Last Thursday I debuted Alehouse Heroes, a recurring feature in which I am lucky enough to interview various beer luminaries from around the country. Last week was Charles Whedbee from the Uber Tavern in Seattle. This week I am honored to bring you Mr. Michael Roper from Chicago's esteemed Hopleaf. They are rocking over twenty taps and countless bottles, as well as gushing - let me repeat - gushing reviews from their regulars on the intahnets. One guy even writes that the place is a shithole solely to dissuade hipsters from ruining it. To this man I say, "Keep up the good fight". Hopefully I won't contribute to any hipster-related crushing of the Hopleaf spirit. God knows they ruined the East Village. Anywho, Mr. Roper was gracious enough not only to be interviewed but to bring the hardcore answers. We get into beer's relation with slow food, what makes a successful craft bar, and why Chicago is a step above when you want a local hangout. Over the course of these topics, Mr. Roper answers thoughtfully and genuinely. His passion, eloquence, and joy over his job is positively humbling. He is also emblematic in a way of the current climate in craft beer: he doesn't see the explosion as some sort of competition. He seems ecstatic about the many beer bars springing up around him and wants everyone to succeed. I knew this was true for many brewers, but to see it run all the way into the tavern . . . well let's just say it is easy to love. Anyone who wants to know why craft beer is exploding, it is because of people like Michael Roper. To Mr. Roper, thanks so much. To everyone else I interview, you're on notice: the bar has been set. Don't bring no junk to my blog. We're for serious.
T1D: Everyone seems to have a vivid moment where their passion for beer came into focus. What was yours?
MR: I think that most of the cathartic moments that have ignited my passion for beer have involved meeting the brewers, the family brewery owners and visiting their breweries. The time that I spent with Armand Debelder at Drie Fonteinen or the afternoon where I met Marc Rosier at Brasserie Dupont in the tiny agricultural village of Tourpes or my first visit to Anchor Brewery in San Francisco are among the many special opportunities that I have had to connect to the source of great beer. For me, it is the people and the stories that make beer more than just wholesome and delicious. The passion of the people is infectious and within the walls of the breweries you can see the magic. The smells, the clean, shiny steel and copper, and the pride of the brewers in their product makes drinking the beer and serving it to my customers special. Sometimes they come to me also and I share the pride that I take in serving their beer in my tavern.
T1D: Do you have a favorite beer? If so, what is it and why?
MR: This is the question asked of me most often(ed. note: yeah . . . sorry). Every day and perhaps at different times of the day, I would choose a different beer as my favorite. My mood, what I am eating or have eaten, my company or how early or late in the day it is will inform my choice. Do I have beers that I return to again and again? Of course. Are there beers that I never drink? Certainly. Today, perhaps I might have a Prima Pils with lunch, a St. Ambroise Stout coming in from a brisk walk, a Pere Jacques with my dinner, an Orval with some cheese, and a couple of Pride and Joys over some friendly conversation. The next day it might be a whole new cast. Probably, as a matter of fact. Often wine sneaks in too. Like food, music, travel and company, I choose a variety in beer.
T1D: Beer can often take me to a particular place, and I have friends who say it can evoke memories for them. Do you have any sort of response like that to a really good beer?
MR: A ball game, a fishing trip, sitting by the campfire, those intense bar room conversations with buddies, the impossible ball that made the corner pocket and the aforementioned visits to those special brewing rooms are among the places and memories tied to the taste of beer. Some of the best live music that I have seen has been in bars and it always seems right to have a few beers during the show.
T1D: Why sell beer above other things?
MR: The world of beer and the variety of aromas and flavors is huge. I like to offer as much of the best of these sensations as I can in the right atmosphere, in the proper glassware and with ideal accompanying foods. It is my mission. I have a great passion for food and wine also and they find a good home at Hopleaf too. I have never been one to say beer or wine, I say beer and wine. I often enjoy both accompanying a single meal. It happens though, that Hopleaf is beer centered because my passion for beer, the craft beer revolution and the birth and growth of Hopleaf were concurrent. I had hoped when conceptualizing the Hopleaf that there would be an audience for a bar that would only carry better beers, forsaking the mass market low-flavor brews entirely. To my delight, my timing was right, my passion was shared by others and Hopleaf was a hit from the start. It was great beer that brought them in and kept them coming. Still does. (ed. note: boo-yah.)
T1D: What do you look for in a beer for your menu? Do you have a pairing in mind, or do you sort discover those as they sell?
MR: First of all a beer has to show me something special. For some styles that is harder than others. There are hundreds of IPA style beers out there, so one has to have a pleasing and unique take on the style to make our menu. If two beers have similar attributes, the one with the cool history, the unique location, the clever, interesting owner or one with a local connection will tend to win a spot at Hopleaf. We know that there are breweries and beers that make great beer that are not always or ever represented at Hopleaf. There are too many and space is finite. I also think that there is a finite number of beers that can be properly presented and rotated in a fine beer bar. Choices have to be made. The menu should reflect the buyer's tastes and his or her perception of the tastes of the clientele. I don't like bars that have 200 beers on tap or a thousand beers in bottles. That is the sign that the buyer is just saying "give me everything". I like to change the draft menu with the seasons also. Imperial stouts in August? No thanks. As for pairings, that happens after the beer has entered the house.
