PREFACE: In 2016 (or so), I spoke with Michael Roper, proprietor of the Hopleaf Bar, for a Q&A to include in my book Beer Lover’s Chicago. Since the Hopleaf is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, I thought it’d be a good time to finally share this with the public as it’s a great look back on where “better beer” was in the 90’s and 2000’s. (It’s also a little dated, with a few references to things that no longer exist in Chicago. All part of the fun.)
Below you’ll find the full intro writeup from the book, plus our entire conversation. Please enjoy, then head to the Hopleaf for a CB&J and a Kwak to celebrate with them.
For years, “Chicago beer” basically was just a synonym for Old Style. It’s not just breweries that change people’s minds about things like that, though — it’s the places that we discover them as well. I first wandered into the Hopleaf in the mid-2000s and immediately fell in love with the place. It’s a love letter to the talented individuals making the greatest beers in the world, from here to Belgium and back again.
Michael Roper has been at the helm of Hopleaf since opening its doors in 1992, a time when Zima still ran rampant. The nation’s most famous bar, Cheers, was still a year away from ending its run on NBC. And beer from craft breweries — then just “microbreweries” — just crossed sales of 1 million barrels a year.
You wouldn’t expect a beer bar focused on obscure European imports and experimental breweries from Michigan and California (and one or two from Chicago) to make it. But Hopleaf did. Michael Roper sat down with me to talk about what things were like in the world of beer at the start, and what has made it change so dramatically since then.
Karl: Talk to me about the first time you walked into the space that would become the Hopleaf. What it was like?
Michael: This was an old man bar. Chicago used to have a lot of these liquor store-slash-taprooms. There are not very many of them left but this was one of them. You could buy package goods, you could buy a six-pack of tallboys of Old Style, and then you could also sit down at the counter and have a beer. That’s what this place was like.
It was not pretty. it was mostly like old Swedish guys, a lot of gambling, there were three poker machines, there was a craps game almost all the time. They had a tv built into the back wall where they showed porno movies. There were virtually no women in here.
Karl: It sounds almost like a private club.
Michael: They had a buzzer on the door at night. It was because they didn’t want blacks and Hispanics in. If you rang the bell and they put your face up in the little window and you were white they buzzed you in, if you weren’t they didn’t buzz you in. That was a very common thing. They had covered all the windows so you couldn’t see in.
They had two draft lines, Old Style and Special Export. They weren’t even aware that there was any kind of other things going on in the beer world. It was not a place that anyone would look at and think it had any potential at all. I actually had looked at it the year before it was on the market. It was so ugly and was not doing any business.
This neighborhood in 1991 was not a happening neighborhood. It was not a neighborhood that anyone was coming to for anything like what we were wanting to offer. People said when I was considering it, “God, that’s awfully far North.” Lakeview, Lincoln Park, at that time Bucktown, and Wicker Park were still kind of gang-infested. There wasn’t much happening.
Someone else did buy this place. In the meantime I had looked at some places in other neighborhoods, I had talked to some aldermen who didn’t really want what we wanted to do here. We had looked at a couple of places and gone as far as having architectural drawings made and then going to the aldermen and saying “I don’t really want another bar in my neighborhood. My constituents don’t want any more bars.” So we didn’t do that.
After a year this place came on the market again. The guy that bought it completely failed. He was doing even worse business than the old Swede. It had the advantage [that] it was turnkey. The license was incorporated. It’s very very important in Illinois that the license does not have a person’s name on it. If on the licenses it has a corporation, that means that you can take it over just by doing a change of corporate officers so that there’s consistent ownership.
Karl: You knew that you always wanted to do something that offered an elevated beer experience. Is that because no one was doing it at the time, or was that because this is always been something that you gravitated to?
Michael: I had worked in music venues and owned a bar that had live music and I knew that I didn’t really want to do that anymore. I was familiar with a couple of other places that were doing kind of this concept.
Karl: Here in Chicago?
Michael: I came out of Detroit. I wanted to do the food thing and I wanted the food thing to lean toward Belgian stuff. There was a bar in the east side of Detroit near where I grew up that was the oldest Belgian bar in America; they’d been open since 1919. They had mussels and frites, I thought it was a really great atmosphere, I liked everything about it. [Ed note: I think that he’s referring to Cadieux Cafe.] The problem with this place was that it was so small because we just got that first bar open at first.
