quest for good beer.

“Your palate changes when you get older,” he notes about his deviation from the mass-produced beers.

He developed a passion for craft beer, but he truly caught the brewing bug when he was introduced to home brewing by a chef friend more than four years ago. What started off as a hobby became an obsession. His friend introduced him to a lawyer who wanted to start his own brewery, and Banging Gavel Brews was born.

Ornelas combines his passion for art with his Latino background when it comes to crafting his beers.

“Growing up in Chicago, I try to infuse my personal life experiences. Being Latino, I like to use a lot of Latino based [ingredients],” he stated about his flavor inspirations.

One of the beers he created is infused with mango and serrano peppers called La Ley. The first thing you may notice is the slight aroma of Cholula as it hits your nose. When you take your first sip, you will notice a little kick of spice as it hits your palate. The beer also contains honey, which gives it a slightly crisp taste along with the spice. The beer created a lot of buzz at the Midwest Brewers Festival in Plainfield last year. The flavor profiles are in your face and it’s very bold.

“It isn’t a very safe beer, and you may not have more than a glass, but you’ll tell people about it,” noted Ornelas. “I want to create beer that creates memorable experiences.”

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Photo courtesy of Banging Gravel.

Another creation that reflects Latino inspiration is the Chicanery, an imperial stout that is made with Abuelita chocolate. The beer feels creamy on the palate and the chocolate initially touches the taste buds. It finishes with a slight roasted, malty taste and could be considered a Latino Guinness.

He also draws on his wife’s Latino heritage. Adrianna was born in Colombia and Banging Gavel’s barley wine, Niner, contains panela, a cane sugar from Colombia. It tastes like a winter porter. Another beer that uses panela is the Belgian dark, Acquittal. For a dark beer with a thick body, it is surprisingly sweet. One could consider it a dessert beer, if such a thing existed.

Not only do the flavors reflect Walter and Adrianna’s Latino heritages, the packaging draws upon immigrant life.

The packaging of La Ley will have a fence with a man’s hands gripping the links, which reflects the plight of immigrants crossing the border and their struggles making it in America.

The thing that distinguishes Banging Gavel from other craft beers is their higher alcohol content. All their beers are above seven percent alcohol content. Also, Walter wants to create beers that are different from what is available on the market.

Banging Gavel stays true to its local roots and uses local ingredients from local farmers.

“There are a ton of IPAs, there are ton of stouts and reds. We want to be different from what is out there,” noted Walter about his selection.

Banging Gavel is based in Plainfield and can be found at Sovereign and Tap House. In the city, Chicanery and the Irish Red, aptly named Red-Handed, can be found at Geek Bar, 1941 W. North Ave. There are plans to distribute the beer at Standard Market’s various locations around the city and Walter would like to see his beer in the Pilsen bars such as Dusek’s and Skylar. He plans on releasing La Ley commercially around late April or early May.

What does Walter hope to achieve in five years? “I don’t want to have a day job anymore. I want to do this all day.”

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