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On June 24, former chef and commodities broker Mike Smylie and his four younger brothers opened Smylie Brothers Brewing Co. at 1615 Oak Avenue in Evanston. (Why is it so hard not to type "Slymie"? Come on, brain.) Their brewpub occupies a building that was formerly an Illinois Department of Employment Security office, a grocery called the Oak Street Market, and a gas station and body shop.
Now, I miss lots of openings. I made it early to Beermiscuous and the Lagunitas taproom, but that brief spasm of assiduousness is in no way representative of my capabilities as a columnist—it's a big, busy city and I'm just this guy, you know? I biked 20 miles on a Friday night to review this one because Brad Pulver, the man in charge of Smylie Brothers' ten-barrel Sprinkman brew house, comes to Evanston fresh off four years at Arcadia Ales in Battle Creek, Michigan. In Fine Spirits in Andersonville used to stock vintage bottles of Arcadia's imperial stout and Cereal Killer barleywine—maybe from 2007 or 2008—and the beautiful way those beers wore their age imprinted Arcadia's name on my brain as an operation to reckon with. I realize Pulver can't have had anything to do with beers brewed six or seven years ago, but I wasn't about to penalize him for not getting to Arcadia sooner.
Plus the marquee attraction on Smylie Brothers' menu is barbecue. You don't have to twist my arm to get me to try a new barbecue place, especially when beer is involved.
I should start by talking about the food, since it's such a huge part of the operation. I can't promise I had a representative experience, though, so please don't consider this a review of the kitchen—the staff at Smylie Brothers, including general manager Chris Rimer, knew why I was there. (I can't operate as stealthily as a professional restaurant reviewer, because I have to take my own photos.) Anyway, anonymity is less important when you're writing about beer—it's already brewed. The same stuff goes in every glass.
The aforementioned barbecue includes pulled pork and chicken, baby back ribs, and brisket smoked for an alleged 14 hours. You can get wood-fired pizzas too, in half a dozen styles—I made note of the truffled mushroom, fennel sausage, and "white pissaladiere" (admittedly, I wrote that last one down because I was having a Beavis and Butt-Head moment). What else? Trout, steak, poutine, mussels, vegetarian risotto, a variety of salads . . .
My colleague Mike Sula tends to be suspicious of unfocused barbecue joints, but because I didn't bring a group or make multiple visits, I can't say whether Smylie Brothers' broad menu represents shotgun dilettantism or wide-ranging virtuosity. I ate only one thing. My brisket sandwich was 16 bucks—five dollars more than the same meal at Smoque, which is a little hard to defend—but the meat was tender and intensely smoky, with a swaddling of meltingly soft fat beneath a charred, chewy bark. That outer layer was startlingly salty, but that's not necessarily a complaint—I've eaten saltier bagels. Just drink plenty of water, and you won't get that "human jerky" feeling later. (I learned that the hard way with the bacalao at La Unica.)
The two sauces I tried were both assertive and complex in their spiciness, and not even the Kansas City was particularly sweet. (I think the other style was Texas.) They were both so watery that they ran all over everything (roll up those sleeves), but I'd choose a thin, piquant sauce any day over the sort of sugary barbecue-flavored goop that's just a short hop from canned pie filling.
You should also know that when I tried to settle up with my server at the end of the night, she told me that everything had been comped—the beer and the brisket alike. If you think I might be the sort of person who'd praise an expensive sandwich because he didn't end up having to pay for it, you'll want to bear this in mind.
Before I get to the house beer, I'll mention the ten guest taps, which lean heavily on local and midwestern breweries—Temperance, Revolution, Metropolitan, Jolly Pumpkin, and so forth. You can also buy beer in bottles, wine by the glass, and $12 cocktails. On my visit, every Smylie Brothers beer was six bucks (though serving sizes varied), and every guest draft was at least two dollars more. I can't get behind a $12 Goose Island Matilda unless it comes in a really big glass.
For the time being Smylie Brothers is brewing a selection of down-the-middle, easy-drinking traditional styles: IPA, pale ale, porter, dunkelweiss, farmhouse ale (tapped out on my visit), and California common (an American-born hybrid fermented with lager yeast at ale temperatures, most famously exemplified by Anchor Steam). Everything is between 5 and 7 percent alcohol. Half-gallon growlers cost $18 with the glass, $16 for a refill.
Smylie Brothers' California common is clean and bready, with a grassy, almost minty herbal zing and a touch of fruity, faintly floral sweetness, like white grape and buckwheat honey; its dry finish combines a gentle astringency reminiscent of red apple skin with a crackle of noble hops. All five beers I tried are eminently sessionable, but I reckon this is the one best suited to an afternoon in the sun on the brewpub's ground-floor patio.