I rented from a landlord and my hope was that eventually I could buy the building and make my real concept happen. It was a leap of faith because what if she never sold to me? What if she sold to somebody else? As it turned out, in 2000 she did sell me the building, and I was able to do the food and sort of realize my concept. The first few years we were just a beer bar, no food. We sold bags of peanuts and stuff like that.
Karl: Who was around in the early to mid-90s? If someone magically went back in time and needed a really good beer in Chicago they would’ve come to you or they would go where else?
Michael: Sheffield’s always had a really good beer list and they predated us by about five years. There was Quenchers which also been around for about five years longer. They had a different concept than me. They wanted to have the most beers from the most countries, which doesn’t really make sense because they have beers from Vietnam and the Philippines …
Karl: They’re all kind of the same.
Michael: They’re not good beers, they’re terrible beers. They just happen to be from someplace else. Some people say, “I went on vacation to Costa Rica and I had this fantastic beer, do you have it?” I say, “No.” I know the beers of Costa Rica. They’re not very good, but [if] you’re on a beach in Costa Rica, it’s beautiful, of course [it] tastes great — but it really doesn’t have anything to do with the beer. By the time you buy it here, it’s old and it’s not going to bring that back to you; you’re still in Chicago.
There was a place out in Berwyn that had a huge selection of bottled beers. A couple of other places, The Ginger Man near Wrigley Field, they also had a very good selection of beer. You have to understand, a very good selection of beer then is not like a very good selection of beer now.
Karl: Back then, a good selection might be like, a dozen.
Michael: Not all beer was that great. You had a lot of imported beer that now we would think is not special at all. Is Bass, Harp, Newcastle, Staropramen, Heineken, Becks — are those special? No, they’re not very good beers at all. At that time they were kind of special.
We did have some local breweries then that have fallen by the wayside. We had Chicago Brewing Company, they made Big Shoulders Porter and they had a lager, which was pretty good. We had Golden Prairie and they actually had some very good beer; they were run very poorly. The original Baderbräu, which was a far cry from any of the other people who’ve used that name since then. We had River West Brewing Company. They were short-lived. We also carried some craft from other cities that don’t exist anymore.
We have a neon in our window for New Amsterdam Brewing Company from upstate New York, a microbrewery that doesn’t exist anymore. There was a Cincinnati brewery called Duesseldorfer, long gone. If you looked at our beer list back then you would see a lot of names that you don’t recognize. They don’t exist anymore.
Karl: Do you still have some of those lists hanging around? Like a Hopleaf archive?
Michael: I do have a list of old menus someplace. I did save a lot of stuff. I have photographs of the old blackboard. It’s very interesting to see where we were at then as to where we are now.
Karl: When you opened up probably still served a few macro beers, too.
Karl: No, never?
Michael: When we first opened we were actually running the place as it was before and we morphed into [this]. We took over in February of 1992 — that bar was not recognizable as to what it is now ‘til November. Then we actually didn’t have our official grand opening until a year after we took over. So February 28th, 1993 was the official grand opening although we had been open for a year.
What I did is that pretty much every couple of weeks [we] got rid of one of those [Bud and Miller] brands … we used to keep a dollar beer, we had Huber in long neck returnables. That was the last thing that we kept for the few old-timers that still came here from the old days. At a certain point pretty early on, it wasn’t relevant.
Karl: You were starting to find your people.
Michael: We found our people really quickly. There weren’t that many holdovers. Most of the holdovers didn’t really like us because we didn’t allow gambling anymore, we took the porno movies away, we took the poker machines away, we put windows in.
Karl: All they could do was smoke cigarettes and drink beer.
Michael: Also these guys, for a long time felt very comfortable using language and racial epitaphs that we found offensive. I had to go and talk to these guys and say “I can’t change the way you feel but we welcome all kinds of people here so you can’t use that kind of language.” and some of those people say, “Fuck you.” We did get rid of that stuff pretty quickly.
Karl: So in the beginning you were getting rid of the mainstream stuff; was there ever any push back from distributors saying “I’m not going to get you the fancy stuff if you don’t have a handle of Budweiser here” or anything like that? Because I’m guessing your options for getting those beers were pretty slim.
