If the dizzying array of local craft brews on offer at restaurants around the country is any indication, the culinary world has clearly caught onto the value of a deep, regionally inclined beer program. As a result, more are taking their beer list to the next level by commissioning custom beers.
If you think about it, it’s a natural progression of the farm-to-table ethos. Restaurants already tap area farmers to grow certain vegetables and produce choice cuts of meat, why not ask local brewers to make a specific beer just for them?
Custom brews also play into our growing collective trust as diners, to say nothing of that tempting air of exclusivity. Chicago’s hipster fried chicken haunt Parson’s Chicken & Fish took this notion next level this spring, releasing a branded can produced by nearby Revolution Brewing. The easy-drinking golden ale—served in handsomely retro red-and-white cans—isn’t the most lucrative venture for this popular Logan Square storefront. But that’s not often the point, as restaurants around the country can attest.
The Goldilocks Lager
European tinged-tavern Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon had crushability in mind with its first-ever custom lager, released this spring in collaboration with two-year-old Rosenstadt Brewing. Beer takes a backseat to cocktails and whiskey at this decade-old “barstaurant” at the Ace hotel, but bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler has nonetheless spent years dreaming up the ideal branded brew.
Younger, overly creative bartenders want to mix it up all the time. I like the idea of becoming an institution.”
“We wanted to design the perfect light, session beer,” he says. “That crisp little beerback that can sit behind a whiskey and not overpower it, or the kind of beer you can just sit there and drink. The goal with all our beers is to get somebody to have a second one.”
Translation: Unchallenging but not an afterthought. Finding it proved no easy task, however, in a city teeming with startup breweries that traffic in trendier IPAs and other less finicky, time-consuming styles. Then German-focused Rosenstadt Brewery approached Morgenthaler with a promising prototype.
“They came to us with a beer they had done a small run of that was 90 percent there,” Morgenthaler says. Both teams huddled over the final bill—with Rosenstadt founder Nick Greiner supplying a range of malts for tasting and all different hops for the Clyde team to crush and smell.
Instead of the typical German helles lager grain bill of pilsner and a dextrin malt, “Clyde wanted something a little lighter and bitter upfront, but still really refreshing,” Greiner says. So he blended German and Belgian pilsners, throwing in a little biscuit malt to up the body and flavor. The finished Clyde Common Lager is straw-hued and brilliantly clear, with crisp bitterness that gives way to a cracker-like malt profile and a quenching, clean finish.
Almost two months in, customers are crushing multiple rounds in a single sitting, just as Morgenthaler intended. And despite the prevailing preoccupation in both food and drink with seasonal shuffling, he has no intention of switching it up.
“We’ll do fine-tune adjustments with quarterly batches, but I don’t like the idea of people getting accustomed to this one kind of beer and then we pull the rug out,” he says. “Younger, overly creative bartenders want to mix it up all the time. I like the idea of becoming an institution.”
For a little brewery like Rosenstadt that’s trying to get on the map, “that’s a pretty tall mountain to put our flag on,” Greiner says.
Beer is Community
The lifespan of custom draft beer is far shorter at the Game Room in the Chicago Athletic Association hotel—about a month for a large-scale (15- to 20-barrel) collaboration, according to bar manager Dave Thompson. And that’s exactly the point. Since last spring, this sprawling retro bar and leisure palace has teamed up with local brewers including Hopewell Brewing Co. and Metropolitan Brewing on proprietary saisons, Vienna lagers and IPA—all within a broader “brewery of the month” program.
“We’ll tap a flagship beer or a new offering, then have it pouring all month—which gives the brewery the opportunity to strut their stuff a little more,” Thompson says. “Being attached to the hotel exposes the breweries to not only a local but an international audience.”
He’ll even invite the brewers in for a night of games with various distributor reps, bartenders and the public, where they can get to know each other over a few beers. It helps keep the focus on relationships in a time of staggering growth for craft beer. “When I started in the mid-2000s, the beer community was really tight. As it’s expanded, it’s important to remember that,” Thompson says. “Plus, nothing beats connecting with a client or customer over a friendly game of shuffleboard.”
