The GDB Q&A: Michael McAvena, Publican Beer Director

In Makers by Karl

It was during a recent Publican brunch that I looked around at dozens of people drinking fancy beer at noon on a Saturday that I thought, “For as long as this place is around, it’s been focused on craft beer, and yet no one seems to talk about them as much as other places.” And it’s true.

For as much as beer guys like myself casually throw around destinations like the Map Room, Quenchers, Local Option, Bad Apple, the Rev Brew and Goose Island locations along with all the other places that have become the knee-jerk suggestions for beer drinking, Publican has been doing it for nearly 5 years now, which should place them somewhere in the city’s craft beer firmament, right?

Is it sidelined because it’s associated with an even-more famous Chicago chef, Paul Kahan? Is it because it’s on West Fulton Market, a restaurant-centric area and not a drinking destination? Is it because Publican spawned a meat market first and not, say, a craft beer store? For whatever reason, as we approach the 5th anniversary of Publican’s opening (opened October 2008) we wanted to try to rectify that.

Michael McAvena has been leading the charge for Publican’s beer program since the very beginning. Since starting their efforts in 2008, he’s had a unique perspective on how the role of a beer director has changed, and also how the city (and beyond) have grown up as beer consumers.

This is exactly what you’d expect a top-line beer director’s head shot to look like. Credit: Huge Galdones

So what’s coming up next for the Publican? What’s behind that Three Floyds visit video Chef Kahan posted to Twitter a while back? How important is “local” anyways? All that and more, here:

Guys Drinking Beer: You’ve been in your position for as long as Publican has been opened. When the restaurant opened you were described as “beer sommellier” which I think some people might have thought you were being…maybe a little “cute” with that? In 2008 no one was really thinking of beer as anything that needed a director, so you guys seemed to be on the cutting edge where that was considered.

Now that people are familiar with things like “Cicerone” and “BJCP” and other high-end beer programs, how has that evolved, and changed?

Michael McAvena: Well, you know, maybe just in conversation we would say “beer sommellier” but I think we quickly changed that to be “beer director.” That’s what’s on my business cards. In the first year there wasn’t that much awareness of the Cicerone Program. I mean, I was cognizant of it, but it wasn’t something that we were really pushing in the restaurant.

But within that year, I got involved and I went through the courses and did the Certified Beer Server and [then] got my Cicerone certification. So it’s become of, like, grotesque importance to us. All our staff has the first level of beer certification, they all go through a six week course with me which basically prepares them to do the Cicerone certification, but we really just ask that they take the first level.

We also pay for it for them, so we’re super, super serious about that. And that actually goes for our whole company, One Off Hospitality — anyone at Blackbird, Avec, Big Star, Publican, PQM, Violet Hour — anyone has the opportunity to take these classes.

GDB: Which probably explains why I’ve your staff occasionally wears t-shirts emblazoned with “Cicerone” on the back.

MM: Yeah, during brunch and during certain events they’re allowed to wear those shirts. And even if they’re in the cocktail section. We make those shirts and they’re not co-branded but they’re totally authorized by Ray [Daniels, creator of the Cicerone certification] and the program.

GDB: When you started, we were also nowhere near the kind of world we’re living in now when it comes to the Chicago beer scene. How has the consumer changed in the last five years? When it started, I imagine you were explaining what an IPA was, and now people are probably coming in asking why you don’t have a 100 IBU IPA on the list.

MM: You’re totally right — it’s become totally crazy.

When we first opened the restaurant, it was so new and there wasn’t really a restaurant in Chicago, or the Midwest, or maybe even the United States, that was doing food at this level and putting it against beer being the beverage that was on the table. So a lot of people that came were diverse — there were some people who knew Paul Kahan, our chef, and knew his quality and caliber and came to the restaurant for food.

And it just so happened that the main thing we were offering was beer, and it was new to them, and they had a lot of questions, and were inquisitive and sometimes we met with reluctance. But we educated them.