Michael: They were slim. Frankly, they were happy to find someone that wanted some of this stuff. They were having trouble selling it. They’d taken on these, what they thought were obscure imports or some of these American microbreweries and were like, “Oh my god, well at least Hopleaf will take them.” Because they weren’t selling. And that was our advantage.
The most important beer for us in the early days, the one that actually kept our doors open, the one that distinguished us was Bell’s. It was a cult beer in Chicago. They didn’t really come into Chicago with any presence until 1992. At that time there were a lot of, like me, a lot of Detroit diaspora, people who left Detroit because it was such a terrible mess, and other Michigan people who had come here from Flint and Saginaw and Port Huron and all the other cities that were kind of in a tailspin.
Those people really were loyal to Bell’s. Bell’s also caught on with a very small group of homebrewers and beer fans that really recognized that this beer was not like any of the other microbreweries that we had. It was something special. Bars that had Bell’s became kind of like …
Karl: A beacon in the night, almost, right?
Michael: We were kind of desperate to find people to come way up here, and I talked to Larry Bell and I said “You guys don’t have a neon do you?” [He says] “We don’t have a neon.” I said, “Would you mind if I scanned your logo and I made a neon?” [He says] “No, it’d be great!” So I did.
We put that thing in the window and people were going on the Clark street bus between from downtown, on their way to Rogers Park, or going through this dead zone where they never even looked out the window and they saw this Bell’s neon. And they just got off the bus and came in. It was really that dramatic.
Having Bell’s was so unusual. At that time Bell’s Amber, Kalamazoo Stout, Porter — those early brands for them and Solsun, which later became Oberon, were huge draws to have them on draft.
Karl: Did you find that to be at odds at all with your intention of opening a Belgian-focused place?
Michael: Not so much because there really wasn’t much Belgian beer available on draft. The first Belgian beer we had on draft was Grimbergen. That was because Grimbergen’s national importer was some little company out in Wheaton. That was the first brand that we had available on draft.
Later on there were things like Hoegaarden and Leffe, but in the early days, Grimbergen was it. If we were going to have a draft beer it was not going to be Belgian. We did have a little selection of Belgian beers in bottles. At that time, Duvel, Chimay was pretty new in the country then, Westmalle had been around a while. We actually had Westvleteren which is now probably the ultimate …
Karl: The white whale of white whales. The “best beer in the world.”
Michael: Yes. It was available then. Hardly anybody carried it because it was so expensive. They were under the moniker of Saint Sixtus. They were readily available. They were imported through a wine importer. We carried those things, but it really was Bell’s that kept our doors open and made us a destination for people looking for better, more interesting beers.
Then there was that first wave of survivors that we would get …
Karl: Survivors, as in, the little bubble of 1990’s shops that we called microbreweries.
Michael: Because I mentioned all those other breweries from Chicago, Goose Island was the survivor because John Hall was a good businessman. The problem with like, Chicago Brewing Company, the Dinehart brothers they were actually pretty talented brewers, their grandparents owned a brewery in Germany. They had beer in their blood. They lived in this neighborhood but they were not very good business people and they were a little too ahead of their time.
They had some of the same problems that all the craft brewers at that time had, including Bell’s; having a hard time with consistency. A lot of them were using re-purposed dairy equipment. They were having plumbers come in and connect different parts of the brewery with the type of tubing that was very hard to clean. They also were cleaning their own kegs just using a steam wand that they put in.
Bell’s had a lot of problems with infected kegs. The beer came out of the brewery perfect and then went into these kegs that weren’t cleaned properly and then it would spoil because it was unpasteurized. A lot of the beer delivery companies at that time did not refrigerate their warehouses, and beer would typically come to a lot of bars and they put full kegs in the gangways between the buildings. At least we did have a walk-in cooler, the beer was always cold when it got here. We sent a lot of kegs of those back. They were really spoiled. We had the same problem with Sprecher.
Some of the first beers that solved those problems … Anchor really solved them. Fritz Maytag was a maniac about cleanliness and sanitation and he also flash-pasteurized which everybody else thought was the great sin but it meant that his beer was able to travel across the country and get here in good shape. Sierra Nevada solved some of its early problems and became very dependable.
A bottle or a keg of Sierra Nevada pale ale was always perfect and it was an established gold standard for American pale ale. Still is, in my opinion. Anybody that continuously passes those Sierra Nevada pale ale bottles in the store looking for a better American pale ale, good luck with that. It’s really a great beer. We put those beers on and they were more consistently good.
