A Q&A with New Fountainhead Executive Chef Cleetus Friedman

Via ChitownOnTap.com

Photo via ChitownOnTap

When chef Cleetus Friedman announced that he was closing City Provisions, his locavore-focused sustainability mecca that was the home of many of our favorite brewery/chef collaborations, it’s safe to say that much of Chicago’s fooderati and beer fans were both shocked and saddened. For six weeks, a city watched and wondered, where will Cleetus end up next?

Will he keep his brewery collaborations going? Will his farm dinners continue? Will he host Check, Please? Will he open a new spot with more foot traffic? All those questions and more were tossed about, and a little over a week ago, we got our answer: Friedman would be taking over as executive chef of one of our favorite craft beer bars in the city: The Fountainhead.

We wanted to know a little bit more about the transition, the beer collaboration plans, the restaurant’s global focus, Ayn Rand and Check, Please – and Cleetus was generous enough with his time in the middle of basically rewriting the entire menu (but not all of it, more on that later) to spend answering a few of our questions.

Our conversation follows:

GDB: You know,when I saw the news break from Time Out Chicago, that you had landed at Fountainhead, I immediately (and I think a lot of other people thought this too) thought that it was really a perfect fit.

But what I also thought about was, that at City Provisions, you really were running the show over there. So has it been different, or better, to be just focusing on one aspect of the business, in the kitchen, and do you think that might be something that you’ll strain against at all in the future?

CF: It’s funny – out of all the questions that have been posed to me so far, nobody’s asked me that question. You know, when you’re running a business, especially a business like City Provisions, there’s so many things going on that it’s hard to…the goal is to surround yourself with great people that can carry your vision out. That’s what made CP in the eyes of the community, was that I had so many great people working for me.

When I take one of those things and pull it out and for example, my focus on food, like you’re saying, and I put that in a place called Fountainhead…I’m able to put 100% of my energy into one thing. And it is easier, although it’s a big challenge right now, because I need to…literally 180 degrees, I gotta turn this place around. But I’m able to focus all of my energy on one task.

And it’s been invigorating. It’s once again inspiring. And, I’m able to also spread my wings a little bit and work with a lot of different breweries, and scotch & whiskey makers a lot more than what I was doing at City Provisions. Fountainhead has a global focus. So I’m able to focus globally, but cook seasonally and locally, if that makes sense.

GDB: You mentioned in this recent Eater piece that you were looking forward to brewing a collaboration with Stone. That kind of surprised me a little – your reputation is one of working with very local Midwestern breweries, and with Stone being on the west coast, do you think being at Fountainhead is allowing you to kind of relax that discipline a little bit? 

CF: Well, I’ve always worked with Stone. When Aaron from Stone approached me about getting Stone on my shelves, much like Oscar Blues did, I said to him: I need ten things that you are doing for the environment that’ll make you fit into our model here, not being local.

And Aaron spent six hours with my staff, with a DVD of all of their sustainability practices…and the fact that they have a farm, and source from that farm for their pub, and the water reclamation and their solar panels and everything they do kinda blew me away – the things that Stone does for the earth are far above and beyond 90% of the other breweries out there already.

So they earned a space on my shelf, so I had a great relationship with them, and now I’m on a stage where I can move a lot of beer. I’ve been talking about doing a collaboration with them for a couple of years but they haven’t had the capacity.

Well, now they might start doing that, so the relationships that I’ve built are really…there’s even more of a stage to play on with those, if that makes sense.

[It’s at this point that your humble correspondant remembers picking up a bottle of Stone’s Belgo-Anise Russian Imperial Stout at City Provisions, and feels slightly stupid for not putting 2 and 2 together. But I’m over it now.] 

GDB: Let’s talk a little more about those beer collaborations. What plans do you have for those moving forward? 

CF: I’m brewing every month. One of my goals for the next six months was to take all these smaller new breweries and to do beer collaborations with them…and help them grow. Like, Begyle Brewing, 18th Street Brewing, Pipeworks, Spiteful, even Dryhop if they want, but being at Fountainhead now, there’s a huge market and a huge awareness for the beers.

So while I’m still brewing with Dark Horse and Greenbush, I’m going to be brewing with Rev Brew this fall…I have a real opportunity to use my reputation with my collaborations and put a spotlight on the people that nobody knows about.

