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GBH Gatherings · Critical Drinking

Phil Kuhl — Chicago's Beer Director

Chicago is one of those cities built around distinct neighborhoods, each somewhat sustainable in their own right. When they reach a critical mass of bars, restaurants and shopping, some of these neighborhoods become destinations. Logan Square, Wicker Park — aim yourself in their direction on a Friday night, and you can figure the rest when you get there. As someone who's lived north of Irving Park the entire 10 years I've been in the city, I know this pull. It's a southern gravity. 

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But a couple years ago, North Center, a neighborhood as generic as it sounds, and surroundign Ravenswood started landing some great new businesses. Tiny Lounge came north. Hazel and Orange Beautiful opened its doors. City Provisions started breaking down whole cows, making its own honey and opened a deli. And then there was Fountainhead. 

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The anticipation for the Fountainhead opening was intense. Beer geeks in this area really only had one choice at the time, the Hopleaf in nearby Andersonville. Despite its venerable status as one of Chicago's original, and still best craft beer bars, the Hopleaf was struggling under the weight of a craft culture boon. The Fontainhead, we were told, would be our answer. But little did we know, that the answer would come in the form of the Fountainhead's up-and-coming Beer Director, Phil Kuhl. 

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Phil cut his teeth as a bartender in 2003 at the Goose Island brewpub in Wrigleyville. He was exposed to brewing processes and Goose's sprawling list of beer styles. He started spending his off-hours down the street at Sheffield's, ordering anything unique he could get his hands on, and by 2007, he stepped into the role of beer buyer at his favorite watering hole based on the recommendation of the departing buyer, and now representative for Bell's Brewery, PJ Fisher.  From bartender to beer geek to beer buyer — Phil's career had a clear direction based on his passion.

After being hired on by Sheffield's GM, Mike Dorich (now of Founders) Phil had a material effect. He established the Beer School Bar in the back, using it as a platform for tastings, beer dinners and education. And in 2009, he helped open the River Grove location, training the staff and setting up the beer program. What we know as Sheffield's today, the unlikely, but substantial craft beer presence on the southern end of Wrigleyville (just far enough away from the stadium that it magically avoids unambitious bro gangs) is largely the legacy of Phil. 

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At Fountainhead, Phil helped establish a reputation for a beer program that most other bars in Chicago either work hard to emulate, or embarrass themselves trying. As phil describes it, a quality beer program is "Always evolving, doing events, looking for new beers, and being apart of the beer community." That last point is perhaps the most important. Organizing events that can draw crowds is challenge enough for other bars. But having an authentic voice and connecting with the community can't be manufactured. It has to come from the heart. As more and more bars around Chicago try to tap into the craft beer community, they're working with outside PR firms and promoters to try and get asses in their bar stools — and authenticity is being sacrificed. Fountainhead, on the other hand, took the long view and put Phil front and center to create a unique value, and build real relationships. 

Paul Schneider, brewer at Solemn Oath (and former writer at Chitownontap.com) has been witness to most of Phil's career: 

Phil is a guy whose passion drove him to create things bigger than himself. He's already left a mark on Chicago beer, and he's nowhere near done yet. His beer school at Sheffield's is something the city is missing sorely. His "It Might Get" series at Fountainhead is perhaps the most creative, impressive, and difficult recurring beer event series Chicago has ever seen. Who else manages to hold onto so many gems for so long? Who else has the vision to make such ambitious events happen so often? Nobody, damn it. If you haven't met the guy, it's a treat. Phil's passion pulls you in and makes you hang on every word he speaks about beer. His eyes light up and you're powerless but to share his excitement. 
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Phil's time at Fountainhead is full of formative experiences. He's met legends in the industry, and become one himself. 

When we were opening Fountainhead, the Craft Brewers Conference was here in Chicago, and with that tons of brewers, owners/founders, etc. We were lucky enough to be doing staff training that week. My good friend, Lauren Salazar of New Belgium came in and talked about American Craft, NBB, & how to really taste beer (very different than just drinking beer) But, when Fitz Matag of Anchor Brewing came in, I was like a 9 year-old boy meeting his favorite baseball player. Hands shaking, all flush, I'm sure my voice cracked a time or two. But, can you blame me? The man is a legend, without him & Ken Grossman, where would we be?
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Looking back on the countless events he's organized and hosted at Fountainhead, a few really stand out. 