Karl: Then things sort of tailed off again at the end of the 90s and into the beginning of the 2000s.
Michael: A lot of breweries started going under because they were run by old hippies [and] passionate homebrewers who were not good business people. There was a big shakeout and the only thing is that they had still won a very small portion of the beer consumer market. At best in the mid-90s, two or three percent of people were choosing these beers. The big beer companies didn’t seem to have much to worry about.
Karl: I’m sure they weren’t even on their radar.
Michael: The big beer companies had new brands like Miller Genuine Draft, Bud Light, Bud Dry … and there were new imports coming in. It was slowly growing but not a very big part of the total beer scene. There weren’t that many bars that really felt like they were ready to buy into it. A lot of bars, sales guys would go in and they’d say, “I’ve got this Bell’s beer from Kalamazoo, it’s really cool!” and they’d say “Well, how much is it?” and they’d say “It’s $27 a case.” and they’d “$27 a case! Jesus Christ, who’s going to buy that beer?”
Because at that time they were buying Bud or Miller for eleven bucks a case. You’re telling them to sell this beer that’s twice as much money that they’ve never heard of. A lot of people were not buying it. I should mention that some of the success of Bell’s and some of these other brands has a lot to do with certain salespeople that were on the street, really evangelized for them.
Karl: Larry Bell is from here too, right? He would probably be a bit of a presence.
Michael: He was around, but there was a guy John Barabas and Terry Whiteside. They went out there and they evangelized. They were selling salvation.
Karl: Were these guys brewery reps or were they with the distributors?
Michael: They were with the distributor. They had big portfolios but they themselves drank this beer and recognized these few breweries are doing something very different. At that time a lot of these beers were distributed by either Union Liquors or Pacific Wine and Spirits. They were going out and putting their reputations on the line and really pushing it, giving away free samples to the owners and saying, “Really drink this.”
They made believers. It is the same today if you don’t have some feet on the streets, but if you get the right person, someone that people know and trust, that really invests in your brand and your concept you can succeed.
At that time was much tougher because lots of bars wanted nothing to do with this stuff, especially on draft because the Bud distributor and the Miller distributor would say “You want to have five draft lines?” Five or six draft lines were a lot. Miller could say “Put Miller Lite on, put High Life on, and then we have Pilsner Urquell, we’ve got Bass, we’ve got Harp, we’ve got Guinness.”
Karl: It’s one-stop shopping.
Michael: They could give you everything. If you did that, even though it wasn’t legal, maybe they’d buy a new beer cooler, maybe they’d put a new draft system in, all kinds of stuff that they would do, that wasn’t strictly legal but the little guys couldn’t do that. Obviously, Sierra Nevada wasn’t going to come buy you a new beer cooler to put their brand on.
I should say that another thing is that, at that time any of the buyers that were vested in better beer still hadn’t really got the message about draft system maintenance. What we had in here I would be embarrassed to … I’m glad we didn’t take pictures of our basement back then because … people use to put in their draft systems and where did they get their tubing, they go to the hardware store.
They buy this generic vinyl tubing and all of the shanks and stuff like that were either made of brass or chrome-plated brass where the chrome always ended up chipping off and the exposure to the brass is not good. Yes, the state did require that you clean your lines, but you had these guys coming around and they’d like, run some hot water down the line. It really wasn’t great.
The faucets were also mostly brass. Very very few buyers had Glycol systems so at best you had a little fan that moved cold air from the cooler up the trunk but what if that was twenty feet away? The beer in the lines was always warm overnight and festering with bacteria. Draft beer was really not very good. If you poured a lot of something maybe you could keep the bad stuff from happening in the lines, and we did but I would say that if I had a time machine right now and went back to 1993 or something and drank a draft beer here I’d probably …
Karl: It’d be noticeable.
Michael: You would notice it. You would notice it just about anywhere.
Karl: It might even have been to the point where it was so ubiquitous, you might not even notice it as an off-flavor. If it was just everywhere.
Michael: The other thing is that that’s why draft beer wasn’t what it is today. People didn’t trust it.
Karl: That’s why if you have a focus of three hundred and fifty bottles, you can just pull it out of the cooler, you can leave it there forever.
Michael: There was a bar in Washington DC that had a thousand beers in bottles and no draft lines.