When I did Terminator X with Greenbush, nobody knew who Greenbush was…that was two years ago…look at — I’m not saying it’s due to me, but look at Greenbush now. They can’t make beer fast enough, they’re blowing up, they’re building a huge brewery.

So I’m still brewing with them – I’ve got Loudmouth Soup on tap at Fountainhead now – I’m lucky to have 3 beers in their canon while they’re so busy they can’t do another collaboration.

GDB: You mentioned the global vision of the restaurant, and it’s interesting that you’re getting to stretch out in those newer directions – have you had a chance to discuss with Mike [Maloney, new beer director at Fountainhead] where your visions are headed for both programs?

Because you’re both in a very unique position – to take a well known destination, and really be able to take it and make it into something which I think has the potential to be even better than it was before. 

CF: I agree with you and I’m glad you see it that way. I think ownership is investing in that, with not just bringing me on board…but they’re making some other changes to really help catapult Fountainhead to the top of Chicago’s gastropubs.

I haven’t spent enough time with Mike yet, however the ownership knows my focus, and that I want to create a menu that highlights the beverage program, not just the beer program. We will be training the staff to understand pairings with my food and have suggested pairings for everything on the menu, whether it’s paired wines, paired whiskey, sherry, whatever the case may be. It could take 6 months, but I’m gonna help them get there.

GDB: Where are you at with the food menu?

CF: The menu that I’m working on is basically designed to have people walk through a Fountainhead experience, with food and beverage that’s not limited to size or course. It’s meant to be seen as an entire menu with the ability to order small or large portions of many different things, and really start to share and eat communally, whether you’re with 2 people or 20 people.

I’m designing a menu where people can have a little bit of this, a little bit of that, or one large portion. That being said, on the beverage side, I’m trying to show people that you can have a beer, and have 3 different items with that beer, and each item will draw on a different flavor profile of that beer or wine or spirit.

It’s really going to start playing with pairing food and drink.

GDB: When I hear what you’re describing, it’s almost like you’re taking Fountainhead back to their day-one menu which had sections labeled “Sharing” and “Not for Sharing.”

CF: I had no idea that’s what it used to be like until just now! [laughs] But when you go to a place like Fountainhead, people don’t go [when they’re] in a hurry to see a movie, they go to hang out, they go to drink and talk – it’s a pub! You know what I mean? It’s a gastropub. It’s a gathering place.

And that’s what Fountainhead stands for. Fountainhead stands for an outpouring of ideas.

Whether that’s from a creative standpoint behind the bar or in the kitchen, it’s also a place where, you want to come hang out with friends, you want to have some drinks – my goal is to have that experience transcend into the food menu now. And let the food be a part of the Fountainhead experience.

We want an actual experience. We want you leaving with a wholehearted experience with food and drink and conversation and community. When I go out to eat, that’s what I want do.

GDB: This is a random question that just came to me – have you ever read the actual novel, “The Fountainhead,” by Ayn Rand?

CP: I have not. And I have not for a few reasons: A) [the name of the restaurant is] not an Ayn Rand reference, which is interesting – I asked that the other day. B) I’m not a big Ayn Rand fan. And C) any book that I’ve read in the past 5 years have been cookbooks! I’m ten pages into Steve Jobs’ book, I just don’t have time. So, no I haven’t. [laughs]

GDB: It’s been a pretty busy past week for you in conjuction with the Fountainhead news and the Check, Please finalist announcement – with your work at the restaurant, are you still hoping to land the host gig, or are you thinking that you might want to narrow your focus to just running the kitchen at Fountainhead?

CP: No, I think I’m on the same page as everyone at Fountainhead: I’m gung-ho about hosting Check, Please. In fact, it could only serve to do all of us that much better. It’s not a huge commitment, so it’s not like it’s going to take me away – it’s like 7 days of shooting, and it’s once every other week or something – it’s not a lot. It just so happens that you film like 2 or 3 episodes each time, and they wind up running those episodes all the time.

So it could only serve to heighten and elevate the awareness of what we’re doing.

It’s funny, cuz’ people will say, “Oh, now Fountainhead would never be on Check, Please.” It’s like, Fountainhead will be on Check, Please every time, because I’m there, you know?

