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This Natural History Museum’s Most Underrated Collection Is Its Beer List

March 05, 2019

By Zak Stambor, March 05, 2019

“What is the Field Museum and what does it represent?” That was the question that Megan Williams, the Chicago-based natural history museum’s director of business operations, asked herself when she was tasked with redeveloping the museum’s two restaurants six years ago.

Given the museum’s core mission—to fuel a journey of discovery across time while enabling solutions for a brighter future rich in nature and culture—education and sustainability were obvious answers. They were also relatively simple answers to address; she developed a plan to minimize waste and offer sustainably produced, local, organic food. Beyond that, Williams wanted the restaurants—a casual cafe and a higher-end bistro—to bring people and cultures together. Those goals led her to add a bar.

But she didn’t want to create just any bar. She wanted to curate the bar in the same way that the Field Museum curates its nearly 40 million artifacts and specimens. To do so, she set about creating a craft beer “collection” that included beers inspired by, and connected to, the museum’s collections. Like the museum’s exhibits, some beers would come and go, while others would remain as the bar’s focal points.

Developing the collection has led Williams to forge relationships with breweries across the United States. One such relationship with Decorah, Iowa’s Toppling Goliath Brewery even enabled the Field to become the first bar in Illinois to tap acclaimed PseudoSue pale ale. This fruitful relationship, however, had a bit of a rocky start, when a Field trademark lawyer discovered that the brewery’s PseudoSue label resembled one of the museum’s most famous residents: “Sue”—an iconic 67 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that stands 13 feet tall and is 40 feet long that’s the largest and most complete T. rex specimen ever discovered. To preserve the museum’s ownership of its trademarked Sue, the lawyer sent Toppling Goliath a cease-and-desist letter.

After Williams learned of the situation, she examined the brewery’s website. “I saw [the founders] are lovers of science, they’re quirky, they don’t take themselves seriously,” she says. She convinced the lawyer to hold off and reached out to the brewery to work out a licensing deal for Toppling Goliath that ensures the T. rex is accurately displayed. At the same time, she asked if they’d be interested in collaborating on a beer. That collaboration has taken several years to come to fruition. But the Field bar will tap a citrus cream-style ale, Dancing Dinos, in April.

In the meantime, Williams’ collection blossomed into a series of collaborations with a number of brewers. The first was a dry-hopped Czech pilsner brewed by Off Color Brewing. The plan was to create a “foundational, forever beer,” Williams says. The result was Tooth and Claw, a dry-hopped lager, which like PseudoSue has a label that references Sue.

While the museum’s first collaboration with Off Color was relatively straightforward, its subsequent releases have been historically inspired and more offbeat. In 2016, Off Color and the Field followed up Tooth and Claw with Wari, a beer that took inspiration from chicha, an alcoholic beer made from purple corn and molle berries produced by the Wari people who lived in an area that is now southern Peru. The beer was developed over conversations between Off Color’s brewers and Field Museum curator and archaeologist Patrick Ryan Williams, whose team’s excavated Cerro Baúl, a high mesa that was a contact point between the pre-Incan Tiwanaku and the Wari kingdoms.

A year later, Off Color’s founder John Laffler’s brewed QingMing. The beer was inspired by a conversation between Laffler and Gary Feinman, a Field Museum curator of anthropology, about ancient Chinese brewing techniques. Inspired by Feiman’s work, the beer is an ale brewed with rice, honey, fruit and botanicals. Beers such as QingMing are helping the Field educate an audience that it might otherwise not reach. “The beers are helping us create new links to the museum,” Williams says. “There’s a story behind each of the beers we collaborate on.”

The museum is also actively working on a cream ale collaboration with Evanston, Illinois-based Temperance Brewing and Chicago Brewseum, which recently opened the exhibit “Brewing Up Chicago: How Beer Transformed a City” on the Field Museum’s first floor. The beer draws inspiration from the exhibit, which spans the 60-year period between the 1833 founding of Chicago and the 1893 World’s Fair. Brewseum founder Liz Garibay, Williams, and Temperance’s brewers looked to the late-19th century Chicago’s brewing scene, which was heavily focused on technological advancements and new methods that included adding new ingredients like corn and rice to beer. But rather than recreate a recipe from that period, Temperance examined styles that were common at the time, such as export beer, Bohemian-style extra pale ale, and cream ale, according to Emily Kwasny, Temperance’s brewery operations manager.

For the most part, Kwasny are her team sourced ingredients from the same areas that Chicago brewers would have used 126 years ago—malt and grains (mostly flaked corn) from the Midwest with some hops from the New York. And after finding a preserved brick of New Zealand-grown hops that was exhibited at the World’s Fair, they decided to use New Zealand-grown Green Bullet hops. Temperance also plans to produce a few specialty kegs featuring fruits that were exhibited at the fair. That may include peaches and pomegranates.

The key is finding ways to bridge connections between the beer, the exhibit and the museum, Williams says. “Beer gives us a different way to tell our stories,” she says.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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