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Drinking the Dregs

His beer is the tops, but Greg Moehn's business is down.

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By Sridhar Pappu

Greg Moehn knows there's more to the brewing business than just beer. His own recipes have received the top prize at three international beer competitions, but the two breweries he's helped to start have both gone under. "You can do a world-class beer, but that doesn't mean you're going to be successful," Moehn says, sitting in Hopcats, a defunct brewpub on Clybourn. "There are other things involved in running a successful brewpub."

Last month Moehn won the gold medal at the World Beer Cup 2000 competition in New York. That contest, held every two years, is by all accounts the most rigorous and prestigious international beer competition. Breweries from more than 40 countries compete in 70 categories in what's been called the "Olympics of Beer." This year's winner was Moehn's Hopcats Wee-Bit Scotch Ale. "What's ironic," he says, "is that Hopcats no longer exists."

Opened in 1998, Hopcats was a place you might have thought about stopping into while waiting for the light to change at Fullerton and Damen. It had a home-brewing supplies shop in the basement, an expansive restaurant on the first floor, and a lounge with a stage for live music upstairs. An unfinished deck was supposed to serve as a beer garden, and more space was set aside for a private dining area. In back Moehn ran the microbrewery, creating a variety of beers stored in six huge serving tanks in the basement. "It didn't work out," says Russ Stohl, the brewpub's president. "A lot of effort was put into it, and it didn't make it. It definitely wasn't because of the beer."

Moehn blames the location--a no-man's-land between Bucktown and Lincoln Park. By law, brewpubs can be situated only in manufacturing or commercial zones. Moehn says that means we'll never see the great influx of brewpubs that's occurred in other cities. "Ninety-five percent of the towns that have brewpubs don't restrict them to manufacturing zones," he says. "They think of a brewpub as a restaurant that has a small brewery as opposed to the city saying, 'Oh, you're a brewery with a restaurant.'"

Despite the setbacks, Moehn believes he was destined to brew beer. In 19th-century Bavaria, Moehn's great-great-uncle Martin worked as a cooper, barreling pickles and sauerkraut as well as beer. He trained as a brewer, then emigrated to the United States, ending up in Iowa, near the Mississippi River Valley, where German farmers had settled. Martin worked as a brewer, saving his money and gathering investors for his own venture. In 1903 the Moehn Brewery opened in Burlington, Iowa. That's where Moehn's grandfather first worked, shoveling coal into the furnaces that heated the kettles. When Prohibition hit, the Moehns tried to adapt, producing a nonalcoholic drink that never took off. In the end, the copper tanks were melted down and shipped to Middleton, Iowa, where a munitions plant used the metal for bullet casings.

Moehn rediscovered his family's trade in the late 70s, while on the "ten-year plan" at the University of Iowa. He started making his own hard cider, then moved on to beer. "I never made it in the bathtub," he says, "because your bathtub would never clean up." In 1979, at the age of 20, he went west--first to Los Angeles, then to San Francisco. He enrolled in film school at San Francisco State and lived two blocks away from the Grateful Dead's place in the Haight. He came to admire the work of Fritz Maytag, a member of the well-known appliance family who became the father of the modern microbrewery movement. Maytag had bought the insolvent Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco and started to produce Anchor Steam and other quality beers, leading a revolt against the bland mass-market products of Miller, Bud, and Coors. Anchor Steam was different. "It's what I thought all American beers should be like," Moehn says. "Flavorful, not made to the lowest-common denominator."

After a year in San Francisco, Moehn returned to the University of Iowa, finishing his degree there in 1986. For several years he was a government paper pusher, doing quality-control work for the Pell Grant program. Then he decided to turn his hobby into a career. He moved to Chicago for further training, enrolling in brewer's school at the old Siebel Institute of Technology on Peterson. He went to work as an assistant at Goose Island before landing his first job as a head brewer in 1991.

For four years Moehn crafted a line of beers for the Chicago Brewing Company--Legacy Lager, Legacy Red Ale, Big Shoulders Porter, and Heartland Weiss. At the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Legacy Lager won the gold medal for best European-style Pilsner two years in a row. It was the first time any beer had won the contest in consecutive years.

"But we just never had enough money to do a good marketing campaign," Moehn says. "You never saw Chicago Brewing ads on television. We did a few radio slots, but to be successful you really have to be like Goose Island. You have to spend money on marketing. There are just so many choices out there, you just want to keep the Goose Island name out there." Goose Island is now served in "hundreds" of establishments here, he says, while Chicago Brewing beers languished on store shelves. Moehn was laid off by the company in 1995. A year later Chicago Brewing closed. In the meantime, Moehn had helped to set up a brewpub in Flossmoor; then he joined Hopcats in 1997.

Brewing, he says, is demanding work. It requires a unique blend of physical strength and fastidiousness. On the one hand, you must lift 50-pound bags of grain and walk up and down stairs hoisting kegs that weigh 150 pounds. But it also demands creativity and an attention to detail, an ability to reformulate centuries-old recipes for modern tastes.

Dreams die hard, and even today, while sitting in the empty brewpub, Moehn says he's waiting for another chance. Hopcats is for sale, and he's hoping the buyer will want to retain his services. But eventually, he says, he wants to have a brand of his own. "I want to try and get my own place going, just not something that's this big."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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