GDB: For a while I was thinking that maybe there would be a perception that it’s not fair for a chef to run a show where the entire focus is reviewing other chefs, and would there be a conflict of interest there – but then I realized, Alpana [Singh] was with Lettuce Entertain You that whole time, and no one seemed to have much of a problem with that.

CP: Right. How is it different? You’re the master sommelier at Lettuce, what’s the difference? I think that’s what Check, Please wants – they want someone who understands the industry. They don’t want some tire salesman who doesn’t know what a mirepoix is.

GDB: My final question, and it’s actually more of a request – would you please tell me if they monkey bread is going to stay on the menu? Because that’s the one thing I order every single time I’m in there. 

CP: Okay – here’s the deal with the monkey bread. The monkey bread will stay, but it will be tweaked. Because apparently I can’t take it off the menu, but I will make it better.

I will put the Cleetus Friedman spin on the Fountainhead monkey bread, put it that way.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

No Joke: Happy Birthday to GDB!

In years to come, we’ll continue to wonder: What in the world made us release this site on April 1st, when we knew full well that the internet is always chock full of stupid pranks, intentionally-bad 24-hour site redesign, and generally unbelieveable content?

And then we’ll remember, oh yeah, beers from Stone entered Chicago on that date in 2010, which seemed like a pretty big deal, so we just focused on that. And it’s with that reminder that we say to ourselves, happy birthday, us!

We’ve amassed hundreds of posts, hundreds of thousands of pageviews and plenty of attention, both negative and positive, from brewers, distributors, legislators, lawyers and more. And while that’s all well and good, we still enjoy bringing you the breaking news, reviews, perspective and information to you, the thousands of beer fans who visit us on a weekly (sometimes even daily) basis far more than anything else.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Thanks for drinking along with us through the past 36 months, and we look forward to being here for a long time to come (or at least until the beer industry swallows us whole and we’re all employed by breweries and distributors and PR firms, thus destroying any editorial independence we have whatsoever).

We’ll close with the words that kicked us off in our very first post: “a hearty cheers, Skol, Sláinte, Prost and Na zdorovje. Let’s go drink some beer.”

5 Rabbit’s Huitzi: A “Midwinter” Beer for the First Day of “Spring”

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A term like ‘Midwinter’ when it’s used to describe a beer becomes almost meaningless when winter in Chicago seems to kick in somewhere around February and sticks around through damn near into April. Half-expecting this, I held onto a bottle of 5 Rabbit’s Huitzi to pour earlier this week. Now that today is the first day to actually seem like springtime, it feels right to talk about this beer a little bit.

Pouring a lovely rose-pink and amber color, this beer tasted lightly spiced in a way that resembles the savory nutmeg-and-cinnamon aspects of a winter beer, while keeping a bright springtime sparkle with floral notes from the hibiscus and a definite finish of sharp ginger. Most ginger beers seem to just have flavors that resemble ginger candy – sweet, not too sharp – but the finish here was aggressive, like shavings of fresh ginger root. Very cool. I didn’t get a ton of the honey in here; I suspect it’s blended so well with the sugars that it just creates a nice sweet spine to hold up the other flavors.

While it’s going to be hard to unseat the awesomeness that is 5Lizard from its pedestal as my favorite thing these guys make, this beer is probably my second favorite production thus far. Moreover, if this is what the future is going to look like moving forward for this operation, after the recent speedbumps and as we move forward into the John J. Hall brewmaster era, we’re in for some good beers. And that’s good news.

If you want a chance to see what 5 Rabbit has planned for the coming summer months, they’re inviting a limited number of people to visit the “Rabbit Hutch” (there’s something Playboy-esque about that name, guys) to check out the ongoing experiments that’ll influence their Paleta series, and might even include tastes of their new “Missionario” brew. More here.

Note: This beer was provided gratis from the brewery.

Good News, Cider Fans: Vander Mill Coming To Cans This May (UPDATED)

It’s no secret we love the ciders created by Vander Mill in all their forms, especially the magically delicious Totally Roasted. So we’re pretty excited to see this posted to their Facebook page last night:

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And they look good, too.

Yep, those are cans of the Hard Apple, Blue Gold and (woohoo!) Totally Roasted, to be released around Michigan and Chicagoland in May.

