Interested in getting past the traditional Coors, Bud, and Stella bottles? Today’s feature presents Chicago’s very own beer connoisseur. Fortunate enough to catch Mark McDermott in between a few of his favorite barley wines and Russian Imperial Stouts, we chat with him to discover the world of craft beers and local breweries. Aside from being a beer geek, writing about his favorite drink, and rating beers (he’s rated over 1700), Mark is a proud parent and former Trekkie / comic book geek!
Mark’s thoughts about beers and comic books…
F: Lets talk about you for a minute. You are a beer connoisseur, collector, and a guy who keeps beer coasters. What do you do that doesn’t revolve around beer?
M: In real life, I’m a husband and father of an adorable 8-year old boy and an equally adorable 16-month old girl, yet I just celebrated my 50th birthday. My day job has me setting covers and other parts of catalogs and doctor directories for Chicago’s largest printing firm. Before I was a beer geek, I was a Trekkie and comic book geek: in the past year I’ve had essays published in scholarly books on Star Wars and on Captain America.
F: How did you get started in drinking beer? Do you remember your first drink of beer? What was it like?
M: When I was a pimply adolescent, my Dad would allow me sips of whatever was in the fridge, meaning Grain Belt of Hamms. It was an interesting drink that made me feel like I was part of the adult world, but also light, fizzy barley water with a little bitterness you don’t find in other kid drinks. When I finally turned legal (18 in Iowa in those days) it was not a big deal; I didn’t need to go and get plowed. That summer, on a visit to the “real” Adventureland, an amusement park near Des Moines, I discovered my first different “kind” of beer: Schlitz Dark.
I finally hit upon craft beer when I moved to Chicago in 1987 and shortly discovered the new Goose Island brewpub, when it was still part of a repurposed warehouse on an iffy block of Clybourn. On one visit, they debuted Bourbon County Stout, which made me say “Oh… My… God!” Beer can be like this!
F: Why do alcoholic beverages have connoisseurs and non-alcoholic beverages have no one but vending machines? You never hear of an orange juice connoisseur.
M: I can’t speak for orange juice, but I think we could find more than a few raters of sodas out there. Look at the “Throwback” Pepsi and Mountain Dew, a limited release that uses real cane sugar, and the people who get Coke at Mexican mercados for the real sugar. A lot of craft brewers make root beer and sods, but as far as I know there’s no professional taste competition for them, perhaps because they’re still aimed at the kids.
F: You brew your own beer. What is the hardest part in the home brew process? Do you ever get sick from your own beer?
M: The hardest part is cleaning up afterward, because there’s always some sticky, scorched on wort on the floor or the stove somewhere, just waiting to attract ants. When we moved to our current house with an attached garage, my wife banned me from brewing in the kitchen, so I’ll need to add a high-powered propane burner to my brewing arsenal.
One of the truisms of homebrewing is that even if you get a nasty bacterial infestation, it still won’t make you sick. Probably. The alcohol in the beer will knock most dangerous bugs, so you’ll just get a bad taste or a “gusher” bottle. As homebrew guru Charlie Papazian says, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.”
F: What are your favorite beer varieties and how are they different from each other?
M: Like most beer nuts, I tend toward barley wines and Russian imperial stouts. Both are high-alcohol behemoths that can be cellared, and which develop complex tastes depending on how old they are when you pop the cap. Barley wines push lots of caramel malts and can be light brown in color, and will tend to a slightly fruity ale character. Imperial stouts have much darker roast grains in their malt bill, and can run the taste gamut from coffee to chocolate to what you think motor oil must taste like. It’s a bonus when they’ve been aged by the brewer in whiskey or bourbon barrels, like the aforementioned Bourbon County Stout. Both these style came from England: Imperial stout was created for the court of Catherine the Great in 1796, while Bass first marketed “Barley Wine” in 1900. I’ve got whole cases of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine from 2002 and 2004 in my cellar, waiting for me to finally want to dig in, among others. I’ve also had the patience to hold on to a 2003 Brooklyn Brewing Black Chocolate Stout, plus their 2003 Monster Ale, and a few 2002, 2003 and 2004 bottles of Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout, which clock in at up to 23% alcohol by volume. This is a very modest collection as most beer cellars go. It actually resides in a root cellar built under the front stoop of our house.