And then we had some people who were totally just beer people, and who were not in for maybe the food, but it was a happy “plus” for them. Now it’s totally integrated.

I mean, we have people who — I never personally use the word “foodie” to describe someone, but people who would maybe call themselves “foodies“…they come to the restaurant, they know me, they say “Hey, man, I just had this crazy beer in California, do you know it, can you get it, have you had it? I was at this beer fest in Minnesota for Surly, I love the Surly Darkness, what’s your favorite vintage…” It’s crazy.

So we’re in a place where we know a lot of our guests even if it’s people who are traveling all over the country and it just so happens when they stop in Chicago they come see us — they’re super educated. They know the most popular beer in the market that just came out three weeks ago and they want to make sure they can get it at the Publican.

[Before,] people would never come into the restaurant and say, “What do you have that’s not on the menu?” And now that happens all the time. So I try to keep things in stock that are very special for specific people. I’ve even gone into buying special beers in the hopes that these people will come back, and I know that those will please them.

GDB: It sounds like it’s gone from just showing people what cool beers are, to having a smarter consumer that’s sort of forced you to step up your game.

MM: Totally! Absolutely. And you can’t get away with things that maybe you could have in the beginning. And that goes across the board for some breweries, and distributors, and everything.

I mean, the level of execution is way higher across the board — and expectations. So, I mean, if someone’s shipping me beer that I taste in the bottle and it’s good, and then I get it on draft and it’s bunk on draft, that’s not gonna be poured on my draft lines.

And that’s happening abroad in this city as well — the level of the education of the buyers is way higher in the past couple years. To the point sometimes where it’s almost obnoxious [laughs].

GDB: You guys have I believe, 12 draft lines?

MM: Right, we have 12 drafts, and then we pour 1 blended beer that I’ve been doing for a while out of a corny [keg] in the walk-in.

GDB: Now that we live in a world where a Howells & Hood exists…do you feel like you struggle to curate your 12 handles? Is it hard to find the right 12 to put on?

MM: Michael Roper of Hopleaf and I have discussed this, and quite a few other people, like Phil from SmallBar — the draft lines in the city are not infinite. They’re limited.

And for [the] quality of the beer that’s out there is so high — this will kind of maybe talk to that other question, too. There’s supposedly 72 new breweries that will open up in [the] Chicagoland area this year. So the lines — again, there’s not an infinite amount, so what’s gonna happen?

The level of the education of the buyers is way higher in the past couple years. To the point sometimes where it’s almost obnoxious.Michael McAvena

I hope that people will stick to their guns and stay with quality products, and are not just sacrificing because something is “local.” Local is important to me, but quality is most important to me. I’m always open to putting new stuff on, I’m always open to tasting and talking with people, but really at the end of the day, it’s about making sure that the list makes sense, that I have options for people and that I’m serving the highest quality product that I can get.

GDB: Would you want to add more lines if you could?

MM: Always. You know, I would, but at the same time, when we first opened, we had so many bottles on the menu. Like, SO many. And the way our building is designed, our cooler space just wouldn’t fit it.

So after all this time, we’ve figured out the best strategies for getting kegs up and down and bottles up and down and making sure our facility is functional. So we’re at a sweet spot where we’re like, “Well, this is as many products as we can have, and have peoples lives be…decent.” [laughs]

I would love to have a bigger space, and I’d love to have more lines, but I do also enjoy having to work hard to make sure that the list is focused and curated and can give love to people that deserve it.

I love to occasionally take risks with new breweries and new people if they come in and they’re really passionate and they have a couple good products — you know, I’ll pop ’em on and if it’s something that either the staff loves or the patrons love, we’ll make sure they get into the rotation.

GDB: Speaking of that, that’s a question that I’ve had from way back — I’ve been visiting you guys for years now, and I was wondering if your focus of what you put on has changed in the past 5 years?

