What’s your current position at your brewery, and how did you get started in the craft brewing industry?
I’m the co-owner and head brewer at Hamburger Mary’s in Chicago. I have been homebrewing since 1999. As a former chemical engineer, I was sent to work in Saudi Arabia for two years. Alcohol being illegal, I learned how to make fruit wines from other Americans stationed there. We used whatever ingredients we could find at the local grocery store: fruit juices, baker’s yeast and table sugar. All the ingredients were mixed together in large water jugs, capped with a balloon on top (with a hole poked in it), and placed underneath the kitchen sink for a few weeks. Many of the batches we made turned sour since we did not really understand the importance of sanitation or boiling, but the experience of actually making the wine was tons of fun. After returning to the U.S., I eventually started to brew beer using “real ingredients.” What had started as a hobby out of necessity became a passion. When the opportunity came to expand our Hamburger Mary’s franchise into the adjacent building, we immediately decided to add a small brewery to the plans. We are the only Hamburger Mary’s franchise (out of 10 nationwide) to brew beer, but I’m hoping that will change.
What’s new at Hamburger Mary’s?
Our current seasonal draft is a very refreshing Peach Wheat. In addition to seasonal drafts, we usually have several small-batch, bottle-conditioned beers available. These are made in limited quantities (8-9 cases), and when they are gone, they are gone. We have a lot of fun coming up with new recipes for the small, 27-gallon tank. Currently we have a gluten-free saison we call Goldilocks and a black rye-PA called Black Widow. The more popular small batches usually make an encore, but we definitely like to keep the selection new, fresh and constantly revolving.
What’s the best part of being a part of the craft brewing community?
Besides drinking beer? I really enjoy speaking to the homebrewers that stop by the brewpub, since I started out as a homebrewer myself (and in many ways still am one… I just have bigger pots to work with). There are several regulars of Hamburger Mary’s who stop by with samples of their latest creations for me to try, and we’ve co-hosted a couple of competitions with local brew clubs. One winning group has even brewed their beer in our brewery.
What do you like to do in your time away from the brewery?
I play a lot of volleyball, both indoor and beach. It’s good to get away from the brewpub for a while, and not think about work.
What’s your favorite food and beer pairing?
Hamburger Mary’s food is casual American with an emphasis on gourmet burgers. Burgers and beer go very well together. You could order any one of our burgers, and it would go well with just about any of our beers. When we first started brewing, though, we primarily made lighter beers, thinking people wouldn’t want heavy beers with our enormous burgers. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Some of our more popular beers have been imperial stouts and other high alcohol, darker beers. So I usually don’t pay much attention to food-beer pairings… as long as the food is good and the beer is good, our guests seem satisfied.
What’s your biggest accomplishment unrelated to your job?
I wrote a book about the adventures I had while traveling as an engineer starting up petrochemical plants all over the world. You won’t find it on any bookstore shelves, as it was only published for friends and family one year for Christmas. There may only be 20 copies made, but it felt great to have a detailed journal of those five years of my life in writing. It’s something to pass down to future generations. Who knows, maybe I’ll send a copy to Oprah… she’ll love it and make it a book club selection. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
What’s your favorite beer that your brewery does not produce?
That is a tough question! Two Brothers is a great brewery in Illinois, and since I also run a business with my brother, you can see why I’d be initially drawn to that brewery. I really enjoy their Cane and Ebel (a rye ale brewed with Thai palm sugar). I liked it so much it was somewhat of an inspiration for a small batch I made several months ago. Our Rye of the Tiger was a red rye with maple syrup instead of Thai palm sugar. Both beers were fantastic.
What’s the most memorable travel destination at which you’ve had a chance to sample the local beer?
I’ve had the good fortune to travel all over the world (six continents… Antarctica is next!). I usually always drink the local brews for several reasons: first, to broaden my knowledge and experience of different beers; and second, to reduce the environmental impact of importing beers from other countries/areas—the same reasons I generally drink the local beers while traveling within the U.S. as well. The most memorable travel destination involving local beers had to be Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. It’s impossible not to have a great time singing songs in German, eating meat on a stick and drinking beer by the liter!