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Chicago’s new chef-helmed breweries

Chicago’s chefs have come down with brewing fever. One of the country’s best dining cities welcomes four new star-studded, chef-helmed breweries this year, each with its own culinary approach to the liquid arts.
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Plenty of chefs like beer. It’s what they drink after a long night on the line, and a splash may even make its way into a dish’s marinade or broth. But in Chicago, the fine dining and beer spheres form a tight Venn diagram. You can find a beer dinner somewhere most nights of the week; chef/ brewer collaborations tap constantly; and it’s not surprising to catch brewers snacking at the bars of white-tablecloth restaurants.

The worlds are about to overlap further this year as four new breweries founded by acclaimed chefs debut in neighborhoods across the city. It’s made the Second City first in the nation in culinary brewing, a term brewer and former chef Jared Rouben uses to describe his approach to making food-friendly, ingredient-driven beers at Chicago’s year-plus-old Moody Tongue Brewing Co.

“Chicago chefs have such a strong love for beer, and you find that on [their] menus. Beer is not tucked on the last page or in the very bottom corner of a beverage menu; it’s front-and-center,” says Rouben. In his former role as brewmaster at Goose Island Beer Co.’s brewpub, Rouben created beers with no fewer than 54 local chefs.

“In what other city does that happen?” he says. “We overuse the word collaborate, but this is a mutual friendship. Brewing doesn’t feel so foreign to chefs here; it’s just an extension of the kitchen with different hours and bigger pots.”

Bixi
Neighborhood: Logan Square
Opens: July 2016

B2W CHICAGO ---Bixi - Hilary Higgins

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Chef Bo Fowler was raised by Norwegian parents in a Minnesota town of about 600 people (population swelled to 3,000 during the yearly sugar beet harvest). The family included eight children, many adopted from Asian countries in-cluding Vietnam and Korea. Her parents cooked Scandinavian food, but also tried to accommodate their children’s backgrounds, creating culinary Frankensteins that now seem comical.

“I grew up with my mom dumping cream of mushroom soup on everything. We had hamburger chow mein,” Fowler says. “It’s how I developed my taste for bizarre, Americanized Asian food.”

Though Fowler owns two other Chicago restaurants, barbecue spot Fat Willy’s Rib Shack and English gastropub Owen & Engine, she never thought to cook the American-Asian food she loves—until a meal four years ago at San Francisco’s Mission Chinese convinced her there was a smart way to do it.

“I ate at Thomas Keller’s restaurant. I ate at all the Michelin-starred restaurants, but the one that held my heart was Mission Chinese. It was powerful, fermented, funky, assertive,” she recalls. “I talked to [Owen & Engine beer director] Elliott Beier about it and he said ‘Why don’t you just do this but with a brewpub? There’s this huge movement toward Asian beers.’ And I said ‘Really?’ I thought everyone hated Asian beer.”

That was the springboard for Bixi, Fowler’s forthcoming 200-seat brewpub.

“We’re going to do completely bastardized Asian food, hopefully with a bit of finesse,” she says. “Our brewer’s going to do American styles with maybe some flavor components or profiles that match with our food, but also Asian-style, food-driven beers with tea infusions or rice adjuncts. I want to work around a menu first and have the beers reflect that, instead of the other way around.”

Though Owen & Engine has for years served beer-friendly English food alongside an impressive draft beer selection, including cask ales, Fowler says she looks forward to exploring pairing even more deeply.

“It’s amazing that you can complement beers with food and have it all blend together, or you can spike a dish’s certain flavor and highlight it with a beer, or you can go the opposite direction and contrast the dish,” she says. “Some dishes we’ll cook super rich and leave a place for the beer, maybe something sour or tart, that takes the place of a gastrique to balance it out. As a chef, cooking that way really opens up my eyes and my palate.”

She’s brought in Beier as a managing partner at Bixi, and plans to name a brewer soon. Fowler also plans to tap the suppliers and farmers she’s met through her restaurants to source brewing ingredients, including Asian tea from Rare Tea Cellar that will become a part of some of the seven house beers Bixi will have on tap.

“There are plenty of American brewers going over to Asia and brewing. Instead of bringing Americanized beers to Shanghai, Beier said ‘Why don’t we bring their style of beer to America?’ I was totally on board,” Fowler says. “We could be one of the first to really tap into this thing.”

