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Inside the mind of a tap chef

Moody Tongue brewmaster Jared Rouben has one foot in the brewhouse and one in the kitchen.
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Moody Tongue's Jared Rouben, photographed by Kaitlyn McQuaid

Moody Tongue’s Jared Rouben, photographed by Kaitlyn McQuaid

When Jared Rouben launched Moody Tongue Brewing a year ago, he wasn’t wearing a standard brewery Dickies work shirt or logo-emblazoned hoodie in his press photos; he wore a pressed button- down. It’s a polished touch that defines the Chicago brewer and his beers. As drinkers nationwide take impassioned stands on either side of the “fussed over” beer debate, Moody Tongue’s beers have landed on Michelin-starred menus from New York City’s Per Se and Blue Hill to Chicago’s Grace. And now that Rouben has begun bottling and plans to soon unveil the brewery’s tasting room, his food-focused beers are now available sans white tablecloth.

For his style of beer making—which he calls culinary brewing—tasting and exploring food are as crucial to the process as mashing grains or monitor- ing tank temperatures. His recent obsession with Oaxacan mole, for example? Rouben pulled out the Mexican cocoa aromatics to use in Moody Tongue’s Dehydrated Tangerine Cacao Wit. His beer’s names alone start your mouth watering: Sliced Nectarine IPA, Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter, Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison.

Brewers have incorporated fruit and other grocery-store staples into their beers for decades, but Rouben is one of the few who brings a serious culinary background to the brew house. His résumé includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, plus experience in award-winning, can’t-get-a-reservation- to-save-your-life restaurants including Per Se and Napa Valley’s now-closed Martini House. His pedigree led to a cheflike obsession with quality ingredients.

“Sourcing, handling and incorporating ingredients—those three principles are what make culinary beer,” Rouben says.

In his three-and-a-half years as an assistant and then head brewer at Goose Island’s brewpubs prior to launching Moody Tongue, Rouben became as much an early-morning fixture at the nearby farmers market as at beer festivals. He built a reputation on beers like Marisol, a collaboration with celebrity chef Rick Bayless, brewed with grapefruit and citrusy ugli fruit. As a member of the Green City Market Junior Board, he became close with farmers and chefs who now provide him ingredients like the peculiar paw paw fruit, fresh lemon leaves and even rare Australian truffles, which he incorporated into Moody Tongue’s Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner last winter (price tag: $120 per bottle). Just don’t call these out-there brews “experiments.”

“I think that’s a misinterpretation of what culinary brewing is all about,” Rouben says. “A chef would never experiment on his customers; he’d taste it first and then share the dish. That’s our approach as well. We have to be consistent.”

Rouben carefully explains that he brews to counter some people’s assumption that foods like chocolate, ginger and chilies are in beer to distract from a mediocre base style, or for novelty.

“For culinary brewing, that base beer has to be perfect first. We love brewing classic, proper styles. It doesn’t matter how good your food ingredient is, it won’t enhance a beer that isn’t great already,” Rouben says.

He designed the entire brewery to optimally store his produce and ingredients, from a refrigerated food area that takes up nearly an entire wall to a gleaming, decked-out prep kitchen. Once fruit, tea or vegetables are ready for the brewing tank, Rouben positions them on specially designed rods and hooks within his tanks to maximize aromatics in the final product. The chefs and beverage directors who pour his beer at their restaurants agree that it makes a difference.

“Everything Jared does stands out,” says Giuseppe Tentori, award-winning chef at Chicago’s GT Fish & Oyster. The two brewed a collaboration black saison when Rouben was still with Goose Island, and Tentori was one of the first chefs to serve Moody Tongue’s beers at his restaurant, including that pricey bottle of truffle pilsner. “People who try to make truffle beers, they’re not using the best stuff. Jared did his research.”

Rouben shares a common culinary language— and a level of seriousness—with his high-end restaurant brethren. He moves deftly through that world socially and professionally, which can seem to set him apart from his beer industry cohorts.

“Not only did he have the culinary background but he also had a number of different associations and acquaintances on the culinary side. Some of the chefs I met through him were incredible,” says Wil Turner, now head brewer at Chicago’s Revolution brewpub, of the time that Rouben was his assistant brewer at Goose Island’s brewpubs. “He’s always been a very motivated guy. He’s taken his perspective and run with it.”

Rouben’s focus makes sense; after all, convincing a four-star restaurant to pour his beer or asking drinkers to splurge on the truffle bottle necessitates a level of confidence and finesse. To Rouben, that pitch—“Try a Moody Tongue beer”—also requires a change in the way we describe beer. On this point, he’s surprisingly down-to-earth for a guy who brews with cracked green coriander and brandied purple raspberries.

“There’s a lot more work to be done, and I think it rests upon language in the beer world,” he says. “When we use words like ‘hoppy,’ ‘malty,’ ‘beery’— guess what? There are hops in every beer. That doesn’t tell your staff or your guest anything. When you’re describing your hoppy IPA, think of fruit: Go through the supermarket or the farmers market in your head and talk about grapefruit, mango, tangerine—all of a sudden, we’ve built a bond where people understand what they’re ordering.”

With big-name chefs and beer insiders as some of his earliest fans, Rouben is now ready to take Moody Tongue bottles to the masses.

“You don’t have to be a beer geek or a foodie. We have to find a common language, the language of food,” he says. “That’s where I really hope there’s growth. If we need proof, look at the wine world. They’ve been using fig and prune to describe French wine and we can use that language too to describe our Belgian dubbels. Beer is just as complex; why don’t we get to explore the best ingredients and food pairings too? We shouldn’t be left out of the fun.”

TWO TO TRY
Moody Tongue beer names may be mouthfuls, but their formula means drinkers know what they’re getting. Each moniker begins with the preparation of the special ingredient (sliced, caramelized) + the ingredient (nectarine, chocolate churro) + the base style (IPA, baltic porter). Here are two bottles to seek out this spring:

Sliced Nectarine IPA: Flavors progress layer-by-layer through this full-bodied 5.9% IPA: First, candied citrus, fresh grass and a hint of caramel lift into the nose; on the sip, nectarine skin connects with toffee-ish malts and finishes with firm bitterness.

Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison: Emperor’s lemon tea, supplied by globe-trotting culinary treasure hunter Rodrick Marcus of Rare Tea Cellars, lends perfumey, citrus- laced aromas to this 6.3%-ABV saison. Tea leaf flavors bloom with lavender, dandelion and wildflower sweetness, punctuated by swift black tea bitterness.

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