I quickly learned that this restaurant had its own working brewery on full display, and that the only beer they served was brewed in-house. I had been legally of age to drink beverage alcohol for only six months but even then I knew my tastes were more sophisticated than the average beer drinker. I had already moved beyond “lite” beer and was routinely drinking Miller Genuine Draft (and, if I was going to be encountering a need for intelligent nightlife, Zima.)
I had never seen a brewery (after all there were probably only three in the country, right?) and didn't really care what went on inside one. I would watch as the brewmaster, Dave, drew samples from the vats and took detailed notes while listening to better music than what we had in the dining room. I'll never forget the smell of cereal grains, chlorine, pine and citrus and the sweet sounds of Phish when the brewery doors opened. The first craft beer I tried was a hefeweizen and my mind was completely blown. Here was a spritzy, refreshing beer with light banana and clove flavors that wasn't sickly sweet, yet still tasted like beer. I approached the general manager and proclaimed, “I want to do that.”
It was safe to say I had consumed my last Zima. As it turns out, so had the rest of the country.
As luck would have it, Dave's assistant had just put in his notice. Rather than put my name in the hat with every other server who wanted the job and be denied due to my overwhelming lack of experience or knowledge, I figured I'd just show up and ask if Dave needed any help. Eventually, I assumed the assistant brewer spot, though I was never technically offered the position. I shoveled hot mash and scrubbed floors part time for a year until one day I got a call from Kevin Reed, director of brewing operations for the Rock Bottom nation. An assistant brewer position would be opening at the Denver Chophouse, one of RB's upscale brewery/restaurant concepts. Without a second thought, I packed up and moved from Wheaton to Denver to work as Kevin Marley's assistant brewer. Around three months into my apprenticeship, I got sent across town to work at Rock Bottom Denver. At the time, RBD was the busiest shop in the company, producing over 2,000 BBLs of beer annually.
Working for John McClure taught me one of the most valuable lessons in brewing: Put your head down, focus, and brew your face off. In eight months I went from just barely being able to produce wort to being able to run a high-volume shop, develop simple recipes and juggle roughly ninety-seven tasks at a time. On weekends, we'd homebrew test batches of new beers for the pub. We'd frequently attend beer festivals in the mountains at Keystone and Telluride. On my way home from work, I'd stop at Falling Rock Taphouse to watch The Simpsons and drink Oskar Blues, Ska, New Belgium, Wynkoop, and Flying Dog. It was at this time that I also attended my first Great American Beer Festival. It was safe to say I had consumed my last Zima. As it turns out, so had the rest of the country.
Long story short, I entered the world of craft brewing by falling ass-backwards into it. I was at the right place at the right time and now have one of the most bitchin' jobs a person can have.
After a year of absorbing the craft beer culture in Denver, a head brewing position became available at Rock Bottom Downtown Indianapolis. Admittedly, Indy was not my first choice of destinations but I missed my family and I missed Chicago. I accepted the position so I could get home to see the family on weekends, and at twenty-three was the youngest head brewer in the Rock Bottom chain. It was much more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be. I made some acceptable beers and some less than acceptable beers. I made a decent porter and I learned that I should not attempt to brew malt liquor. I also put my first beers in spent bourbon barrels, and attended the first ever Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beer held on the second floor of Rock Bottom Chicago. While having dinner at MacNiven's Pub, I tried Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale and was intrigued by the blend of beer styles. I became friends with Clay Robinson and Dave Colt, who would later open the juggernaut Sun King Brewing Co. As a whole, Indy was better than I thought it was going to be, but when a head brewing position opened back in Warrenville, I jumped at the chance.
When I returned to Warrenville, I took a new approach. Brewing to style guidelines was a great way to learn about how specific styles should be brewed and what a good beer should be, but now I wanted to make beers with flavor profiles that were bold and unique regardless of whether they would win a medal at a BJCP competition. I wanted to make more beers that were as memorable as that Dogfish Head IBA was to me. I discovered Three Floyds and was floored by the signature style in every beer they made.
In December of 2006, Rock Bottom opened their Lombard location. What brewer doesn't want a shiny new brewery? Somehow, I managed to convince them that life would be better for everyone if my commute to work went from west to east. I spent five years in Lombard working with the best management and culinary team I could have hoped for. After my regional brewer left RB to open Haymarket Pub & Brewery (do I even have to say his name?) I assumed the position of regional brewer for our breweries in Illinois and Wisconsin. It was at this time that I met a crazy, wild-eyed gentleman by the name of John Barley who had plans to open a production brewery in Naperville. I wonder what ever happened to that guy? I hope everything is working out well for him.
Long story short, I entered the world of craft brewing by falling ass-backwards into it. I was at the right place at the right time and now have one of the most bitchin' jobs a person can have. Working with Kevin Reed, Dave Chichura, Andy Hays, John McClure, Kevin Marley, Van Havig, Chris Boggess, Barnaby Struve, Todd Haug, Eric Sorensen, Scott O'Hearn, Marty Mendiola, Jeff Yade, Pete Crowley, Davin Bartosch, Jared Rouben and countless other brewers I may have forgotten to mention here have made me a better brewer, and you should all drink their beers whenever you get the chance because they rule.
This is the first in a series of posts about the origins of SOB full-timers. In a few weeks, John Barley tells us about his experience planning and starting the brewery.