LOGAN SQUARE, CHICAGO
A Tale of Cask Ales: Elliott Beier, Cicerone and Beer Director at Owen & Engine
INTERVIEWED FEBRUARY 24, 2016
AT OWEN & ENGINE – CHICAGO
Warm and flat, the way beer should be. While that statement contradicts every beer commercial on television for the last 40 years, there is art and craftsmanship in cask or 'real' beer. Cask beer can also be very delicate and temperamental, therefore it should only be handled by someone with experience and passion for the unadulterated ale. That someone in this case is Elliott Beier of Logan Square's Owen & Engine. As one of the earliest Certified Cicerones, Elliott maintains one of the best cask beer programs in the country. We sat down with him over a few hand-pulls to talk real ales, his continued beer education, and his role in one of Chicago's next breweries to keep an eye out for.
Elliott, how long have you been at Owen & Engine?
Since we opened, right around October 2010. Actually, I was at Small Bar Division at the time. It was my second job after moving to Chicago in 2010. I was starting to finally make some headway into working behind the bar. I'd already passed my Certified Cicerone back in 2009 and I was starting to get more shifts. But I was looking around for a second job, just in case, and my initial thought was that I would attend Siebel. So I applied to be a server here and they actually hired me as a bartender. About two weeks after we opened, they let go of the general manager, and promoted me to bartending manager. At that point, I took over the beer program and have been doing it ever since.
So what's your job here? Just focused on beer?
I don't buy the wine or liquor. I make suggestions, but I mostly just do beer buying. I'm behind the bar four days a week, then I spend all day Sunday hosting. I host sometimes, run food, and I've been back in the kitchen washing dishes. Whatever is needed, I do. But more than anything else, I'm behind the bar.
Starting here in 2010 really put you in a good place at the start of the Chicago craft beer explosion. Did you see that coming?
Well that's part of why I moved out of Kansas City. At the time, the beer scene there just wasn't going anywhere. I was working on the bottling line for Boulevard at the time. But I was also an assistant manager at a beer bar on the south side of the city called Waldo Pizza. It was just frustrating that we were one of maybe four or five games in town, at best, where you could guarantee a good beer and somebody would actually know what the hell they were talking about. At the time, there were a few brewpubs, but the only brewery was Boulevard. They had a person on staff, who's no longer with them, that wasn't playing very nice politics. He was trying to make it difficult for others to open a brewery. He's since left, and Boulevard's become much more of an inviting collaborator in the city. Really the beer scene in Kansas City has exploded too.
Sounds like you were in need of a change. Why Chicago?
So when I was looking to leave, I was exploring Denver, Portland, and Chicago. I actually spent a week in all three cities to see how easy it was to get a job, but also get a good gauge of what the beer scene was doing and where I could best apply my knowledge. I was curious to know about any brewing schools around. I had thought, at the time, that I wanted to get into the backend of things and start working on production. I'd been homebrewing for a few years, and recently started again.
What got you interested in beer in the first place?
Well, I worked at Waldo for four and a half years, off and on. In 2006, I realized there was knowledge around. I realized, especially in Kansas City, that most of that knowledge was distilled into fine points through the brewers at the brewpubs and at Boulevard. Beyond that, most bar staff didn't know much about what was going on, including the bar staff at Waldo Pizza. We had a good idea of what was going on, but just didn't know the bones of it.
So you decided to do something about that.
I joined, the Kansas City Bier Meisters homebrew club and started taking BJCP classes through them so I could learn more. Shortly after I started taking those courses, I'd heard about the advent of the Cicerone program. I started studying, because they had just published their first tests. I wanted to take the Beer Server exam. I was convinced that it was going to be insanely difficult. I studied like I was studying for a Masters final for six months. Anytime I was off work, I had my head in a book, I was tasting a beer, I was writing down my thoughts and impressions of it, and comparing them to the BJCP style guidelines. I used that to train my palate and figure out what was out there.
What did you think when you finally took the Certified Beer Server exam? That's a fairly quick test.
I initially wanted to take the Certified Cicerone exam at GABF 2008. I think that was the second exam they'd given. But I'd just been putting off taking the Beer Server exam for so long that I couldn't. I think you had to be a Beer Server for 3 months before you could take the Certified exam. So I had bought tickets to GABF, and the night before I flew out, I couldn't sleep. I went to our corner pub, and started drinking scotch. I had four, maybe five, glasses of scotch. I came home, still couldn't sleep, and said, "You know what, I'm just going to take it. Whatever." I finished the test in 15 minutes and got 92%. I realized that I'd been worried about nothing. Immediately after, I signed up for the next Cicerone exam I could. It was here in Chicago, at Goose Island, in the Siebel room. I studied for six more months, took the exam in April of 2009. I was convinced I hadn't passed. I thought I messed it up.