The few "Local Cask Night" events we've done for Chicago Craft Beer Week and all the "It

Might Get... " events were wonderful. The one I am most proud of was the beer dinner with Allagash & New Belgium for their Vrienden Collaboration beers. It was one of those nights that made me realize how amazing my job really is — to be able to put together the only beer dinner for this collaboration, bringing in Rob Tod, owner/founder of Allagash and Peter Bouckaert, New Belgium's head brewer. But, to top that, to be able share the moment that Rob and Peter tasted both versions, side by side for the first time. 

Phil is entering a new stage of his career as he departs Fontainhead for Wirtz Beverage Group as their sole craft beer specialist. Carrying an enormous portfolio of wine and spirits, and literally zero beer brands, you might wonder why someone like Phil would take on a role with so little emphasis in his area of expertise. But therein lies the challenge that someone like Phil would take head-on. As he's shaped Sheffield's and Fountainhead, so will he help define the future of one of the largest beverage distributors in Illinois. And his first order of business? Bring Deschutes to market in Chicago. "Dude will be dangerous selling Deschutes" says Paul, "I have a feeling some lesser breweries will be saying bye-bye to their draft lines."

Phil made Fountainhead my bar of choice for the last two years, and his legacy there will continue to make this my go-to in the neighborhood. Thinking back, it's clear how much this bar has meant to me and my friends. We were there opening night, and we've been there for countless events since. I felt it'd be a worthy tribute to Phil to recount some of my more memorable Fountainhead visits, which have been collecting over the past couple years, but I've never shared. Here goes my own trip down memory lane. 

Cider tap takeover
Phil pulled together the best of the best in American craft ciders, including Michigan's Vander Mill and east coast phenom Original Sin among others, both making cider from their own pressed apples. Paul Vander Heide was there for a great chat about the intricacies of cider making, and shared a strong point of view on its craft. And Original Sin's Gidon Coll was waving a knife around and slicing Pippin apples on the spot. This event served as a clear sign that craft cider was well on its way to establishing its own position in Chicago's craft seen.  See my full post here. 

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July 4th on the rooftop
John Barley of Solemn Oath drove in for some drinks on one of the hottest days of the year. We soaked in the sun on Fountainhead's unparalleled rooftop bar, downed some Dark Horse raspberry ales, and watched the city crawl though its own sweat below.

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Taking care of business
Fontainhead quickly became my place for taking meetings, exchanging ideas and delivering products to GBH followers. Why mail a framed photo when you can personally hand it to a beer geek over some pours. On this occasion, I also met up with illustrator Matthew LaFleur (@doodlematt) to grab another one of his homebrews, quickly becoming known for the artwork on the labels. 

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Election Night
Hillary, myself and the Solemn Oath crew reserved some seats at the bar near the TV (and as close to Phil as we could get) to watch the nation re-elect Obama to a second term. Regardless of your politics, it was an amazing thing to watch as the country doubled down on one of our most historic leaders. I had a terrible cold that night, so I was nursing a few beers and edifying myself with the Amish chicken dinner. Phil tapped into his sensitive side and made me a hot toddy, stoping just short of tucking me in. As Ohio finally turned, we said goodnight.

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Vivant launches into Chicago
One of my favorite breweries in the Midwest, Vivant has been quietly producing and canning some of the best Belgian-inspired beers in the country. So when it came time to find launch partners in Chicago, Fountainhead was on the short list. 

I met Jason from Vivant about a year ago when I brought some of the Fountainhead and Bar on Buena team on a brewery tour trip to Michigan. When they announced that they were launching in Chicago I knew I needed to do an event with them, but with only a few of their beers in the market I decided to do a collaboration night with New Belgian as well. So, my favorite part of that night was just having old and new friends getting together and bust out some fun, new and rare beers for everyone to share. 

Phil put together a killer tap list for both Vivant, and their recent collaborators, New Belgium. And in true Phil fashion, he didn't stop there. He spent the rest of the night walking around with rare bottles from his own reserve collection, pouring tastes for his friends, such as Cantillion's Rosé De Gambrinus. 

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Phil comes to camp
Putting together the invite list for my Camp Wandawega weekend, I knew right away that I wanted to repay Phil for all his generosity over the years. He and his friend Darren loaded up the car with a dozen bottles of rare beers and a couple of guitars and headed north. Around the fire that weekend, Phil drank his fill, but shared even more, conducting an impromptu tasting for the ages.  See the full camp weekend story here. 

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Best of luck to Phil in his new role at Wirtz as he shepherds one of the country's best breweries into the Chicago market, and elevates his ambassador role to new heights. His influence will only get more powerful, but more importantly, will continue to be an authentic driving force in our industry. So the next time you're at Sheffield's, Fountainhead, or getting a taste of Deschutes Abyss or Black Butte, raise a glass and say "It might get...Kuhl." 

Michael Kiser