Karl: Now you’ve got Howell’s and Hood that has three hundred and sixty draft lines.
Michael: Right, Gradually over time we got a little smarter about it. The technology started improving. They developed Flavor lock tubing, surgical stainless steel faucets, and shanks. We learned that the jumpers, which are the very flexible tubing that goes from the keg to the regulator that couldn’t be the flavor lock cause that’s not as flexible needed to be changed and thrown out every six months. We gradually learned about that and as we did people had greater faith that the draft beer was good. Also, more and more buyers started refrigerating their kegs.
I think a lot of the draft beer revolution that is happening now has a lot to do with the fact that draft beer is so much better than it was. There are still some old man bars that don’t clean their lines or don’t clean their lines very frequently. Now I would say that for quite a few years we are state of the art. [We clean our lines] every two weeks and [it’s] done properly. It’s not just running chemicals through the lines it’s also taking the couplers apart.
Karl: You’ve been watching the city’s beer culture progress for a long time, but it’s really exploded in the last five years or so. What do you think is the reason that all of this started happening when it did?
Michael: We were behind. Chicago was behind the rest of the country. New York, San Francisco, Colorado, California, Washington, Michigan, all seemed to be having a lot more success with the new craft beer movement than we did. There are two reasons, once a national phenomenon, and one’s a local phenomenon that changed things.
The local phenomenon was that in the first 12 years of the Daley administration, we had a liquor commissioner named Winston Mardis. During his 12 years, not one tavern license was issued in the city of Chicago, and 750 taverns were closed down. It became a goal of the Daley administration to get taverns out of neighborhoods. [They wanted to] concentrate nightlife into districts, and to turn down applications for things like breweries, and distilleries. My feeling is that Three Floyd’s would have been in Chicago. Everyone that works there, that’s involved in it lives in Chicago. But they couldn’t open here.
Karl: How did Goose get in?
Michael: They were before that. They beat it. A lot of the people who wanted to open breweries in Chicago were told by the city, you can open, but we’re going to find some sites for you. They were all abandoned industrial sites.
They sent them down to South Shore, or something, where the steel mills were. In the case of the Southport Corridor, at that time it was a derelict old industrial district, with abandoned rail spurs. They sent them there. They said, “You can open here because nobody else gives a shit. Nobody lives around here.” There were no neighbors. They just beat it out.
After that time, it was impossible for somebody to open a brewery, a distillery, or even a tavern in Chicago. You could open a restaurant with liquor, but you couldn’t open a bar. That 12 year period was a disaster for us. We got so far behind. It was really hard for us to expand. They put us through so many hoops. They didn’t want us here. They did not want us to expand. They didn’t want us to thrive.
Karl: They just wanted people to go to the grocery store, and go home, and drink beer there, and not get into trouble.
Michael: Right. Daley had, for an Irishman, some very conservative ideas about the place of alcohol in society. Considering that his father’s career started in Bridgeport, you would never know that by his feeling about it. He actually wrote a guest editorial in the Tribune after I opened here, in which he said that his administration would help in any way possible neighborhoods to close taverns because taverns are where criminals congregate.
Here I am, I’m investing everything I’ve got in [this] place … We are not a tavern where criminals congregate. He made us into this dark, evil place. Toward the end of Daley’s era, they got rid of Winston Mardis. The next liquor commissioner was much more enlightened. Daley also had come around. Bars, brewpubs, wine bars, places like that fill storefronts, pay taxes, hire Chicagoans.
They had a couple of wards on the south side that were voted dry. What does that mean? They’re never going to have a Jewel supermarket, they’re never going to have a nice restaurant. They’re going to have … It is true, you go to Western Avenue, there’s a couple of wards on south Western Avenue where every storefront is empty. I’m not saying there are no negatives to alcohol. Yes, some people abuse alcohol, but most people don’t.
We got really behind because of this political clamp down on anything involving alcohol. When the light started shining, we did a big catch-up.
You’ll notice that the other thing is that so many of the breweries here are spawns of Goose Island. You can not overestimate the value [of Goose]. A lot of people are very negative about Goose Island these days. Our beer scene would be completely different. The national beer scene would be very different. The head brewer at Firestone walker is from Goose Island. Their brewers are everywhere. That’s because of the close relationship between the Siebel Institute and Goose Island. It’s a very important step for us.