What was it that tripped you up? We're studying to take the exam later this year.
The tasting exam. But, as they hadn't been doing the program for very long, there were a lot more variables than what he'd been planning for. I think there were ten people who took the exam, and it went from 34 Cicerones, to 43 afterwards. Ray was pretty much doing it by himself. He had no extra staff to help grade. He didn't even have a defined beer that was specifically used for spikes. He happened to pick some beers that had flaws in them.
That sounds completely different to the structured format they have today.
Oh, it's so streamlined now. The standards that are applied are so different. A lot of the questions, in the early days, were kind of ambiguous and you didn't know what they were asking of you. Now, they have a great staff of people there that know how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. You can pretty much figure out if somebody knows what they're talking about or not.
So you did the first two levels, and now you're about take the Advanced?
I'm going to take the Advanced at the end of March. I've taken the Master exam twice now. I did much better the second time through. I improved my written by 9% and improved my practical by 3%. But I was sick so couldn't smell or taste anything... but I still wouldn't have passed, my tasting portion went down by 15%. I think I would have scored above an 80%, which would have entitled me to retake it within a year. But in general, they've never had anybody improve their score by more than 5% during the course of a year. It's so intense. That's why they started Advanced — the gap is huge.
How do you expect the Advanced exam to compare?
Well, I won't know for sure until I take it. But I'm studying for it as though it were the Master as that's my goal eventually. It's a one day exam, instead of two days. But it's still a long day of testing.
Fatigue has got to play a huge factor during these tests.
The first time I took Master, it definitely did. I went into the test so nervous and terrified. I had very little sense of how writing three hours of essays would actually feel. Time really got away from me. I didn't end up finishing two of the four written portions because I couldn't manage my time properly.
Let's talk about beer, specifically cask beer. You've really come to own that at Owen & Engine? Why is that your thing here?
Our chef-owner Bo has been an Anglophile for a long time. The inspiration for this place is clearly an English pub. We try to do as an English pub would do if that pub were transplanted to the States. The English draw a lot on local cultures that are imported. They'll incorporate a fair amount of Indian or Italian cuisine. They aren't beholden to just English food. So we pull in some Indian, Asian, Mexican... because that's the local culture around us. We take what's here and tie it in.
As for the beer, we knew we were going to have a hard time getting English cask beers. But, we knew we could take local breweries and work with them to develop cask versions of local American beers.
How do you get these casks? Are you approaching your favorite breweries asking for specific things?
We own our own cooperage and we've definitely sent them out to breweries. Sometimes there's a definite discussion about what we're going to do. We had one a while ago with Solemn Oath. They wanted to do an IPA. So we said, "Let's make it a little more fun, a little more interesting." Cask beer allows you a lot of leeway for experimentation for one offs and variants. So we added toasted fennel, angelica root, and dried apricot. The variation was called Angelic Viking, as opposed to Kidnapped by Vikings. It had a woody bitterness, but a nice interesting brightness from the apricot. The annis character from the fennel added a really subtle sweetness in the background. It was really nice and complimented the beer really well.
Wow, wish we'd tried that one. Any other examples?
Another we worked with the brewers to do specifically was Gonzo from Flying Dog. We worked it out to have sea salt and rosemary added to the Imperial Porter. The rosemary is just a beautiful pairing with chocolate in general. It had such an interesting savory character on top of this sweet and bitter that the chocolaty roast brings. The salt really refined both the chocolaty character of the beer and the earthy character of the rosemary.
But often times, we say, "Have fun! Do what you want to do." That's what we did with Ari and Adam [from Maplewood Brewery & Distillery]. They said, "Oh, we've been thinking about doing trying a non-filtered version of the Charlton and calling it Raw Charles. You want to do that?" Sure, have fun! And it tastes great.
All of those sound like a real experience. You're usually getting one off casks that you can't get anywhere else then?
Usually, but then again we've been through three firkins of unadulterated Two Hearted. If you taste Two Hearted side by side, which is really fun to do, you get to see how much different the malt character is, the different temperature, how much less bite it has with the lower carbonation, and how much more floral all that Centennial hop is. It's a really neat experience.
With your English roots, you must keep an eye on CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). What's your impression of what they've done through the years. There seems to be plusses and minuses to it, especially in the U.S.
I see both sides. Without CAMRA there would not be cask beer in the UK anymore. If there were, it would be limited to very few pubs working directly with the brewery down the street. There are so many tied houses there anyway. That being said, it's hard to put something too interesting on cask because CAMRA doesn't allow for breathers. In the CAMRA method of casks, that beer is going to spoil in two to three, sometimes four if you're lucky, days after you tap it. Unless you have enough regular patrons and you're going to go through that 10.8 gallons it two to three days, you're out a lot of money and beer. If you're a tied house, that makes less difference because you're part of the brewery and you're eating the cost of production.