In 2008 the be-all and end-all was Belgian everything, but now things have changed so much that’s probably affected what you put on as well. Is it driven by the food or the menu, or do you just put on what you like and you go from there?

MM: It’s a blend of both. My first priority, and I think the cooks would say the same thing, is like — even if we’re thinking about each other, meaning food thinking about beer and beer thinking about food, the most important thing is a delicious product. Then you can figure out how to make them work well together.

Obviously, certain beers work well with food, they play better at the table than others. But, you know — for instance, some of the Double IPA’s like that Founders or Three Floyds are making are unbelievably beautiful beers. They’re machismo, they’re big, they’re brash, and they’re so effing good — and I don’t really think they need to be with food. But I definitely want to have those and showcase them.

Whereas a Flemish Sour that’s got cool vinegar notes but has good lactic acidity, and has some sweetness but cool fruitiness and caramelization [is] totally great to throw with our charcuterie.

In the beginning, with all the Belgian stuff — we really did have a lot of Belgian stuff because I think that’s what people were really geeked about. But I wanted to make sure we had a lot of different categories, like baltic porters covered. We did have pilsners, or helles or kolsch, or something refreshing to anchor, we had the IPAs.

But there was a lot more focus on Belgian stuff, but not so much…sour stuff. Nowadays, I have to have something sour on, because either my staff will kill me, or my patrons will kill me. It’s insane.

GDB: That goes back to the idea that sours are “the new big thing”…

MM: Totally.

GDB: Some people can’t get beers that are sour enough, others want things that are more tart, and how do you weave that in…

MM: And you know, I’ve always tried to be someone who’s critical and cognizant of those trends. One time I was sitting down and talking about the movement in hoppy beer, and what that was. And now that sours are the new thing, someone said that, quote-unquote, “sour is the new hoppy.”

And it’s like, okay, great. That’s where we’re at. But at the same time, there were points where people were kind of haphazardly making beers that were so bitter and palate crushing, that it wasn’t really that pleasant. And people were trying to drink sour beers that were so acrid, and so unbalanced that they’re not pleasant. And even the people who make those style [of] beers, the ardent traditionalists, their beers should still be pleasant, and they’ll say it. You know?

Nowadays, I have to have something sour on, because either my staff will kill me, or my patrons will kill me. It’s insane.

Here’s a story — back in the day, and I believe you’ve maybe experienced this – you go to Binny’s and you get a fruit Cantillon. Whether that’s Rose de Gambrinus, or Kriek, or whatever. And the label on the back says something like, “this beer is not meant to be aged, you should be drinking it fresh,” but there’s a vintage date on the front. And most of the time, those beers were like, four years old because they were expensive, and no one really sold them.

But the young consumer would drink that beer because they thought, okay, well this is from a cool brewery or whatever, and they’d go “Oh my god, this is so tart, it’s so sour and it’s so intense, I love it, I want it to tear my face apart!”

But now with the popularity of these beers, they’re coming over this year, these fruit beers, so they’ve still got a lot of beautiful fruitiness to them and yet they’re still tart…and that’s how they’re supposed to be!

Balanced, and beautiful, and nuanced, and not, “rip your face off” taste like bile.

Credit: Bob Briskey Photography

GDB: Do people come in and try to “out beer guy” you?

MM: All the time. There’s only been a couple times where it’s been, like, ugly. And I’ll always yield and…kill ’em with kindness.

GDB: Yeah, like, “alright, you win, bro.”

MM: Yeah, like “no problem, boss.” And if I want to be a little sneaky or underhanded I might bring them something…like people will come in and they’ll know that I can’t legally carry.

GDB: Like Russian River or something.

MM: Yeah, [like they’ll say] “Russian River totally blew me away,” and I’m like, “Well…I might or might not have that. I don’t know.”

And I’ll go somewhere else and…I’ll “look.”

GDB: I know we’re probably both sick to death of the “what’s your favorite beer” question, but I do like to ask about a preferred style or where you’re at in terms of what you prefer to drink.