The pale ale, similarly light and crisp, balances caramel malts and a bit of toasted biscuit against a bouquet of easygoing hop flavors—apricot, tangerine, juniper, and a bit of peppery bitterness. I especially like the jasmine in the aroma.
I suspect that the IPA builds on the malt bill of the pale ale—those flavors are similar here, except slightly more aggressive. The hops, on the other hand, are surprisingly herbal by comparison, at least at first: I get cedar, garlic chive, and maybe oregano, alongside some tart peach and pineapple. As the beer warms, richly floral mango comes to the fore. I can even persuade myself I smell rose water, though I might've confused my palate by trying to take tasting notes while eating barbecue—your results may vary, especially if mango and rose water haven't been inextricably linked in your mind by 18 years of lassis on Devon Avenue.
The porter, unsurprisingly, leans hard on roastiness, with lots of dark chocolate, toffee, and coffee. It's lush rather than astringent, though at 6.5 alcohol not hugely full-bodied. Something like stewed plums or ripe dates comes out as it warms, leading into a long, gently spicy finish.
I drank quite a bit of the dunkelweiss, because the banana flavor that fatigues my palate so quickly in most weissbiers agrees with me much better alongside dark wheat malts. (Also, look at the size of that glass. I couldn't even finish it.) This beer tastes a lot like a toasted Nutella-and-banana sandwich, except imagine the bananas have been pan-fried first with a little brown sugar and lemon. I don't mean to make it sound cloying and sticky—it's nicely attenuated if not exactly bone dry, and a winelike yeast note cuts through the richer flavors. Plus at 5 percent alcohol it won't exactly leave a film on your teeth.
Before I talked to Pulver (he came to find me toward the end of my stay), I'd pegged Smylie Brothers as the sort of brewpub that aims to make new converts, rather than targeting the often fickle beer-nerd demographic. Pairing solid, nonthreatening, quality beers with barbecue and pizza—types of food most people associate with cold Bud in cans—seems like a strategy designed to further swell the ranks of casual craft drinkers.
I did set up a rhetorical U-turn here, though, didn't I? That's because Pulver told me about some upcoming recipes that ought to tempt novelty-hungry beer spotters—people who like to see what happens when talented brewers don't try to appeal to the broadest possible base. You know, the kind who read beer columns (or write them).
Very soon Pulver intends to brew a hefeweizen with hibiscus, blueberries, and blackberries; thanks to its vivid color, he's christened it Purple Line. He's also got an American-style honey wheat ale on deck, hopped with Galaxy and Amarillo. A collaboration beer with Temperance is probably inevitable too. Most entertaining, he's planning a stein beer, which is less a style than a method (though his will approximate a Vienna lager). "Stein" is German for "stone," of course, and stein beer uses a formerly obsolete process to boil the wort—dropping white-hot stones directly into the liquid. Malt sugar that caramelizes on the stones gives the finished product a distinctive flavor, especially if you leave them in during fermentation. Pulver wants to use Smylie Brothers' pizza oven to heat pieces of granite procured at a nearby landscape-supply store, then transfer them to a jury-rigged "forge" (basically a fire pit with a blower) to get 'em really glowing.
Mike Smylie added another beer to the list: He called it a field beer, which is shorthand for "made with vegetables." In late August or early September, whenever enough carrots reach the farmers' markets, the brewpub will roll out an IPA brewed with their juice and caramelized roots. Carrot IPAs have already been done (even commercially), but I've never even seen one.
In other words, it looks like the folks at Smylie Brothers have started with straightforward, familiar beers to prove they can be trusted—then it's off to the races.
I couldn't find any tolerably nonridiculous metal about barbecue. Is smoke close enough? Even if it's obviously not wood smoke, but rather something more entheogenic in nature?
Italian psychedelic doom trio Ufomammut released "Smoke" on their debut full-length, 2000's Godlike Snake. This occasionally NSFW fan video uses footage (and I think some audio) from the 1980 film Altered States—if you stay alert, at about 6:45 you'll see where Godflesh got the cover image for Streetcleaner.
Ufomammut were rumored to be coming to Reggie's in May, after a Canadian date at the International Festival de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville—only their second trip across the Atlantic in their 15 years as a band. Obviously a Chicago gig never happened, but they're playing festivals in Europe throughout the summer and into the fall. Anybody hear anything about a U.S. tour?