Every tailgate, backyard grilling session or just stoop drinking decision just got a little bit easier. These are going to be must-haves for every cooler in Chicago.

UPDATE: We now have price points and serving sizes, courtesy Twitter.

 

Holy Crap, That’s HUGE (Literally): Lagunitas Expanding Their Already-Huge Chicago Brewery Plans

You know that brewery that Lagunitas is building here in Chicago? The one that’s going to dwarf all the other Chicago craft breweries combined? Guess what. They’re making it bigger.

We awoke this morning to this post from the everpresent Adam Nason at Beerpulse, who informs us of the announcement (via Twitter, of course) from Tony McGee that they’re expanding the planned capacity for their Chicago based brewery to add a second brewhouse and fermentation cellar. According to McGee, that means the near Southwest Side brewery will be able to produce 1.7 MILLION barrels of beer.

 

Whoa.

Per Nason, this primes Lagunitas to be the second largest craft brewery in the world (when you include their California based operations), behind Boston Brewing. If you adhere to the no-publicly-traded-beer rule laid out by Aleheads earlier this month, that means the biggest damn craft brewer around has set up shop right here in Chicago. Take that, Asheville, Grand Rapids and all of Oregon.

This is all going on in our backyards.

“The world belongs to craft brewing.”

Awesome, huh? Good Friday, indeed.

The Green Lady & Bees Knees: Pints & Bites Tasting Tag Team Tonight

We like it when good people do good things. We like the good people at The Green Lady, and we also like Chris Ferguson and his Bees Knees Food Company. Since they’ve teamed up for a little food/beverage pairing this evening, we thought we’d tell you good people what these good people are doing.

(Note: New Holland beers and sprits are on the whole pretty good as well, but since we haven’t sampled all of them in a while we defer to your particular tastes where the beverages are concerned. We damn near guarantee you could find something worth drinking at TGL, though, because we always do.)

Plus, it’s only $12. RSVP to thegreenladychicago@gmail.com to reserve space and get your hands on some fun beers, snacks and spirits. That’s less than, for example, most burgers at Kumas, and you don’t have to wait two hours in line for it.

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Southern Illinois Soda Maker “Excels” At More Than Just Pop

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We’re not going to lie: we were a little leery when we first saw that family owned, southern Illinois soda maker Excel Bottling Company was venturing into the world of beer and starting a brewery. At the time, we wondered: Just because you own a bottling line and it’s easy to start making beer, does that necessarily mean you should?

The Breese, Illinois based company was well-known for its citrus-y soda Ski. But is making good soda enough of a pedigree to make good beer? It is if you bring in the right people to do it, which is exactly what Excel did when it hired longtime homebrewer Tony Toenjes to serve as brewmaster and lured Rod Burguiere away from Stone Brewing to serve as assistant brewmaster.

A change in state law also helped jump-start Excel’s brewing operation, according to an article in the Belleville News Democrat, when the Illinois legislature pass the Craft Brewer Act in 2011.

“We’d been thinking about making beer for a long time, but had to hold on until that changed,” [owner] Bill [Meier] said. “Now, we can self-distribute, can sell it ourselves. So, we run our soda trucks, that’s how we can deliver beer, too.”

Excel brewed its first beer last fall and currently has four beers in its stable; a hefeweizen, a citrus-y pale ale, a winter ale and blonde ale – and plans for a few others.

The brewery was kind enough to supply us with samples of its beers when Meier made a recent jaunt to Chicago for some meetings in the area, and to say we were pleasantly surprised by their offerings is an understatement.

IMG_0781Excel Citra, an homage to Ski soda, is reminiscent of homemade Shandys that Ryan made a few summers ago. Our Shandy’s were made using equal parts Sam Adams Boston Lager and lemonade. The two combined for a sweet, lemony drink with a better-than-average body and a pleasant hop-bite in the finish.

We continue to argue over whether or not the name “Citra” refers to the hop variety or the aforementioned Ski; but it’s possible we could meet directly in the middle. Citra is full of bright orange and lemon flavors accented by an effervescent carbonation. We’re pretty sure you can smell the pulp of freshly squeezed orange juice and taste the acidity of a lemon with each sip. A floral hoppiness punctuates this easy drinking beer.