MM: Maybe this is indicative of a lot of people, but I didn’t grow up in a beer-drinking family. They drank wine, and not particularly good wine, but they were like “beer is pisswater” because all they knew was macro lager. And I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy macro lager when in college —

GDB: [laughs] Yeah, everybody goes through that.

MM: Totally! And then you start drinking things that are as dark as possible, as hoppy as possible, and then you go on your journey and you get sour stuff and really strong beers. And then you start turning back around to beers that you can actually drink a lot of – that are sessionable.

So I really, really appreciate an excellently executed lager. Like a pils, a german-style pils, or a kolsch…probably my favorite is a well executed style pils. We recently made one with Solemn Oath – it’s even an adjunct lager, it even had rice in it. [Ed. note: We’ve written about adjuncts not necessarily being a bad thing here.] And I think it’s one of my favorite collaboration beers I’ve ever made – it’s rock solid. It’s 4.3% alcohol, they did a perfect fermentation regiment, it’s clean – just exactly how it’s supposed to be. And that shows me how good a brewer you are – how technical you can be.

Obviously there’s nothing you can hide behind – it’s white bread. So that would probably be my first…if I was able to get a brewery to continually make that I’d buy [it] all the time. I’d love a well executed pils, followed closely behind something like — do you know Kipling from [Hill] Farmstead? It’s a Nelson Sauvin pale ale, but no caramel malts — just completely blond, super refreshing, really, really beautiful stuff.

Personally, what I like to drink is low ABV thirst-quenching refreshing stuff that you can take in large quantities. That’s pretty much me.

The house-blended Lambic Doux in traditional stone pitcher.

GDB: What can you tell me about your project with the Three Floyds guys? A while back I saw Chef Kahan post a video to Twitter when you all were out there; I saw some barrels with some names on them but that’s about all I could get out of it. Is there a master plan you can talk about?

MM: Yeah, it’s going to be super cool. About a year ago now, some of the guys from Big Star went down to Louisville to select some bourbon barrels, and they took Lincoln Anderson, who was the Three Floyds rep at the time.

And they were hanging out and they said “Hey, we should do a One Off Hospitality project.” And Lincoln was like, “totally.”

So we made the decision that every restaurant would take it, blend it, spice it, and whatever, then age it in these different bourbon barrels. I mean, we’ve got Elijah Craig, Heaven Hill, Templeton, all this different stuff.

Then we’ll do a dinner like, approximately a year out from it based on all these beers. It’s a small amount — it’s 55 gallons per product, so it’s gonna be pretty limited, but the beers that everyone has done are very unique and unlike anything most people have ever had. Publican’s beer of course is the best. [laughs]

GDB: Are you going to bring everyone to one place, and it’ll be the Big Star chef cooking the Big Star dish paired with the Big Star beers and so on…is all that going to be at Publican?

MM: Right now the plan is that all this will be in Publican. David Posey will be there cooking for Blackbird, the new guy is gonna be at Avec, Avec has one. Paul actually has his own…his is pretty interesting. He’s going to have to do a little work to make his perfect, but he’ll be able to do it. It’ll be really neat.

Like, we’re able to — we tasted them and we’re able to blend them afterwards — it’s really cool. Like ours, I’m really stoked. It was good, straight up. All they need to do is run it through a super-coarse filter and carbonate it and we’re done.

GDB: Final question – I know you’re a homebrewer, and a couple weeks ago, we saw that a couple guys from Alinea are planning to open a brewpub. Anything like that in your future? Any desire, any hopes, plans, anything at all?

MM: Um…well, I can tell you that there’s lots of hopes…and, um…I’m gonna say that maybe beer is in our future.

GDB: That’s putting it very…gently.

MM: I can’t really say anything more than that…but have faith.

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About the Author



Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago, AskMen and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, is now available via Amazon and other booksellers.If you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.

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