Things even got better in this regard… Rahm Emanuel drinks craft beer. He comes here. He looks at our beer menu, and he knows the brands. He came here before he was mayor. When he was a Congressman, he came here. He and his administration have been very supportive of brewers, distillers, places that make wine on-premise, we have some cider makers here in the city, he wants all that. He understands that it’s an economic engine.
Look at what it’s done for Portland, Oregon. It’s a big part of their economy. It’s a big part of the tourist draw. He gets it. Daley did not get it. That’s the micro reason, the local reason that we are in this boom now, after not so much years past.
The other part of it that’s more national, is that people with a lot of money … There’s a lot of money sitting around right now. Some people after the real estate crash are afraid to invest in real estate. Some people don’t trust the stock market anymore. There’s no reason to buy bonds, the interest rate is so low. There’s a lot of cash sitting with some pretty big investors. Week, after week they read Crain’s Chicago Business, the read the Wall Street Journal, and what do you see? Forbes, Fortune, everybody says 35% growth last year in craft beer. Craft beer profit, it’s booming. These people say I want to get in on that, and they are.
There’s a lot of money that is funneling into craft beer. It’s also funneling into star chef restaurants, and stuff like that. These things that the press has convinced people that this is where I should put my money. On a positive side [for me], it means that a lot more breweries are opening. On a negative side, is that these people are opening breweries for the wrong reason. They are not passionate beer people. Some of these people don’t know anything about beer. They just see dollar signs in their eyes. Some of the breweries are making uninspired beers.
Yes, there are people that are getting into it for the wrong reasons. Not all of them are going to be around. It has attracted a lot of investors. I can make this comparison to expansion baseball. You have too many teams, and there are not enough good pitchers and catchers around. What’s happening now, is that there are not enough great brewers.
Karl: Like anything, there’s a lot of average ones, and there are some that are really good, and there are some that are …
Michael: Inspirational. That are really great. The problem is that there are a lot of competent technicians who are available to these money guys. They can say, “I can nail this style, that style.” But they don’t have any creativity.
Karl: It’s so weird because it’s a unique type of brain that can make a beer really well. You have to be equal parts artist, and also scientist. A creative person, and also basically a chemical and mechanical engineer. Those two things don’t live in the same brain very often.
Michael: No. Sometimes you have to have, you have two, or three people at the same brewery. You have the scientist that runs the lab, and then you’ve got the creative person, then you’ve got the businesses guy. Those people have to all get together. Sometimes magic happens, where everything falls into place. Three Floyd’s is a great example of that.
Karl: They stumbled into their own success.
Michael: It’s this overall aesthetic that they have. It has to do with the label, the branding, the names, it has to do with Nick Floyd, his personality, it has to do with lots of things like that, but the beer is pretty damn good. You couldn’t get away with having all those things on the periphery, being successful, and then have a crappy beer.
Karl: If you’re selling a High Life clone, all that attitude isn’t going to do you any favors.
Michael: What you have now is this gold rush going on toward craft beer, and there’ll be another shake out. I don’t know that we can support 4000 plus, and in a couple of years, 5000 breweries. There is a movement that is a positive thing, in that people have become much more locally focused. In Chicago that’s unique, because for a long time people said, “If it’s made in Chicago, it must be shit.” Now people are very proud of some of our beers.
We have some really good breweries here. We have some people that are doing very experimental things and succeeding, we have some people that put the classics out, and do it well.
The other thing is that this isn’t just happening in Chicago. Every city in the country has a scene. We compete with them too. I just spent eight days in Belgium. The Belgians are seeing that their numbers are starting to slide. They know what the deal is. They say, “How do we stay relevant in a country that has 4000 of its own breweries?” Some of them will be relevant because they’re still doing really cool things. Some of them, if you’re just doing a Belgium blonde ale that’s kind of generic, maybe it’s not worth the money. Then you have to compete with somebody that’s brewing the same style in America.
Allagash Triple, it’s pretty damn good, pretty close. A lot of people are making very good beer here. If you are charging old-school import prices, that are 30, or 40 percent more, and your beer isn’t 30, or 40 percent better, then you’re not going to be relevant anymore. That’s one of the many things that the whole world is changing. We’re seeing these many aspects of it. How it’s affecting imports.