Excel Shoal Creek Wheat is brewed using water from a nearby creek and purports to be brewed following the German Purity Law of 1516. Frankly, if you told us this beer was brewed in Germany we wouldn’t be surprised. Giving off a nose full of banana, Nilla Wafers and heavy cream this German-style hefeweizen is an unexpected treat in a traditional, and sometimes unappreciated style. The body is creamy and hearty with notes of clove, banana, flaky buttermilk biscuit and tart lemon.

IMG_0814Excel Shoal Creek Winter Ale: same water, totally different beer. This beer was brewed with anise, nutmeg and vanilla – upping the ante on your run-of-the-mill amber ale. The nose is all raisin bread, while the body yields far more complex flavors; nutmeg, clove, orange peel, caramel, toffee and dark cherries. Call us crazy, but this might be Great Lakes Christmas Ale’s lighter little brother, with easy-drinking flavors that compare to the legendary Christmas Ale while having a lower ABV.

Excel Golden Brew, a blonde ale, has just enough going on to set itself apart from your average blonde ale with a nose of wheat toast and honey and flavors of grassy hops rounded out by hints of sweet strawberries in the finish. Crisp like a lager, it’s bready and grainy and oh-so perfect for summer.

Currently you can only find Excel’s beers in southern Illinois, most notably St. Clair and Clinton counties in Illinois and across the Mississippi River in Missouri, but maybe – just maybe – Meier’s meetings here were fruitful enough to soon bring Excel’s beers north of 80.

Let’s hope so – these beers are worth hunting down if you happen to be headed towards STL.

Cleetus Friedman Takes Over the Kitchen at Fountainhead

Really, everything you need to know is in the title, but the official press release follows. This is a perfect fit, and while we’ve always enjoyed the frites and monkey bread (and hope at least the latter remains on the menu still) the food always paled in comparison to the great beer here.

Today, that changes. You can remind yourself of how the place was on day one, with our original Fountainhead post here.

Even though it was a beer-geek destination from the day it opened, a talented new beer director and great chef definitely boosts the Fountainhead’s profile to the top tier of beer in Chicago. We can’t wait to see what Chef Friedman does with the rooftop menu, and look forward to future beer collaboration releases.

RELEASE:

CHEF CLEETUS FRIEDMAN TO HELM

THE KITCHEN AT FOUNTAINHEAD

Chicago, IL—(March 21, 2013)—Fountainhead, a well-known craft beer and whisk(e)y bar in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, is excited to announce the addition of Chef Cleetus Friedman as its new executive chef. In keeping with Chef Friedman’s focus on seasonality, he will revamp the current menu to place more emphasis on local, sustainable food. Each menu item will be designed to complement the stellar craft beer, wine, whiskey and spirits selection at Fountainhead. Chef Friedman will revamp Fountainhead’s various menus including: main floor, roof deck garden, brunch, and will aim to begin slowly rolling out these changes later this Spring. Chef Friedman will also focus on implementing other menu changes at a later date.

“Fountainhead is a perfect fit for me,” says Chef Friedman. “This is an opportunity for me to do all the things I am passionate about with food and beverage under one roof! I have been a fan and a regular customer since Fountainhead opened. I am thrilled that I will get to put my stamp on the menu and do what I do best–pair good food and good drink. Plus, I stay in Ravenswood!”

Chef Cleetus Friedman is well-known around Chicago as a chef who has worked to revolutionize the local food scene in the city. Most easily recognizable as the face and owner of the recently-closed catering company and delicatessen, City Provisions, Chef Friedman has always been and will continue to be dedicated to educating diners on what it means to be sustainable, local and healthy.

“We are thrilled to bring Chef Cleetus Friedman’s fantastic food vision to pair with our world-class beverage program,” says Aaron Zacharias, managing partner of Fountainhead. “Cleetus is everything that Fountainhead stands for. We couldn’t be happier to be working with someone who shares our manic passion for the world of food and drinks.”

Adds co-owner, Darby Putman: “We are thrilled to have Chef Friedman as part of our team and cannot wait to see what he brings to our food program. We feel it is important that we take our time with the implementation and execution of Chef Friedman’s menus so that guests and staff can have the best experience possible.”