Another benefit of being attached to a large property? The freedom to pursue time-intensive, exclusive collaborations for the sake of raising the profile and sophistication level of the beer program, which Thompson has done at Chicago Athletic Association’s higher-end restaurant Cherry Circle Room.
“We have a wonderful spirits and cocktail program and a really special wine program here,” he says. “It got me thinking, how can we make the beer program just as unique and special?”
He began procuring spent Four Roses and Knob Creek barrels from Chicago Athletic Association’s single-barrel whiskey collaborations, and taking them to area breweries to fill with a custom brew, age, keg and sell back to the restaurant as high-gravity exclusives. Currently pouring from the tap is a Cherry Circle rye ale from Bridgeport’s Marz Community Brewing.
“It raises the bar and makes it a little more special than the standard draft and bottle list,” Thompson says. “If you’re into a particular brewery and you see they have an exclusive product here, it also draws people into our spaces.”
Tasting tequila alongside a beer that was in that barrel is a special experience.”
Chicago Athletic Association is not the only group to see potential inside a spent whiskey barrel. San Diego-based Cohn Restaurant Group takes it a step further—not only aging beer in exhausted spirit barrels, but pairing said beer and with the spirit housed in the same barrel side-by-side at Draft Republic, Bo Beau and Coasterra. Recent proprietary brews include a Haunted Stars porter from Modern Times Beer, which was aged six months in Azuñia Tequila añejo barrels with sea salt, cocoa nibs, plums and chile as well as a Speedway stout aged in 1792 bourbon barrels from AleSmith Brewing Co.
“Tasting tequila alongside a beer that was in that barrel is a special experience—one nobody else is going to have because these are single barrels,” says wine and beverage manager Maurice DiMarino. “With the time in the barrel factored in and all, they’re expensive beers. We don’t make our costs on them. It’s more about giving our guests an experience they wouldn’t normally get.”
Beer-loving Cohn Restaurant Group doesn’t stop there. In addition to frequently rotating in branded drafts at its restaurants, the group enlisted Mission Brewing to produce four private label styles, which it pours at a discount during happy hour across its vast restaurant portfolio as a low-risk gateway for customers looking to get into local beer. The group is even sending some of its culinary-minded team members to collaborate with Stone Brewing on a custom beer and pairing. In June, two Cohn Restaurant Group chefs will brew a custom beer with Stone, then create a dish to pair with it. The pairing hits menus later this year.
Beyond a unique draw for customers, it’s an invaluable educational experience for staff. “Being able to get in brewery and see how it all works, learn the history, taste beer styles and try out food and beer pairings, it’s huge,” DiMarino says.
For a Cause
Custom brews aren’t just for groups with deep pockets, however. Seasonal American spot Henrietta Red in Nashville, which was recently named one of GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America, launched a monthly Taproom Takeover this winter as a means to fundraise for Chefs Cycle, a bike ride benefiting No Kid Hungry that chef and partner Julia Sullivan will participate in this May. In the process, the campaign has deepened the young restaurant’s connection to its community, not to mention inspired some damn cool beer.
From 5 to 7 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month, this seafood-heavy spot pairs a custom beer, spirit or wine from a (usually local) producer with freshly shucked oysters. For its one-year anniversary in February, it tapped Jackalope Brewing for a special birthday stout.
“We really wanted to work with another female-owned business in town, plus I’m always looking for fun new oyster pairings, especially with this program,” says general manager and sommelier Allie Poindexter. “An oyster stout just made sense.”
Jackalope founder Bailey Spaulding concocted a medium-bodied stout that incorporated Murder Point oyster shells for added creaminess. Aptly named Collective Invention, the beer was poured alongside creamy, Gulf-sourced Murder Points on the half shell.
“The coffee notes and caramel-like sweetness provided a nice complement to the salinity of the oysters, and the shells gave a nice creaminess and a very slight saltiness,” Poindexter says.
As with a lot of oyster stouts, this one turned off certain drinkers who thought it had oysters in it or worse, tasted like an oyster, though that misconception ultimately proved a nice excuse for staff to engage guests.
“It was challenging, but we promoted it and bartenders talked to people about it—and it did really well that night,” Poindexter says. “I am always going to try interesting things with the beer program and see what happens. We might even bring this one back.”