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With breweries opening nearly every week in Chicago, it seems a bit less than news that one of them has installed tanks and is planning to start brewing this week. But on Saturday I went anyway to Moody Tongue Brewing Company in Pilsen, the new brewery launched by former Goose Island brewmaster Jared Rouben, whom I last interviewed about it in August.
Rouben was happy to show off his newly installed tanks—workmen still banging on the pipes as we entered—to a group of food and drink writers, and to walk us through his brewery in a sunlit former glass factory on Peoria (you may have parked next to it to go to Nightwood or the Skylark). But at least as much as showing us where the beer will be brewed or the tasting room will be, the purpose was to give us a better understanding of his concept of "culinary brewing," beer that's inspired by locally grown products from farmers at the Green City Market and other farmers markets.
"Sourcing is the beginning of culinary brewing," Rouben said. "We have to not only understand where we get our ingredients, but have a bunch of conversations with our farmers about how best to use those ingredients. That leads to the second part of culinary brewing, which is handling. Nowadays everybody can get great ingredients—it just takes money—but once you get a great ingredient, what do you do with it? That's where my culinary expertise comes in, starting out having a background in the kitchen."
He introduced us to two of the farmers whose products are being used in some of his brews. One is Eric Stiegman, a grain farmer from Thawville, Illinois, about 100 miles south of Chicago, who grows grains and hops (which were displayed on the tables—we were encouraged to dig in) and dreams of helping foster a movement of locally grown, entirely Illinois-made beers. (I'll have a longer interview with him later in the week.)
Rouben talked about the advantages of having a relationship with the farmer and maltster who is growing and roasting your malt, and how it's similar to what a baker does with grain while baking bread: "When you're just purchasing malt, you have very little control. We have the ability to say, Eric, I want a little biscuity flavor, can you roast that malt to get us more biscuit. Or if you want more chocolate, you can roast that grain to get more chocolate. The same with caramel or toffee. And all of a sudden, it sounds like we're in a bakery, not a brewery."
The other was Oriana Kruszewski, the "Asian pear lady" from Green City and other markets, who has had her story told in print by Mike Sula and on video by me. It's still early for getting spring fruit for use in beer, of course, so it's her stash of frozen pawpaws—a midwestern fruit that looks like an oversized kiwi, tastes a bit like a banana (or a cocktail with banana in it), and has the creaminess of an avocado—that will be used in the first batch of beer Moody Tongue will make this Friday, a pawpaw Belgian golden. Resolutely uncommercial—pawpaws are full of bean-sized seeds and ripen and turn to goo when they damn well feel like it—they're well suited to an application like extracting their exotically lush flavor for beer.
Kruszewski told the group about hunting down pawpaw trees in patches in the middle of nowhere, and planting trees on her pear farm near Winslow, Illinois, straight west of Chicago. The trees took hold but she went back to one particular tree whose fruit she liked the best to get its branches, or scions, to graft onto her trees. As a result, all her pawpaws are the exact genetic twins of the fruit produced on that original tree.
She says that the last time she visited the original tree, other plants had grown up so tightly around it that it was no longer producing much fruit; only she had saved its flavor for others to try. That's the perfect pawpaw flavor, rescued by her from vanishing unnoticed to the world, that will be in Rouben's first beer, some weeks from now.