Band of Bohemia
Neighborhood: Ravenswood
Opened in: Fall 2015

Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Alinea, one of the most revered, awarded and groundbreaking restaurants in America, casts a long shadow over Chicago’s restaurants. Its chef and founder, Grant Achatz, is one of the pioneers of modern cuisine (what some call molecular gastronomy), and his proteges have gone on to helm some of the best kitchens in the city.

Recently, two Alinea vets, Michael Carroll and Craig Sindelar, put their mark on the beer world with the launch of a brewpub called Band of Bohemia. It’s an appropriately exotic name for the “culinary brewhouse,” as the team calls it, whose goal is to push the envelope with seasonal, ingredient-driven beer and food.

“We’re gravitating away from the greasy pub food which, mind you, I love, but it’s not really an everyday thing,” says Carroll, formerly a bread baker at Alinea and then brewer at Half Acre Beer Co., also in Chicago. “The name references turn-of-the-century Bohemians, people who were artists and musicians, that sort of idea of a nonconformist who does things untraditionally.”

How untraditionally? Imagine stepping into the brewery for a pint of Orange Chicory Rye or Roasted Beet Thyme beer, perhaps while you snack on a side dish of bison tartare with matsutake mushrooms, or a plate of sturgeon served with duck hearts and pickled beets.

“Initially, there will be some of your kind of old-school brewpub guys that are a little confused, but overall, people are really excited about a different format,” says executive chef Matt DuBois, formerly of acclaimed Illinois restaurants Inovasi and the progressive, tasting menu-only EL Ideas.

In Chicago, there’s not as wide a gap between fine dining and brewing as some imagine, Carroll says. He cites the Thai menu at Next Restaurant, another piece of Achatz’s empire and the recipient of the 2012 James Beard Award for America’s Best New Restaurant, which featured Half Acre beers created specifically for some of its dishes. Though diners were shelling out major bucks and paying months in advance for reservations, they didn’t bat at an eye at beer mixed in with wine and cocktail pairings.

“We made three or four beers for them, including a mangosteen and hibiscus beer. These were beautiful plates, beautiful flavors; you’re paying $200 or $300 a head for the menu, and you’re drinking beer,” he says. “There was a lot in the backbone of the beer that you had to rely on: the yeast, the malt, and what you can layer on top of that instead of distracting flavors or hops. It made me realize: ‘This can be done. Why isn’t it done?’ Then, ‘Why don’t I do it?’”

Carroll, with both a beer and fine-dining bread-baking background, seemed just the person to carry this idea to its realization in Band of Bohemia.

“Beer and bread are not that far from each other: both have yeast, both have grain plus a seasoning: hops or salt,” Carroll says. “I had to make breads that specifically went with food, so I under-stood that pairing aspect.”

There’s an obvious symbiosis between the brewhouse and the kitchen at Band of Bohemia, with Carroll and DuBois tangoing back and forth about ingredients and flavors.

“Michael’s roots are in the kitchen, so he incorporates these flavor profiles in his beer that you might find in a bread or a dish or a sauce,” DuBois says. “I just get a flood of ideas talking to him. He says ‘I’m going to do a beer with grilled peaches and tarragon’ and instantly I’m thinking of all these summer dishes I could do based on that. Chicago’s absolutely one of the best dining cities; our clientele is incredibly open and adventurous and welcoming to new ideas and techniques.”

Carroll too feels diners’ sense of adventure, and wants to find its outer limits.

“We don’t know yet how far we can push it,” he says. “But we’re going to find out.”

Cruz Blanca
Neighborhood: West Loop
Opens: Spring 2016

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Chef Rick Bayless has had a long love affair with Mexican cuisine; he studied it methodically, visiting every state in the country to master regional dishes in the kitchens of local chefs. Through 11 seasons, he’s brought Mexican cooking into American homes on his PBS Show “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” while also opening iconic Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Michelin-starred Topolobampo; he now claims 12 Chicago-area restaurant locations. In 2009, the mild-mannered chef found an even larger fan base when he won the inaugural season of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” Today, the ink is barely dry on his ninth cookbook “More Mexican Everyday,” and he’s planning a tenth.

And he has his sights set on beer.

It’s not entirely out of the blue: In 2010, he brewed a collaboration with Goose Island Beer Co. called Marisol, a well-received Belgian golden ale brewed with tangerine zest, green coriander and ugli fruit. Then, last fall he launched the Tocayo beer line with global giant Constellation Brands; Hominy White Ale, a Belgian wit brewed with hominy, coriander and orange, was the first release.