These days the new craft breweries are not biting into Miller, Coors, or Bud that much anymore. They still have their solid market, they’re still selling a lot of beer. Who’s really getting killed are the mainstream imports. Go up and down the street, try to find a Bass line, try to find a Beck’s draft handle or Heineken, they’re gone. They are getting killed because they’re not special.
Why would I order that, when I can get a Firestone Walker Pils, or a Victory Pils? Great stuff. Pony Pils, from Half Acre. Fantastic, fresh, delicious.
Karl: That freshness is a huge thing, and can be almost as equal to creativity. When a beer is trucked halfway across the world, you miss the window where it’s really good.
Michael: Here’s still little nooks, and crannies for growth, but I think we are getting saturated. We’re also seeing all of these beers that are trying to be so damn special, that they’re forgetting what beer is about. They’re trying to make beer like wine. So unapproachable. There are these beer geeks that are embarrassingly smug about beer, and forgetting it’s just a beverage. It’s not your entire life.
Karl: How many wineries can you name off the top of your head? Two, or three that are really … That whole thing is so fragmented, but there’s not as much variation in styles, you get the grapes that you have, and you slap a label on it, and you’ve got a winery.
Michael: There’s probably 20, 30,000 wineries in the world. Some of them are ultramicroscopic. When we get tens of thousands of breweries, they’re going to have to learn from the winemaker experience of how you have to find a niche, you have to sell to a very few places that you have a personal relationship with. People approach me and say, “I’m thinking I’ve got some guys together, we’re thinking about opening a brewery.” I say [first], “think twice.” The one area that you can succeed in is, how about a brewpub, that has no aspirations to sell beyond its four walls. That is a wonderful thing.
Karl: The thing that people keep telling me is that, yes there’s a lot of breweries in the world, and there’s more every day, and that’s great, but more breweries doesn’t equal more draft lines in the world. It doesn’t equal more shelf space at grocery stores, and that’s where everything hits the wall.
Michael: Find a location that is undeserved. Make a good bar, that has beer that they brew in-house, and has good service, and good food, and then you’ve got something that’s lasting.
Karl: The DryHop model. Don’t build a brewery and keep expanding all the time — build a series of brewpubs.
Michael: Absolutely. That’s a great example. Sometimes after a while, maybe you will grow into a situation where you can sell your beer elsewhere.
My favorite example in Chicago is Piece. Jonathan Cutler is one of the best brewers in the country. He, year after year, Great American Beer Fest, whatever, wins all kinds of medals. He gets offers, I’m sure all the time, to go with much bigger brewers, but he’s content with his life. He sells his beer there. I’m not even that huge of a fan of the pizza there, but I will go there just to drink the beer, because his beer is fantastic, and you can only get it there.
Karl: You don’t have it on draft.
Michael: I wish I did.
Karl: And they don’t have it downtown in any of the fancy restaurants or anything.
Michael: He’s content in this little world. Everybody that’s in the know, ask anybody at Revolution, at Half Acre, who are some of your favorite brewers in town, and they’re all going to say Jonathan Cutler, that guys the bomb. Because he’s great. Nobody knows about him in Oregon or California, but boy, here he is always brewing great beer. That’s a great model.
Karl: I have to imagine that there are lots of people lately that have opened up a brewery and have had their eyes opened to craft beer here. I bet they really want a handle at the Hop Leaf, as a kind of “I’ve made it” sort of moment.
Michael: A lot of people are really desperate to get in here, and they’re desperate to get into Map Room, as symbolic … It also opens doors for them. They go to some bar that may be half craft, and they’re still caring macros and stuff. The guy goes in and says, “Hopleaf has my beer. The Map Room carries my beer.” They say, “Well, maybe I should taste your beer.”
It does open some doors. It’s really hard because some … There are people that I like, they’re earnest, they’re working hard, their beer just isn’t there yet, or they’re brewing styles that have been done so many times before. If you come in here and, “I have the IPA to end all IPAs…”
Karl: Good luck.
Michael: Is it likely that this is going to knock off Union Jack? Or Lagunitas, or Stone?
Karl: Or Bell’s Two Hearted.
Michael: Two Hearted, fantastic. Is it going to knock off Maine Brewing Company? There are other new people that are doing really great stuff, so probably not. I’ll give you a shot, but am I going to take Ballast Point off, to put you on? It’s hard.
