In mid-January, I visited Breakroom Brewery in Irving Park and sampled two beers that its head brewer, Mike Pallen, had whipped up on a pilot system in his basement in Park Ridge while waiting for the brewpub's system to come online: a double IPA called Hoppy Citra-ation and an orange-peel stout called Truss Me on This One.
Pallen had developed nearly three dozen beers for Breakroom since coming aboard in September 2013. "I'm always writing recipes. I'm lucky to have a test-batch facility at home," he says. "New hops are coming out all the time, so you've got to play with them."
However, the Breakroom folks weren't ready for prime time in January—they eventually opened their gorgeous facility at the end of March—and in February, as I tried to schedule another visit, I learned that Pallen had resigned. On March 16 he started as head brewer for Slapshot in Little Village, taking over from cofounder Steven Miller. Pallen has also moved some of his own gear into the Slapshot space to launch his home-brew label, Mikerphone, as a commercial enterprise. I'd liked the two Breakroom beers of his I'd tried, so I decided to see what he was up to.
The recipes Pallen left with Breakroom only made a small dent in his portfolio—he estimates he's got more than 100 of his own. And he doesn't have anything bad to say about his former employer. "Certain situations don't work out, and sometimes you've just gotta do what's best for you and your family," he explains. "When I gave my two weeks, I was like, 'I'm here to help you guys as much as possible. I'll sit down with your brewer, I'll get everything going as best I can. Here's 35 recipes we've developed.' I really want them to be successful. It's just it wasn't the place for me."
Pallen already knew his replacement at Breakroom, Eric Padilla, a CHAOS Brew Club member—they'd met through a Chicago beer-scene character who goes by Beer Me Fitz, and in late 2014 they took a brewery field trip to Vermont together. Pallen made himself available to Padilla by phone and visited Breakroom to help him get oriented.
The Breakroom crew didn't reply to my e-mail asking about Pallen, but I don't read too much into that—they had a business to open.
Pallen, 33, was born in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee, and grew up 25 minutes southwest of the city in the village of Mukwonago. His father worked as a steamfitter and pipefitter at Miller. "My dad was kind of an idol to me," Pallen says, but at first he didn't see a way to follow in the old man's footsteps—at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he studied mostly communication arts and advertising.
Just after he turned 21, Pallen and his roommate brewed a brown ale as an experiment for a botany class. The only nonterrible beers he'd been exposed to were Sierra Nevada and Newcastle, and he had a come-to-Jesus moment. "We'd never drank anything like this," he says. "It was amazing to think that beer had flavor." He started home brewing in earnest after he moved to Chicago in 2004 and ramped up once he bought his house in Park Ridge in 2010, making at least one batch per month. He shared his beer at work, with friends, and with acquaintances in the industry, looking for feedback more constructive than "Hey, free beer!" In 2011 he came up with the Mikerphone name and logo.
As part of his learning process, Pallen imitated beers he liked. "Out of me wanting to drink Gumballhead and not being able to get Gumballhead as much as I wanted, I decided to brew a clone of that," he says. (To this day he has a Gumballhead sticker on his car.) "I think I did a pretty good job, and people kept asking for more of it." But he wanted to pursue his own ideas, so he wouldn't feel like he was "just cooking a soup from a book."
In 2012 Pallen started pitching in at commercial breweries, making himself useful in any way he could. "I've kinda been helping out and jumping in and getting involved and getting my hands really dirty with every opportunity," he says. "It's been great. It's been eye-opening."
He volunteered or assisted with brewing for a day at a dozen breweries, including Temperance, 5 Rabbit, Revolution, Begyle, and Lake Effect. In 2012 he became a regular at Pipeworks, lending a hand on brewing and bottling days from the start. "The day they got in their first fermenters," he says, "I was there with them." In December of that year, he met Drew Fox of 18th Street, who was brewing on Pipeworks' equipment. "Mike helped 18th Street with our social media during our Kickstarter campaign," Fox says. Pallen never came on as a paid employee at 18th Street—he still had a full-time day job—but his internship as a sort of assistant brewer had its perks, including plenty of complimentary beer.
In 2013 Breakroom owner Aaron Heineman asked Fox to help the new brewery develop recipes, so he'd have something to serve potential investors. Fox recruited Pallen to assist, with the idea that they'd split the head-brewer job at Breakroom when it opened, then leave for 18th Street together when Breakroom hired their permanent replacement. Pallen planned to launch Mikerphone at 18th Street, and had even bought a fermentation vessel for the purpose—he ended up selling it to Fox after Heineman offered him the Breakroom job in September of that year. "Drew was too far down the road at 18th Street, and he wanted to stay committed to that," Pallen says. "Mikerphone was still pretty new—I had a little following—so I could make that move over to Breakroom."
