The way I start recipes is I write the label copy. I start always with a one or two sentence description of how would I sell this beer. I think, “What do I want to tell people about this beer?” So I pitched Andres and Isaac eight or ten different things and we settled on three that we thought made a good set that we were all interested in. With those ideas, we went over to my house and sat around the dining room table. I bought a bunch of commercial beers that I knew had particular flavor, body, alcohol, bitterness, and different kinds of characteristics that I could blend together into a glass so that the three of us could sit there and say, “Hey, try it with a little more color, with a little more bitterness. Now put some chili it in.” After a couple of hours of rapid prototyping, we actually put something in the glass that was pretty close to what we ended up brewing with all three beers.
I found this remarkably similar to the way in which my company, gravitytank in Chicago, works to bring new products and services to market. Competitive analysis, primary research, personal experiences, trends — all these lead you to early hunches and new ideas. We take a first stab at describing what a new product might be like. We’re not aiming to get all the details right — these are broad strokes. We’re looking for something that sounds interesting. Something that resonates.
From there we start prototyping. We hack together pieces of existing products, mock things up out of foam-cor, build a quick UI. Now you’re getting a real impression of what the product could be like. We do this for everything from chewing gum to home theater equipment, retail environments to tires. Sometimes you hit on something exciting, sometimes you go back to the drawing board with fresh insight. It’s all part of the innovation process and we do it hundreds of times a year.
So when I got a special invite from Isaac at 5 Rabbit to attend a beer pairing dinner, I jumped at the chance to sit down with the crew that’s trying to create exciting new beers based on Latin culture and cuisine in Chicago. For this pairing, they found themselves in the very capable hands of Guy Meikle and Alan Krueger, chefs at Nana Organic in Bridgeport. This is one of Isaac’s favorite spot. And the results were astounding.
For the first pairing, chef Meikle took advantage of 5 Rabbit’s exceptional palate cleansing and fat-cutting properties with a fried pulled-pork gordita plate. A bit of Chihuahua cheese, jalapenos and a sharp, bright raspberry sauce — the 5 Rabbit golden ale was tasty and efficient with such a challenge — so much so that it occurred to me that this might be the perfect carnival beer up against funnel cakes and corndogs. ”This is a beer we can kick Bohemia’s ass with,” says Mosher. And it does — it even fought its way through the second plate of crispy pig’s ear tacos.
Over this first course I got a chance to chat with the boys and introduce myself to a few other table-mates. This was far more than a beer pairing — there was an entire industry represented here. From 5 Rabbit came Randy, Isaac and Andrés, the three people responsible for the entire brewery. In my attempt to understand who does what, I was quickly thwarted. Like any small start-up, everyone does everything. Randy’s background in design and brewing certainly guides the group towards distinctive brews in both recipe and brand. Isaac and Andres come from a long like of consulting for major import labels in the Mexican market, but also bring their deep roots with the cultures of Mexico and Costa Rica, and the beers and foods that inspire them still.
The three are currently contract brewing (with a few different breweries over the past year) and have been able to supply the likes of Whole Foods and Binny’s with bottles, and plenty of local bars like Bad Apple and Lady Gregory’s with drafts. They’re nearly ready to close on a space in Chicago to go into full-blown production. They have high hopes for getting their production of their mainstays revved up, but also for having a smaller system on the side for their continued commitment to experimenting. Randy’s even hoping to move his homebrew set-up into the space and start hosting events. This is likely to be a southside institution. But with respect for how delicate these efforts can be, that’s all I’ll say for now.
Also dining and drinking with us was Anthony, the man behind Glunz’s distribution of 5 Rabbit. With such a fledgling brand, Anthony’s reports on stock lists are as up-to-the-minute as the bottles we’re cracking for the pairing. Humorously, as beers like 5 Lizard run low and even personal stashes start depleting, Anthony’s reports become less about where they need to supply more beer, but where they might be able to source a few bottles instead. Andres has tracked down cases of his own product numerous times just to keep up with events like this one. Ah, the silly days of start-up cultures. These guys had a great attitude.
Across the way was Pete from Seedling Farms in Michigan. Many of the dishes we were pairing 5 Rabbit’s brews with contained various fruits sourced from his farm, including the above-mentioned rasberries. Pete grows an incredible variety of fruits — everything from cherries to gooseberries, currants to raspberries, even the rare and precious goji, typically only grown in regions of China and Nepal. This dinner was farm to fork, trucks to tables, fermenter to glass.
The second plating was 5 Vulture-braised heartland short ribs, and they were piled high. Alongside this monument to beef the chef paired 5 Vulture, a Oaxcan style dark ale with just the slightest hint of ancho chile. On its own this beer is a bit dry and keeps you thirsty for more (a nice trick of the pepper in the aftertaste). But alongside the savory, succulent, peppery short ribs, 5 Vulture is a sweetheart. It was broody and cool on your palate with just a hint of honey, which blended beautifully with the tart cherries and sweet potato puree. This beer doesn’t aim to cut through the fat like the 5 Rabbit, it aims to help you hold on to the high as long as it can. Even as you start tearing into the vegetarian alternative — a hearty pot pie.
If you’re not salivating yet, here comes the kicker. For this special dinner, the first in a new series for Nana, 5 Rabbit broke out something entirely new — Huitzi. After an elaborate warrior myth involving a headless queen with snakes bursting from her neck and giving birth to a fully armored warrior baby, named Huitzi, who took to slaying the entire invading army, Randy got into the recipe. Ginger, hibiscus, thai palm sugar and chamomile are the highlights in this mid-winter brew concept. It perfectly captures the sensation of Spring approaching, but still a month away — brisk, sweet, but still a little nippy.
Krueger, the pastry chef, didn’t have a finished beer to work with in the pairing, so he deconstructed the recipe and offered a failry decontructed dessert for our consideration. He plated an iced, orchata-like sorbet made with tiger nuts — an ancient reed with a woody texture and slight cinnamon spice — alongside pears and apricots poached in Huitzi, with pomegranates, goat cheese, honey, and basil on a genoise cake. There were sparks everywhere. The falvors gelled with the Huitzi, but more important was the contrast in temperatures. Huitzi was served cool, not cold, and the sorbet provided that feeling of a thawing winter with ice still on the windows even as the sun comes out. And the saltiness of the goat cheese and soberness of the basil was a great perk.
This post is long. But trust me, I’ve done you a service in editing down. I didn’t include anything from the debate over brewing mead (Andrés lost that argument but remains determined) or foraging for mushrooms. The most important thing to understand is the level to which brewers and chefs are collaborating of late in Chicago, and how important that is to our larger culture. Chicago has long been seen as a second-tier city with first-rate chefs. Our beer culture might be what puts us over the top. A few years from now, I plan on looking back on this night, and my recent dinner at Revolution Brewing, as some of the early indications that we were part of something bigger than crowded festivals and extreme beers. Chicago is uniting brewing and culinary geniuses for something entirely new.
Nana’s plans to host another dinner with the folks from Two Brothers. Randy, Isaac and Andrés are getting ready for The Chicago Beer Festival, part of the Eat-Drink-Play series at Union Station, March 31st, which will feature a host of young Chicago breweries (and apparently a bunch of “hot chicks” — sigh).