Chef Cleetus Friedman is joining Fountainhead’s the stellar management team including front of house manager Chris Kafcas and beer director Mike Maloney. Chef Friedman’s new menu will begin to roll out at Fountainhead later this spring.

About Fountainhead:

Located at the intersection of the Ravenswood, Lincoln Square and North Center neighborhoods, Fountainhead offers an “old world” yet innovative drinking and dining experience. Fountainhead has a comprehensive yet distinctive selection of beers, wines, whiskies and spirits with special emphasis on local and regional distilleries and craft beers. Those less familiar with Fountainhead’s broad beverage menu can rely on an educated, approachable staff to make recommendations.

With décor in the form of handcrafted mahogany woodwork, seating alcove with a fireplace and a fully landscaped rooftop garden reflects a comfortable, old world theme. The unique, asymmetrical bar creates seating areas with individual ambiences. Fountainhead’s Barrel Room is perfect for a small private gathering but will be available for public use when not reserved.

With co-owner/manager Aaron Zacharias of The Bar on Buena at the helm, and partners Scott Morgan, Darby Putman and Dave Putman bringing along their unique skill sets, Fountainhead is the destination for the beverage aficionado on the prowl for their favorite or rare libation, as well as for the casual customer seeking a new yet uncomplicated hangout. Join the Fountainhead mailing list here, connect on Facebook or Twitter.

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Howells & Hood: Hey, Did Anyone Mention That They Have 360 Taps?

While the rest of Chicago’s craft beer world was checking out Dryhop late last week, my curiosity drew me over to Michigan Avenue to check out Howells & Hood, the oft-discussed restaurant and bar from Bottleneck Management with 360 – again, yes, that’s three hundred and sixty – draft lines. And when I walked in, I expected to leave with my cynicism intact. How could anyone maintain that much freaking beer in one place?

After seeing it…I think they might just pull it off.

A pretty terrible picture of a few dozen of H&H's many, many draft handles.

A pretty terrible picture of a few dozen of H&H’s many, many draft handles.

First, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the pure balls of it: Dropping a craft beer-centric restaurant right in the heart of Michigan Avenue in one of the city’s most recognizable buildings in Chicago (and one of my personal favorites – I consider it akin to our Buckingham Palace) and offering more tap handles than arguably any other place in the world takes some serious stones. So credit where credit is due.

It takes a large space to fit those stones, and this place has square footage to spare: the patio can fit upwards of 400, and the interior can fit another 400 between two different dining rooms, meaning there’s plenty of seats to put beer in front of.

The 120 taps are nearly entirely craft brew: Yes, there are handles of Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light, Guinness and Pacifico, as well as familiar options like Stella Artois, but mostly those are relegated to the far ends of the bars. That was done purposefully – the lion’s share of the attention is naturally drawn to the other hundred-plus craft beers available on draft.

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That’s the tiny section of the multi-page beer list focusing on “North America’s Lighter Lagers.” BMC and Pacifico are represented, and that’s it. No MGD and MGD Light, no Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. That was quite heartening to see. And when we say “on draft,” it means just that – the only bottles we saw held liquor, so if you want a beer, you’re going to get it poured from a keg, which I can respect.

Which leads to our next question, asked of me about a dozen times the afternoon before I headed to Boul Mich to check this place out. “What about the kegs? How many kegs will they have? How can they keep all those beers on draft? That’s too many kegs! I don’t know how they can do it.”

This is how:

That's a lot of kegs.

That’s a lot of kegs.

That’s a good 360 half-barrels and eighth-barrels, all lined up in a pretty little row, ready to pour out of 360 tap handles. When I asked how they planned to handle turnover and keep track of all these many, many barrels of beer, they were quite honest: They didn’t know just yet. But considering what I learned just a few minutes earlier – that another Bottleneck property, the Draft Mag-praised Old Town Pour House, has 90 unique beers on (what I believe are) over 100 taps of their own – I think they’ll be able to figure it out.

We always considered Old Town Pour House a little pricey, but considering that you’re drinking on some very expensive real estate those similarly-priced beers at Howells are more in line with what we were expecting. Still, order intelligently: Looking at the current list, you probably don’t need to pay $12 for a Kwak or $8 for a Finch’s Threadless IPA, but $6 for a Lagunitas New Dogtown or a Daisy Cutter is a fair ask, and considering the higher ABV, $6 for an Old Rasputin seems downright fair.

