How Chicago Became the Home of the Fine-Dining Brewpub
Band of Bohemia, Moody Tongue and Cruz Blanca are reinventing the way we pair beer and food
We’re deep in a craft beer renaissance, maybe even on the back half of it. With so many beers to geek-out on, it’s an existential crisis we’re lucky to have.
Since Goose Island Beer Company placed a stake in the ground, craft breweries have been colonizing the Chicago market. In tandem, menus everywhere are giving beer more real estate. Chef-leaning brewpubs like Band of Bohemia, Moody Tongue and Cruz Blanca, however, are reinventing beer’s role in the culinary continuum. Viewing beer as high-end liquid food, their exotic beer programs are inspiring and shifting with their eccentric menus. Each of their portfolios is a different experience, based on each brewer’s unique foundation in the culinary arts.
Band of Bohemia was lauded as the world’s first Michelin-starred brewpub, located in Ravenswood. Band of Bohemia’s outlaw ethos, led by co-founder and head brewer Michael Carroll, has inspired a menu with quiet sophistication.
Formerly with Alinea under Grant Achatz’s wing, Carroll rotated through elite kitchens across the nation and developed his craft as a brewer with Half Acre. Executive Chef Soo Ahn has worked in international kitchens from Texas to Korea, influencing the restaurant’s complex, global-infused menus.
During his days at Half Acre, Carroll soon saw a divide between craft beer and not-so-craft food and thought, “Why not?” That was the spark.
Four years and a Michelin star later, Carroll still stresses a less-is-more approach. “We try to make beer that’s more wine-like, with subtle notes of flavors that don’t slap you in the face.” Only five drafts are brewed at a time, and they rotate with the seasons. The beers’ descriptions, similar to those found in a J. Peterman catalog, hint at their complex profiles, designed to pair with each of the equally nuanced menus.
Carroll’s beer-first method emphasizes pairing complementary essences, rather than duplicating ingredients within the food. To Carroll, “It’s like having stuffing with more stuffing,” he says.
To keep Carroll’s element of surprise, he doesn’t brew with traditional bases, either. “We don’t follow a base that most people follow and don’t brew styles, specifically,” he says. “We start with what we want in the end.” This is also one of the few brewpubs where you won’t find an IPA or a sour-inspired beer.
He collaborates with Chef Ahn using a formulated rating system based on how the pairings vibe. They iterate, then move to the final dish.
Before Band of Bohemia, Carroll worked in some of the country’s best kitchens. He credits his baking experience at Alinea as his muse. “I was making bread like you would a wine-pairing, to find a marriage. That opened-up my mind. You can still do the same thing with beer. It’s grain, yeast, water and flavorings.”
And Achatz’s gastronomical interpretation of food was groundbreaking to Carroll. “The idea that you can change [food] and do something completely different and didn’t have to follow the rules anymore,” he says. “In the beer world, there are 70, maybe 100 styles, and that’s it. It’s like, no, there are more.”
The Bohemians have their style, and Jared Rouben and the Moody Tongue have theirs, as the name suggests. Moody Tongue will soon open a hyped-up, 25,800-square-foot space in the South Loop. Relocating from Pilsen, the old neighborhood standby will feature two restaurants with the expansion — The Bar at Moody Tongue presenting a casual à la carte tasting room, and The Dining Room at Moody Tongue serving a sumptuous 12-course tasting menu, slated to open this fall.
Rouben, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and the Siebel Institute of Technology, has made his rounds in Michelin-starred kitchens from Napa Valley to New York City, later becoming a brewmaster for Goose Island Beer Company.
If that’s not enough, he’s teamed up with nine-time Michelin-starred Chef Jared Wentworth, a former executive chef at Dusek’s Board & Beer and Longman & Eagle restaurants, along with a tally of other culinary prestige.
Year-round beers include innovative remixes of traditional styles. Limited releases include whiskey barrel-aged beers, the Farmers Market Series, and Sour Series. “My fine dining experience challenged me to go out and find the best ingredients, how to handle those ingredients, and incorporate them in my beer,” says Rouben.
These brews, as well as exclusively crafted selections, will be paired with the indulgent 12-course tasting menu inspired by Chef Jared’s culinary travels.
But their synergy has driven the results. Friends for years, Rouben and Wentworth jointly created a beer during their Goose Island and Longman & Eagle days, respectively. Years later, during Moody Tongue’s early development, J & J toured Belgium and France for inspiration. Within Belgium’s vibrant beer culture, says Rouben, “There are certain beers there that are difficult to find stateside, such as Flanders or Lambic styles.” With Wentworth’s former experience as a chef in France, he introduced Rouben to all the markets, seafoods and cheeses, which helped articulate the menu. “The strong relationship we have has helped communication. It becomes fun. The finished product is the sum of its parts,” Rouben says.
When pairing beer with food, Rouben looks for complementary flavors, known as bridging. “I’m always trying to find if a pairing is complementary or contrasting,” he says. “That’s a good starting place when pairing beer and food.”
Once he achieves the flavors and aromatics he’s seeking, he’ll bring it to chef Jared. “Then it’s exciting to see what culinary direction he wants to take it in.” For Rouben, “Everything is about balance, whether culinary or beer,” he says.
Sometimes balance is achieved unexpectedly. Cruz Blanca Brewery and Taquería is Rick Bayless’s latest restaurant and first brewery, named “one of the top 34 new breweries in the U.S.” by Beer Advocate.
Consistent with Bayless’s reputation, the menu focuses on Mexican cuisine with contemporary interpretations. What you don’t expect is the wild spectrum of beers created by Head Brewer Jacob Sembrano.
Like Carroll and Rouben, Jacob cut his teeth in kitchens from Texas to Chicago, leaving The Bristol to eventually become head brewer at Goose Island.
In the three years since he’s been with Cruz Blanca, the beer program has changed significantly. To honor the original Cruz Blanca founded in Mexico City in 1860, he brewed lagers, biere de gardes and experimental stuff. But to keep pace with trends, these efforts were dashed in favor of his current selections.
Jacob brews three or four wilds a year, with a robust but limited-release barrel-aged and imperial-barrel-aged series. To stand out from the IPA blow-out in today’s market, he brews a unique roster of dry and fruity to hazy IPAs. “Even within the world of IPAs, there’s a lot of freedom to brew this huge range of IPAs, pale ales and hoppy beers. Some can be lower bitterness or with big, fruity aromas, the kind of beers that are getting people’s attention,” says Sembrano. Brewed in small batches, most ingredients are locally sourced.
The intersection of these profiles with the menu is unique. Carroll uses essences when pairing, Rouben uses bridging, but Sembrano creates a whole world within his own gravity, apart from Bayless’s menu. During the conception stages, he says, “The focus wasn’t initially beer-friendly. It was just to make good food and good beer. And that came together in a less contrived way.”
And it’s working well. “I really enjoy the process, versus breaking out something that’s really quick,” he says.
Asked if beer is getting a double-take in dining because of chef-driven brewpubs, Sembrano provides a practical response: “What a brewer wants isn’t necessarily what the consumer wants.” But he adds, “When you start getting chefs that have a passion for beer, that’s when people start noticing a little more that, ‘Hey, this is legit.’”
Rouben agrees. “It’s because of a wider appreciation of beer. I couldn’t be more thankful and excited that we’re currently in the golden age of brewing.”