As it stands in the United States, as much as I enjoy what CAMRA has done, it's not realistic for a lot of reasons. For someone that does this every day, you can't move a firkin, especially four firkins, in three days. It's an unfortunate reality. So we have to have breathers to limit the amount of oxygen that's exposed to the beer. It also requires frequent constant vigilance for cleaning and tasting everyday to make sure that something is actually tasting the way it's supposed to.
Using a breather, how does your experience with cask beer change?
If I have this cask on this time next week, it's probably not going to taste as bright, and it will develop a little buttery character. But it's because of the nature of the environment that cask beer is done in. It's a gradual exposure to oxygen. The anaerobic bacteria gets a foothold and starts doing unpleasant things to your beer. After you pull the main spile out, there's always a few moments when that beer is exposed to oxygen.
What are the main differences between what you do and what CAMRA requires to be certified by them?
CAMRA requires certain temperatures. They do not allow for breathers on the cask, partially because the beer in that first day or two does change, and not necessarily for the negative. Some people really enjoy the way an ale will change after three days of being exposed. If we were to follow CAMRA directive, we'd lose a lot of money.
While it's part of the culture in the UK, cask beer is new to most people over here. Is there an education process for first timers interested in trying the beer here?
There definitely is. We get a significant number that come in specifically for it. They ask for it off the bat, no matter what, every time. We get a lot of people who just want to try something new, something different. They want to try a cask beer and want to try it someplace they know it's been taken care of. Others don't have the slightest clue. But once they taste it, some get right in, and others say, "Is it supposed to be warm and flat?" We say, "Yes, it's flatter but it's one and half volumes of CO2." It's a broken record, explaining the differences. But that's why I love having something both on cask and regular tap. Because that's the easiest way to explain to someone the difference. I can say, "These are the technical differences, but here, taste what I'm talking about."
What are you drinking when you're at home?
I have so much booze at home. I've got about two cases of homebrew left. I've been screwing with some beer to make it bad intentionally to taste. I'm generally looking for ways to make me taste the difference between spoiled and unspoiled beer. But I've got some New Glarus, I've got a little bit of Epic Brewing at home that I picked up last time I was in Wisconsin. I've got a little bit of the collaboration we did with Pipeworks at home.
We've been hearing word about your involvement with upcoming Bixi Brewery. Is your plan to move over there soon? And where is it exactly?
Yea, I'll be moving over there full time once it's finally open. It's next door to the Owl in Logan. We'll be almost exactly halfway between Hopewell and Revolution.
When will that be?
We're on track to be open Fall this year, at this point, hopefully sooner. The construction crew is moving pretty quickly. We just dug out the slab when the brewhouse is going to sit. We're actually looking for a brewer again.
For any aspiring brewers out there, what are you looking for?
We're looking for experience. We're looking for the ability to be adventurous. But even if they're not, as long as they can nail a classic style, I'll push them with the weird ingredients. As long as they can execute process and cleanliness, that's what we're worried about.
What's your vision for Bixi?
We're continuing where Chicago beer is going—culinary beer—beer that's designed to work with food. That's hand in hand with how the culinary scene is developing. Everybody is pushing themselves further and further to be more interesting, more in depth, more tied in. I think that's one of the ways that brewers are going to be able to really differentiate themselves from each other. The way that they can present their beer as a food. Beer is food, it's just legally not considered that.
Culinary beer is currently a huge trend in Chicago. Where do you see the local scene in 5 years or so?
I think, as it stands, there will be fewer and fewer production facilities that're going to be able to make it in the market.
Fewer than today or just a slower growth?
Slower growth. To a degree, what we have can be sustainable. But as growth continues, those that aren't producing quite the same quality will be slowly pushed out of the market. The Chicago beer scene has been a bit like Wisconsin, in that Wisconsin drinks local no matter what. If it's good or bad, they'll drink it. Here, bars have largely been purchasing good quality beer. Then again, there're some good breweries that are putting out some bad beer, too.
All and all, quality control at a lot of Chicago breweries has to come up. Otherwise, we're just going to end up hurting the growth of beer in general and hurting the impression of craft beer.
Photography by Hilary Higgins.
Cheers to Elliott for having us in for a few cask beers at the restaurant on his day off. Be sure to check out Owen & Engine next time you're in Logan Square or, better yet, before a movie at the theater across the street for their Tuesday $16 Burger, beer, and bourbon special. It doesn't get much better than that.