I also think it’s important to sometimes give somebody a shot. The one thing that you will not, that won’t get you in here, is, you can say “I’ll give you a free keg.” Or something. I don’t want a free keg. I’m going to buy it. I don’t want to owe anybody anything. I’ll pay you a fair price, so that you make your money, and I’ll put it out there. As much as I am, sort of the grim reaper in saying yes or no, the real arbiter of taste is the customer. You’ve got to win them over from the get go. It’s really hard if they’ve had a beer that they didn’t like, that they’re going to spend six, or seven bucks on it again.
Karl: People remember that stuff.
Michael: They remember a long time afterward — “I had this beer and it sucked.” Then you see it on the menu again, and say, “I’m not going to order that because there’s these beers that I have a great experience with, that are on the menu too. They’ve got this new sour beer, but Perennial has got a beer here, and every time I’ve had a Perennial beer I really like it.”
The customer really makes that choice. If we put something on to give somebody, we throw them a bone, we like you, this is a pretty good beer, it’s not a world-beater, but it’s not something … I don’t want to ever have anything on tap that I’m embarrassed to have on tap, but we’ll give it a go, and see what the customer thinks. Sometimes it’s amazing. Our customers are very good at sniffing out good stuff.
I mentioned it before, a very small brewery that’s only in a few markets in the country, Maine Beer Company, those guys don’t do beer weird styles. They’re brewing American pale ale, they’re brewing British bitters, they’re brewing IPA, really stuff that I’m bored with, and think there should be a moratorium on, but they’re nailing it. They’re delicious, they’re really good. My customers recognized it right away.
Now we’ll take almost anything we can get from them because I like it, my customers like it too. They recognize that even though they’re not doing any earth-shattering variations on classic styles, they are doing them so well, that they earned a place here, and they earned the respect of my customer, who comes in, and looks down my list, and “What do you got from Maine?”
Karl: It’s a turnaround from those guys that would come in, and sell you on Bells, that were evangelizing for them. Something comes in that really excites you guys, and then you can evangelize for it.
Michael: Yes. There’s some other breweries in the larger region, that have done this too. Perennial is a great example of somebody that we have a great relationship with them. Dark Horse, is another really cool brewery.
Karl: I evangelize for Dark Horse all the time.
Michael: They’re cool people. I still consider that kind of local. Very good beer. My customers like them.
There are some [other] beers that we’ve put on tap, that we notice really quickly…they drink one pint, and then they say, “I’ll have a Zombie Dust now.” Or they just go, “eh.” The worst thing is, this happens in the dining room, more than at the bar, is that people finish eating, and there’s a half a pint of unfinished beer, or they order another thing and “You can take that, I’m not going to finish it.” I try to keep my ear close to that reaction. My servers and bartenders can tell me, “Eh, people aren’t liking that.” Then I’m not going to reorder that anymore.
Karl: Watching Hopleaf progress through the years, it’s been a real evolution. It’s grown from the front room, to a back room with a kitchen, to the back patio, to a new space, with the new kitchen. At this point, is this the fixed version that’s going to be like this for a while? Are you content with the way this is now?
Michael: We have realized our vision. In spite of the fact that I’ve been approached by some of those same kind of money people, that want me to open a Hopleaf in Naperville, a Hopleaf at the airport, a Hop Leaf in …
Karl: There’s the Hop Cat line of beer bars that started in Grand Rapids. Everybody loved it, and they were there for years, now every six months they’re announcing a new one.
Michael: I’m not into that. I live in the neighborhood, I don’t need any more money. I don’t care, I don’t have any investors. We have grown incrementally, and because we’ve done that, I’ve been able to do it by borrowing money from the bank, instead of taking on investors. By growing slowly over 24 years, I’ve been able to maintain complete control, without taking on partners, or investors. I don’t need anything else. I like my life the way it is. I think that you water down brands, it’s really hard to open a second place, and be as vested in it.
A lot of places that do this … Every time another one opens, all of them become lesser places. Like Jonathan Cutler at Piece, Hopleaf is going to be a single location. If you like what we do, this is where it is. You’re not going to find it anywhere else. I’m going to be 62 in January, do I want to go through that trauma of opening another place?
I would warn anybody, don’t get too big. I wouldn’t want to ever have somebody come in here, who used to come here years ago, or read about me in an interview or something, and they say “Is Michael here today?” If the bartender would say “He’s never here…”
I would never want that to happen.