Once Pallen started at Breakroom, he continued his pattern of working and learning wherever he could—he collaborated widely under the Breakroom banner, including with 18th Street, Spiteful, Pig Minds, Burn 'Em Brewing in Michigan City, Indiana, and even a Costa Rican brewery called Treintaycinco (he took a vacation to Central America in 2014). "Mike has taken steps to surround himself around people who can help him become a better brewer," says Fox. "I wish him all the best."
Brant Dubovick at DryHop, who got to know Pallen two winters back, brewed two beers with him during his tenure at Breakroom: Bee-Side, an Irish stout with honey and vanilla beans tapped on nitro for Saint Patrick's Day 2014, and the recent kettle sour Tart Down for What?! "He's one of the most energetic and passionate brewers that I've met through the years," Dubovick says. "Coming from a home brewer's background, he's constantly looking to educate himself on techniques and what it is to be a professional brewer."
When I dropped in on Pallen last Friday, he and Miller were working with Vice District head brewer Mike Kristin to transfer a three-way collaboration by Mikerphone, Slapshot, and Transient Artisan Ales from Transient's makeshift coolship (converted from a dairy tank) into two different wine barrels. Slapshot launched in its Little Village brewery in September 2013 and recently expanded into the space immediately north; Miller also hopes to build a beer garden out back, adjacent to the city park to the east.
Miller met Pallen at Dark Lord Day in 2013. "From there," Miller says, "we became friends and shared many beers." When Pallen left Breakroom in February, he had nothing lined up. He'd bought a brew house for Mikerphone from a manufacturer in Portland, Oregon, and was considering having it shipped to a barn near Milwaukee. But a conversation with Miller changed all that. "When I was talking to him about when I was going to relaunch Mikerphone, he was like, 'Don't move anywhere else—I've got tons of room here at Slapshot. Set up here,'" Pallen says. "And the conversation kind of rolled into, 'By the way, we're looking for a new head brewer.'"
"Truthfully, I didn't intend to hire a new brewer right now," says Miller, who's shifted his focus to operations since Pallen came aboard. "But the opportunity was there and I couldn't pass him up. He's too talented and passionate to not bring him on."
Slapshot and Mikerphone share a few things—the brewery's cold room, for instance, as well as hoses, pumps, and the like—but Pallen owns the three-and-a-half-barrel brew house and two seven-barrel fermenters that he's dedicated to Mikerphone. "For now, his beers are contract brewed at Slapshot," Miller says. "We are the host brewer and handle all licensing, taxes, and invoicing."
For now, Pallen plans to brew just two seven-barrel batches per month as Mikerphone—which wouldn't be enough to keep the lights on for long if it weren't for Slapshot. "I don't want to be aggressive—I don't want to flood the market," he says. "I want to kind of gradually build into the market." Mikerphone self-distributes, but Pallen will have to outsource that work if its output increases much—he can't afford to divert too much energy from his main job. "To be head brewer at Slapshot and have my side project as Mikerphone—it's a fantastic opportunity, and I don't want to jeopardize that."
As a brewer, Pallen describes his approach as "heavy on the hop side of things." Despite his relatively brief professional experience, he has the connections he needs to get new and sought-after hop varieties, including Citra, El Dorado, Mosaic, Topaz, Motueka, Ella (half sister of Galaxy), and Equinox (named just a year ago). "The best hops are the ones that have that big aroma—that big pineyness, that big dankess, that big fruit," he says.
Pallen also calls himself a "sour-beer nut," and he started making them long before going pro. "Brewing has taught me to be patient," he says. "There was a home brew I did that was a lambic, and it was a three-year souring process. And I let it sit. I wanted to taste it every day, but I didn't. I took that as a challenge to myself. I ended up calling it Patience."
"Mike's worth ethic is incredible," Miller says. "He's got great ideas, and if it's something he hasn't done before, he'll research it. He'll never half-ass anything. If Mike is going to do something, it's going to get done right."
Mikerphone's labels say "Craft beer inspired by music," and Pallen has a script tattoo on his left arm that reads "Where words fail, music speaks." He worked in music-related jobs for most of the decade preceding his hiring at Breakroom—from September 2006 till March 2012 he handled music licensing and artist relations for VerveLife (now VL Group), and from March 2012 till September 2013 he was manager of marketing for the School of Rock. He also served on the junior board at Rock for Kids from mid-2009 till early 2011.