As far as location goes, who wouldn’t want to have a few beers on the patio in the summer with this as their backdrop?

Howells11 Howells10Bottom line: A media pre-opening when everything is shiny and new is one thing. Where they are in six months will reveal a little bit more about what the market is willing to support. If they still have 114 different brews available, great. If downtown business-lunch accounts and tourist wallets demand Old Style and Old Style Light on hand, well, that’ll be disappointing.

But we’ll see, won’t we? We’ve already set a calendar reminder for a post-summer revisit. Time will tell.

Eater Chicago and Chicagoist Talk to Rick Bayless About Beer (Among Other Things)

Chef Rick Bayless is on a press offensive, it seems, with interviews posted on Eater Chicago and Chicagoist today.

Eater’s interview today with Chef Bayless covers the River North neighborhood, mislabeled seafood, Sargento and a few other topics, but most notably for our readers is the amount of time they spend discussing Bayless’ plans to create a craft beer with Crown Imports.

You’ll recall that that announcement wasn’t met with unanimously positive response. Bayless addresses that directly in this exchange:

[Eater:] As I’m sure you know, there are a couple people that weren’t so happy that you didn’t partner with a craft brewery with this.

[Bayless:] We already had partnered with a craft brewery. I thought that was a pretty senseless and silly thing to say. I mean can’t they do their research before? I hate that people were not even willing to think about that. They had no idea—no one even called me to ask me how we were planning on doing it. After all of this, you are the first person I’ve even talked to about this project. The first person. All they had to do was call me and say “tell me about this project that we are hearing about,” but instead they chose to pass judgment on something that they had done zero research on. But unfortunately that’s the nature of Internet journalism these days. You can say anything you want and you don’t have an editor you can just throw it all out there.

For whatever it’s worth, you’ll note that in our original post we make mention of not just Marisol, Bayless’ Goose Island collaboration, but also the response to his partnership with Burger King, both of which were directly relevant to that discussion. Even when Eater National posted about this, they wrote, “Can a beer be a craft beer if it’s distributed by the same people who are behind Corona?”

Without knowing which outlet Bayless is referring to, I’m certainly not assuming Chef Bayless has any idea who we are – in fact, I’m guessing it’s a reference to Grubstreet or Chicagoist – but it’s worth mentioning simply to note that some ‘internet journalism’ does occasionally provide context.

Interestingly enough, just a few moments before discussing the plans to partner with Crown, he seemingly takes a shot at his former Goose Island partners, saying:

So we are going to play around with that idea and start playing around with beer and really make a gorgeous craft beer. Then they would like to scale it up to be distributed nationally, sort of like what the people at Goose Island were originally interested in doing before they completely sold out to Anheuser-Busch.

Impossible to tell how a phrase like “completely sold out to Anheuser-Busch” was used without inflection or other cues, but do you get to call Goose Island a sellout for their AB partnership while working with similarly-huge beer importer Crown? You decide. Worth mentioning here as well are the words from Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting, who left this comment on our previous post:

I understand the sentiment, but for someone like Bayless, who likely wants to distribute his beer nationwide, he simply can’t get the scale, partnerships and consistency he’d need from a young craft brewer yet. Someday certainly. But I’m still opening bottles of Chicago craft brew that have issues often enough that someone like Bayless would not be able to provide the product he wants as consistently as he’d need to. Also, his choice to go with a major Mexican brewery feels just as authentic to his brand and point of view as going with a Chicago brewer. He’s trying to extend his reach and influence through beer, not further the specific cause of Chicago craft brewers.

To summarize there, Bayless likely doesn’t get out of bed for less than a nationwide partnership these days. A young, growing brewery like 5Rabbit or Spiteful just can’t generate the volume that a chef of his profile needs.

Anyways, both posts are definitely worth a read, as the Eater discussion about beer is fairly detailed. We’re encouraged to read that Chef Bayless is interested in his own brewing operations –a market-style Bayless brewpub with tacos and craft Mexican-style beer would be a license to print money (not that he probably wants for that subject too much). Were something like that to come down the pipe in River North, the potential for opening new people up to craft beer would be spectacular.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes from the Crown/Bayless partnership. As always, drink the beer first before passing any judgement.