Finally, he’s going all in. In a few months, Bayless will fling open the doors to Cruz Blanca, a 10-barrel brewpub in Chicago’s increasingly trendy meatpacking district turned restaurant row. The beer program is guided by brewmaster Jacob Sembrano, who’s fittingly a culinary school grad turned former Goose Island brewpub brewer (Perennial Artisan Ales’ venerable Phil Wymore consulted on the project, as well).

Bayless draws a historical connection between Mexico and beer, recounting the story of the Alsatian, German and Austrian brewers brought into the country by Maximilian during the mid-19th century. It ignited a rich brewing culture in Mexico (that was eventually overshadowed by brewery conglomeration); this will be reborn at Cruz Blanca, with a mix of French-style farmhouse ales and Mexican-inspired lagers. “We’ll be doing bottle-conditioned stuff and cask-conditioned stuff as well. Those will be done more in that ale style, and then we will also be exploring the whole lager world: Mexican beer is lager,” Bayless says.

Of course, a healthy dose of Mexican culinary influence will be tossed in the mix: Bayless and Wymore already crafted a biere de garde called La Guardia, and instead of hops, they used a pungent herb, epazote, to impart bitterness. “When those first brewers came to Mexico from Alsace, they didn’t have hops,” Bayless says. “They had to work with whatever they could work with. They were probably casting around to see what local ingredients they could use.”

While La Guardia is formally retired (Sembrano’s tinkering with the recipe), these global ideas with a local focus will define Cruz Blanca beers.

“The way we approach food in our restaurants is that we are deeply rooted in the traditions of Mexico—and those are deeply rooted in Spanish cuisine, indigenous cuisine, Asian cuisine—but they’re expressed in local ingredients. Yes, we bring in chilies from Mexico, but to tell you the truth, we’re a seasonal and locally driven restaurant, and we will be the same way with our beer. … We’ll explore grains that are grown in the Midwest, and hops that are grown in Michigan.”

And while there’s currently no intel about exactly what will be on tap, when it arrives, Bayless’ beers will be available at the brewpub and exclusively at his other restaurants.

Like Minds
Neighborhood: West Loop
Opened in: Fall 2015

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Photo by Hilary Higgins for DRAFT

Fresh off his James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest in 2014, chef Justin Aprahamian threw himself into a new project: Like Minds Brewing Co. He was 31 years old, the executive chef and owner of the celebrated 20-table restaurant Sanford in Milwaukee, and didn’t really need another business to consume his time. But beer had grown from an interest to a hobby to a professional consideration for Aprahamian, who thought he could bring something to the table that other brewers couldn’t.

“I’ve used this musical analogy be-fore: So [Radiohead’s] Thom Yorke wrote his share of the music for ‘OK Computer’ on guitar, and when they went to ‘Kid A,’ he was doing it on piano. He wasn’t looking at it from a formal training sense,” Aprahamian says. “I’m like that, thinking about beer in terms of recipe development and ways to harness different ingredients that a brewer wouldn’t think of. But with that in mind, I know I’m not a brewer.”

Aprahamian handed those brewing reigns to business partner John Lovell, whom he met hosting beer dinners at Sanford. He also relocated the in-planning brewery to Chicago after he was told he wouldn’t legally be able to hold a liquor license for both Sanford and Like Minds in Milwaukee. Once the team found an industrial West Loop location in Goose Island Beer Co.’s now-outgrown former barrel warehouse, he knew the move would be a windfall.

“We loved the neighborhood, the feel, and to be that close to Goose Island. We love the idea of being close to Intelligentsia’s coffee roasters, too, and the great chefs and restaurants on Randolph Street. I want to work with those chefs. It was a no-brainer.”

While plans for a taproom and potentially a brewpub wind their way through the creaky licensing process, Like Minds is already brewing. Its first beer was a pale ale with black currants and lemon verbena, which Aprahamian says he conceived of as he would a restaurant dish.

“You want the beer to be balanced and rounded, and a little acidity helps, but you want to be able to keep drinking it,” he says. “Black currant perks it up, lemon verbena is a citrus floral note that ties into the currants and the hops that we chose. Structuring a beer like that is something I don’t know that a normal brewer would think about that way.”

Aprahamian is aware, though, that not every idea he has for a beer will be technically, well, brewable. That’s where Lovell comes in.

“It was important to have someone that can look at my recipe and say ‘Yeah, that’s great but …’” he says. “But just like in a kitchen, I do try to get people on board with the ‘why’ of ingredients. I think when people get that, they’re more inclined to trust it and roll with it.”

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