T1D: Sticking with your menu, you serve things like "French breakfast radishes" and organic brisket. Part of my focus on this site is how beer is suddenly emerging as a mainstream ingredient and pairing with food. Why do you think this is happening now?
MR: In places like Belgium, Holland, Germany, The UK and Ireland the pairing of food and beer is ancient. These are places where few or no grapes grow. What they had to cook with and to accompany food was beer. Of course wine from the south is now available everywhere and for the past couple hundred years it swept beer away as the preferred sophisticated foil for food. However, wine's roots in Europe were equally humble. Beer and wine are both agricultural products that were drunk, often out of necessity by the common peasantry. Wine became the snob's choice through no fault of it's own and its price went up accordingly. More gourmet snob appeal followed.
Beer came back as a gourmet's choice when the beer available to us got better. It has only been 25 years since all that was on our shelves were choices like Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Bud, Rolling Rock and the like. No wonder chefs and gourmets did not think much of beer. Better food is available to the masses now too. Compare the cheese, bread, fish or beer section of many stores today with those of 1965 and you will see the progress in our palates. Naturally, when chefs and diners have all these wonderful beers at their disposal, those beers are going to find their way onto menus, into kitchens and onto dining room tables. With the universal availability of full flavor beers, now is the time for beer to join wine as an equal partner with food. Hopleaf jumped on this early and everyone else is joining in. It is a good thing for everyone.
T1D: Chicago has a rep as a "beer town". It stayed brewing during Prohibition to some extent, so it didn't have that purge of brewing most of the country had. But, overall, why do you think that reputation has endured?
MR: Chicago was a working man's town with lots of blue collar jobs. In the densely populated city neighborhoods, the corner tavern was and is a fixture. In those taverns the drink of choice has always been beer. While actual brewing faded in Chicago for decades, beer drinking in neighborhood taverns did not. That is how Chicago kept its "beer town" reputation. Today most of the heavy industry is gone and Chicago's jobs tend to be in the service and technology sectors but brewing is back in Chicago and there is a revival and reinvention of the neighborhood tavern. Goose Island, Half Acre, Piece, Metropolitan and nearby Two Brothers, Three Floyds and others are pouring from taps all over town. Bars that specialize in British, German, Belgian, American craft, or feature "real ale" firkin taps are popping up everywhere. There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Chicago. In dozens of neighborhoods, great beer destinations are a short walk away and when drinking, that is a good thing!
T1D: I must confess I don't have much familiarity with the Chicago beer scene. What is the local scene like? Any emerging trends?
MR: For years the Daley administration was not very friendly to neighborhood taverns and breweries and kept a lid on the growth of our beer scene. The Real Ale Festival, in spite of it's success, was given the cold shoulder by the city and driven out of town. Winds of change have blown in and new city liquor commissioners seem to have woken up to the economic, touristic, cultural and neighborhood stabilizing attributes that a thriving beer scene brings to Chicago. Not to mention tax revenue. In the past 5 or 6 years the number of bars with smart beer selections, beer centric chefs and food menus, and neighborhood breweries has exploded and it is not over yet. Being a real city, a car is not necessary to explore many beer destinations and you can seek them out on foot, public transport or in a taxi, always a better bet when drinking. I would not be exaggerating to say that there are hundreds of places where you will find better beer, wonderful food and company in Chicago.
T1D: Lastly, I read that your bar doesn't have a television (which I love). What's the key to keeping a good vibe in the place sans sports and news?
MR: I have always hated TV in bars and restaurants. TV is what you do when you are at home and not in the social realm. Hopleaf is about good beer, wine, food and conversation. No distractions. Music is always below the level of conversation. People need to find places without the multi screen bombardment. When couples go out together they should look at each other, not the TV. Sports on multiple screens, news, game shows or sitcoms are atmosphere killers. They automatically draw your eyes away from your friends, your plate and the human scene. It seems like the majority of bars are "sports bars". People who must watch the game will have no problem finding a place to do so. In fact there are only 3 or 4 tavern licensed places in Metropolitan Chicago that do not have TV. We offer a civilized refuge from electronic over stimulation. When the Cubs are in post season or the Bears or Bulls are winning, does it hurt us some nights? Absolutely. Do people call and ask if we have the game on? Yes. However, many more thank us year around for not having it, so we will tough out those rare dead nights like Superbowl Sunday or a Cubs playoff series. As for news, we have shelves full of current periodicals and todays paper on hand every day. I actually believe that it is impossible to have a "good vibe" when TV's are present in bars and restaurants.
If you don't know, now you know. As though it couldn't get any better, next week's interview is a BEAST: Shane Welch, president and brewmaster of Brooklyn's phenomenal Sixpoint Brewery in a fantastic interview. I'm a lucky man. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.