HUNTER/Gatherer #6

Paul Schneider is the blogger behind my favorite Chicago beer site, ChitownOnTap.com, as well as the new voice of craft beer over at The Chicagoist. He’s taught homebrew classes (tickets through Dabble) at Finch’s and more recently (and substantially) at New Chicago Brewing where he drops incredible knowledge about all things malt, yeast and hops. When it comes to Chicago beer, he’s got big plans — so keep an eye on this guy. He’s also a social studies teacher and more than once corrected my historical references during our alcohol-infused cultural debates. William Tecumseh Sherman, Napoleon — all I know is neither of those jokers is buying the next round.

What’s your favorite beer and style?

I’m really enjoying stouts and porters right now. Not the thin, barely-there disappointments or the double dry-hopped imperial hoo-has, but the bold, creamy, roasty goodness right in the middle. I’ve been drinking Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout, Revolution Eugene Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald, Three Floyds Black Sun, Greenbush Apathy Oatmeal Stout, and Dogfish Head Chicory Stout. I can’t really name a favorite among those; they’re all great in different ways. I’ve also been snatching up just about any saison I can find — the funkier the better. I think my tastebuds are craving warmer weather.

What’s in your fridge right now?

In the homebrew kegerator, I have an extra milk stout brewed with coffee and cara cara orange peel that just finished carbonating. It has this really interesting tension between the brightness of the citrus rind and the earthy depth of the coffee and roasted malts. The bitterness from both of the specialty ingredients pulls it all together, and the healthy dose of lactose makes all of those flavors just float across your palate. 

I also have a lemon pepper saison that I brewed with lemongrass and coriander for the citrus quality, and Szechuan and pink peppercorns for a gently tingling mouthfeel. A ginger addition puts the spices in harmony with the bready wheat and pilsner malt flavors and makes this a great sushi beer, though it complements a good bratwurst just as well.  

As for commercial beers, I’m sitting on some 2011 Bourbon County Brand Stout, including the coffee and Bramble Rye versions. They’re ponied up right next to their Goose Island cousin, King Henry. A few bottles of Bell’s Hopslam are waiting for the right occasion, as well as some Boulevard Tank 7 and Half Acre Big Hugs. I have some homebrew from Soma Ale Werks and Brutally Honest that I picked up at Brew Ho Ho last month that I’m excited to dip into. Sadly, my supply of Greenbush bottles from our tri-state beer run is nearly depleted. 

What was the first beer that clued you in?

I was home from college in December of 2007 and went to the Goose Island brewpub in Wrigleyville with some friends after a concert at Metro. At the time, I really enjoyed 312 and thought it was the greatest thing on earth. Ha! 

My buddy Steve came back to our table at one point with a chalice of hazy golden nectar that glowed like it was on fire against the yellow light of the fermentation room. The glass was marked with a highly-embellished “M” whose glint screamed, “Motherfucker, stop staring and drink me!” I obliged, and Matilda rocked my world. I had no idea beer could taste like that. I’ve been chasing life-altering beer experiences ever since, and I’ve found them in hop-bombs, imperial stouts, sours, and countless other beers that have stretched my palate in new directions. More recently, I’ve been seeking out and really appreciating superb examples of less extreme classic styles. Haymarket’s Speakerswagon Pilsner and Goose Island’s Harvest Ale have sold me on the harmony, balance, and subtlety of more moderate amounts of hops and barley.

What’s your most memorable beer moment?

I have to admit that I’m a total geek. I love learning. My day job is teaching history and being a geek is totally fine — probably necessary — in that realm, but it’s something that I carry over into the beer world for better or worse. That said, my most memorable beer moment was teaching an all-grain homebrewing class at New Chicago Beer Co. I had an enthusiastic group of students and we had a great time brewing, laughing, and learning together. After all, isn’t this whole beer thing great because it’s social, because it brings people and ideas together? Sure is for me.

Bartender or brewer?

A bartender, at best, can be a curator of a beer experience, and there’s dignity and value in that. The social component of bartending is compelling to me, but not to the degree that the creativity of brewing is. That’s where it’s at for me. The inventiveness of someone like Jared Rouben at the Goose Island brewpubs, Pete Crowley at Haymarket, or Jim Cibak or Wil Turner at Revolution is really a gift for all of us. They churn out dozens of one-of-a-kind offerings every year, mostly using the same four ingredients. It’s really amazing what they do, akin to the blend of technical prowess and improvisational genius of a great jazz musician.  

What was your greatest beer hunt?

My greatest beer hunt was actually a journey, much more an exploration than a mission. Last summer I went on a road trip through Michigan with my girlfriend at the time. We hit Three Floyds and Greenbush on our way up to Grand Rapids to check out Founders and Hop Cat. From there, we made our way down to Kalamazoo for Bell’s, then ventured east to Arcadia and Dark Horse. We passed through then just-opened Paw Paw Brewing on our way home. It was a killer trip that got me excited about filling in some notable gaps and stretching myself farther north and east next time. It also convinced me that Michigan is a top-tier beer state, and that Chicago has a hell of a lot of room for growth.

What’s a beer on your wishlist?

My wishlist is pretty long. At the top are the Chicago breweries coming to market soon like New Chicago, Pipeworks, Solemn Oath, Spiteful, Argyle, and Broad Shoulders. I’m also really excited to try beers from breweries that haven’t hit the Chicago market, like Surly, Deschutes, Russian River, and Sixpoint. If I had to pick one beer, I would say The Abyss from Deschutes. It’s supposed to be an incredible imperial stout.

Paul will be excited to know that I brought him back a bottle of Abyss from Deschutes on my recent trip to Portland. It’s astonishing. Me and a few friends did a five-year vertical tasting this past winter.

Michael Kiser