I tried two Mikerphone beers on my visit to the brewery, One-Hit Wonderful and Misty Mountain Hop (a name I'm shocked hasn't already been claimed by somebody other than Led Zeppelin). They're both 7.5 percent alcohol, mostly by coincidence; the former is a hybrid of a Belgian IPA, a Belgian white, and an American Citra IPA, brewed with orange peel, coriander, and La Chouffe yeast, while the latter is an American IPA that uses Columbus hops for bittering and a mix of Amarillo, Simcoe, and Mosaic for aroma. Pallen poured both directly from the fermenters, so they were as fresh as it gets—we just had to let them warm up from the tank temperature of 34 degrees, which is too cold for these styles (or really for any decent beer).
The name "One-Hit Wonderful" comes out of Pallen's work at the School of Rock—he didn't learn till afterward that it's also the title of a Reel Big Fish song. The beer smells strongly floral and fruity, with apricot and pineapple up front and coriander, orange bitters, wintergreen, and cedar shavings underneath.
Each sip opens lush and closes dry, with a plush, creamy texture (Pallen likes to brew with flaked oats) and a slightly astringent grapefruit-pith finish thanks to a dose of dextrose that persuades the yeast to go after the last of the fermentable sugars in the wort. Notes of honey, caramel, and spice liven up the chewy, pancakey malts, which mingle with the fruit flavors so gracefully that it's tough to pick anything out—I think I can taste dried apricot and papaya, peach, orange pulp, and tangerine peel.
Misty Mountain Hop is a more familiar style—it's clean and bright, with a woodsy, perfumy aroma bustling with orange, apricot, mango, and pine. Honey, biscuit, jasmine, and orange dominate the flavor, and its full body (oats again) slides into a mellow finish—despite its intense hoppiness, it's not a bruiser. As Dubovick says of Pallen, "I think his balance on hoppier brews is very underrated." I'm inclined to agree, except that I haven't heard anybody else rate it one way or the other.
Pallen is packaging Mikerphone beers in 24-ounce monster cans—the kind Four Loko uses—which he hopes will help them stand out. (Slapshot is switching to these big cans too, but I can't think of another craft brewery that uses them.) "I've seen the bomber game get very congested," he says. "It's hard to just throw another bomber on the shelf." Cans weigh less than bottles, of course—a nontrivial consideration for those of us who shop for beer on bikes—and they're legal in places where glass isn't, including beaches, which ought to become relevant to Chicagoans by June.
He'll wrap naked cans with stickers, the way Spiteful does, and he plans to stick with the same team of artists responsible for the two labels I've seen—the couple of Nick Segura, a builder at Heineman Bar Company, and Alyssa Cornett, who works in Revolution's tap room. Eventually he wants Mikerphone to have a "band" of characters whose story will evolve as they interact, but so far nobody even has a name.
Mikerphone hopes to undercut typical bomber pricing—the beers I reviewed will both retail for seven bucks a can (well, $6.99, but that's not fooling anybody). Higher-octane styles such as double IPAs will cost $8.99, sessionable beers $4.99. Pallen will begin dropping them off at stores the last week in April, and plans to hit Capones, the Beer Temple, the Beer Cellar, Bottles & Cans, the Open Bottle in Tinley Park, Standard Market in Westmont, and the Lincoln Park Binny's, at least for starters.
Most of Mikerphone's beer will go into cans, at least for now, but the brewery has already delivered kegs to Mash in Lincoln Square, which hosted a launch event Thu 4/9. Pallen has a few other accounts on deck—Bigby's in Addison, Riverview Tavern, maybe the Beer Bistro—and will probably add more. I'll recount my Mikerphone sightings in the comments, and you're encouraged to do the same.
In order to sign off with a song chosen less arbitrarily than usual for Beer and Metal, I asked Pallen about his favorites, and he went right for Los Angeles hair-metal goofballs Steel Panther—specifically "Death to All but Metal," from the 2009 album Feel the Steel. "I saw them years back at SXSW and they absolutely blew me away," he says. "Their music is solid, their lyrics are hilarious, and the stage presence is unmatched."
Hair metal is one of those genres where it can be hard to tell parody from the genuine article, but these guys make it easy—I mean, drummer Darren Leader goes by "Stix Zadinia." The video for "Death to All but Metal" owes an obvious debt to the classic clip for Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher"; to drive the point home, front man Ralph Saenz, aka Michael Starr, wears an "I Don't Feel Tardy" T-shirt. And Sarah Silverman's cameo ought to put to rest any nagging suspicions that Steel Panther might be misogynist cartoons in real life too.
In case you're reading this somewhere it might matter, the lyrics are, um, exceptionally NSFW (albeit clearly tongue-in-cheek).