When Dean and Carolyn Armstrong in the mid-1990s acquired the building that today houses Flossmoor Station on Sterling Avenue, a brewery was not even on their minds. When they were first contacted by what was then the Bank of Homewood (today Great Lakes Bank) about the building for sale, they wanted to make it a Steak and Ale, a Texas-based chain.
But the chain was not interested in doing anything for at least a few years, Carolyn recalled. They ended up going out of business shortly thereafter. And the Armstrongs took a fateful trip.
“We went to a little brewery in Lawton, Michigan, where we had our first craft beer — their wheat beer,” Carolyn said. “That was it.”
They knew at that moment they wanted a brewery of their own in downtown Flossmoor. Though, Carolyn admitted they were a little naive about what that meant. They thought they could simply buy the machinery, hook it up and be good to go.
“Thank God for Bill Sugars from Mickey Finn’s in Libertyville,” Carolyn said. “He and his brewer came out here and helped us get all our equipment.”
It took almost two years to get going, but on July 8, 1996, Flossmoor Station opened its doors in the era of microbreweries. It is one of the rarities that survived into the craft beer boom, outlasting not only many of its contemporaries but America’s Great Recession in the late 2000s and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s definitely a pioneer; that’s for sure,” said Ryan Czaja, Flossmoor Station’s head brewer.
The barrel-aged beer program started by Todd Ashman is a big part of what put the brewery on the map, Czaja said. A 2006 Small Brewpub Company and Small Brewpub Company Brewer of the Year win at the Great American Beer Festival, where Flossmoor Station’s Wooden Hell also medaled, was another big boost.
Czaja first came to work there as an assistant brewer six-and-a-half years ago. But having grown up in Crete, Czaja said the Station had been on his radar for years.
“This was the first place I had craft beer,” he said.
When he took over as head brewer roughly five years ago, he helped bring back Flossmoor Station’s original eight beers (with some minor tweaks). He also introduced some brews of his own through the seasonal menu.
“Ryan is a very humble brewer,” General Manager Sandi Nelson said. “He’s very understated, but he’s a rock star.”
Flossmoor Station is to celebrate its 25th anniversary from July 9-11. Customers can expect menu favorites, beer specials, raffles, 25th anniversary T-shirts and more. On that Friday evening, there will be a live performer. Saturday afternoon is to feature entertainment by a DJ.
Czaja said the Hidden Gem grapefruit Kolsch will be on the menu. A limited Wooden Hell 2017-2020 bottle collection, chronicling Czaja’s years of making it, will be available. But the highlight will be the tapping of the 25th Anniversary 2021 Wooden Hell, a barleywine aged for 25 months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. This year’s iteration has a lot of oak, bourbon, caramel and vanilla notes, according to Czaja.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting,” Czaja said.
But getting to this celebration has not always been easy. Armstrong said Flossmoor Station thankfully has had a few special weapons that helped them during the worst of those 25 years, starting with her counterpart.
“My husband’s an attorney,” she said. “He was able to help us through some of the low points.”
Then, there is the staff. The business has employees who have been there for more than a decade. Nelson, who has worked there since 2005, said that is important to longevity.
“What keeps this place alive is there is a team of people that works really, really hard, from back of house — which includes kitchen, dishwashers, prep — to the front of the house, from hostesses to servers,” said Nelson. “Everyone worked really hard to pull together for 25 years.
“It’s a family. ... There’s a real sense of connectedness and community. We’re in it together.”
Never was that as evident as the past 15 months during the pandemic. Armstrong said she could not keep many of her front-of-the-house staff through the oscillating in-person dining closures and reopenings, but she kept her kitchen staff going the whole time for takeout and delivery. And she watched those such as Czaja step up to answer phones, take orders and deliver them, too.
“This year was a real test for everybody, I think, because we had a very close crew,” Armstrong said. “We had a really close-knit group who got us through this. It was hard, but we got through it.”
Flossmoor Station’s space on 1035 Sterling Ave. also has been crucial to its success, Armstrong said. The building itself went through two major additions. And its outdoor space in particular has been “huge,” Armstrong said. In 2000, Flossmoor Station added the famous Caboose Deck to its outdoor space.
“That was a major, major costly event,” Armstrong said. “But I think the outside has really made this place.”
“I think it really connects people to Flossmoor, being out here,” Nelson said. “It’s just a really peaceful space, and you’re able to look out over the village. It makes a difference.”
All of that has added up to a quarter-century of longevity. And while Flossmoor Station’s leadership is reflecting on the history of the business to mark an important milestone, it is also still barreling full speed ahead.
“I didn’t know I’d get to this point,” Armstrong said. “But I’m here, and I’m not ready to stop.”
For more information, visit flossmoorstation.com.