My favorite style to make has been chile beer. Rather than just try to cause people pain, I’ve looked for styles and pepper blends that work well together, like Molé porter or Chipotle Scotch ale.
F: You’ve rated over 1700 beers. How do you keep your rating consistent? Do you test yourself with blind tastes and see if your score comes out quite similar?
M: I just can’t worry about consistency; beer ratings can also involve the circumstances and environment in which you try the beer. I enjoyed a cheap Schafer Light much better when I tried it at a hot, southern Illinois roadhouse in July than I could have sitting before my computer with a tasting glass.
I’ve done two taste comparisons around Old Style. For years, Old Style has been contract brewed for Pabst by Miller in whatever plant they have available. But the original brewery in LaCrosse, Wisconsin re-organized as City Brewing and makes LaCrosse Lager, which is said to have the actual Old Style yeast and recipe, plus the added step of Kraeusening before packaging. LaCrosse came out the clear winner. This year, when Pabst announced they were going back to Krausening, I matched up the revised old style with the older version. Found they had different factors weighing for and against them.
F: Food critics tend to pair food with their favorite wines. Any suggestions as to what food to pair with specific beers?
M: There are two different ways to match a beer to a food: contrast or compliment. I would go with contrast: spicy foods like chili or barbequed meats need malty beers like bocks or Oktoberfest beer to cool the fire. Something lighter, like fish, or steak with few seasonings, can take a hoppy IPA.
A local’s secrets to the rich Chicago beer culture…
F: Chicago locals tend to like what type/brand of beer? Why do you think so?
M: The local beer most represented on bar taps seems to be Goose Island 312. I think that’s simply because it’s the local beer that tastes most like the usual pale lager, even if it is a wheat ale.
F: What is your favorite place to drink beer in Chicago?
M: I lived for many years in the south suburbs so I was quite attached to Flossmoor Station. Through the tenure of two brewmasters, they came up with some fantastic beers in different styles, served in a casual atmosphere that got it named Best Small Brewpub in America at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. I have not made it back out since their latest brewmaster, Brian Shimkos, took over, but he assisted Pete Crowley at Rock Bottom Chicago, so I have no worries. RB Chicago, on State & Grand, is also a great destination when you’re downtown.
F: What brewery do you recommend people check out?
M: Everyone knows Goose Island, but in the past few months, Metropolitan Brewing in Ravenswood has come out with some German style lagers, Half Acre on N. Lincoln has just come on line. I would also recommend keeping an eye open for Revolution Brewing in Logan Square, started by one of the principals behind Handlebar restaurant.
The best-kept secret in Chicago is the Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery in Beverly. It’s an offshoot of the Bev-Art homebrew supply store that makes meads in a “dry” precinct, so they can’t sell on-premises. You have to go across Western Avenue to a liquor store in Evergreen Park to buy them.
F: Favorite beer that you can only find in Chicago?
M: Taking the question literally, Half Acre has been popular enough that its entire production is distributed on the North Side, so I haven’t even been able to get some yet. My favorites to find are the Flossmoor Station Brewer’s Whim series of india Pale Ales. It’s a fancy silkscreened 22 oz. bottle filled with whatever IPA they’re brewing at the time; the only difference being the color of the wax seal on top. Those are available at fine liquor stores throughout the region. You need this guide to know what you’re getting.
F: Favorite festival to taste or drink beer?
M: You will not find a more amazing, spontaneous local fest than Dark Lord Day at Three Floyds. On the last Saturday of April, an inudstrial park in Munster is overrun with thousands of beer geeks, hoping to get a bottle or just a taste of Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, ranked as one of the very best beers in the world. No matter how tightly they limit purchases, the Floyds always sell out within a few hours. So they provide live music, food and other beer at their brewpub. Meantime, there are tables set up in the parking lot where attendees bring beers of their own to trade, taste and share.
If you want a better chance at some headlining beers, there the “Night of the Living Ales,” a cask beer fest put on in March by the Chicago Beer Society.