The year 1988 marked the true beginning of the craft beer movement in Chicago. That's when the Goose Island Brewpub opened in a former Turtle Wax factory, the Weinkeller in Berwyn began making its own beer. The Tap and Growler (now Jak's Tap) and Sieben's Bierstube (no relation to Chicago's original brewing Sieben family, as I'll be reminded) had opened the year before.
And Baderbräu came out on draft, later becoming the first new bottled Chicago beer in stores since the Peter Hand (Meister Brau) brewery closed in 1977. Baderbräu was made in Elmhurst by the Pavichevich Brewing Co. until its foreclosure in 1997 (nothing changes, does it). The brand languished in limbo until being bought Robert Sama, co-founder of the new Baderbrau Brewing Co. After extensive research and no doubt tasty experimentation, Sama and his partners have brought Baderbräu Chicago Pilsener back, both on tap, and in bottles at the Binny's Beverage Depot chain.
Baderbräu had its draft debut during Chicago Craft Beer Week events during May. I talked to Bob Sama during one of these tappings at Stocks and Blondes, 40 N. Wells St., downtown. With bottled Baderbräu now appearing on Binny's store shelves, we can reveal the "inside facts."
Sama: I was into Baderbräu when I was a student and homebrewer at University of Chicago in the 1990s. I'd go to Taste of Chicago and see the huge Budweiser and Miller tents, and then there was this little booth with Baderbräu Pilsener. Ken Pavichevich was a personal hero of mine.
A few years ago, I got curious about the name, and I did an internet search to see if anyone owned the "Baderbrau.com" domain name. It was available, so I bought it the idea of doing a fan site where people could reminisce about it. Then I found out that Goose Island had just allowed the Baderbräu trademark to lapse. So I snapped that up. And I got this crazy idea to bring the beer back.
It turned out to be harder that I thought. No one seemed to have the recipe, and everyone said the yeast didn't exist anymore.I found out that Douglas Babcook was Baderbrau's original brewer. He was the former head brewer at Stroh's who had helped develop their specialty beers in the 80s and 90s. When he left Stroh's, Baderbräu was his first craft brewery. He has since gone on to many others. I didn't know how to get in touch with Douglas. So I searched and searched, and came across this condolence message board for the late Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson, the English beer journalist writing as "The Beer Hunter," had described Baderbräu as "The best Pilsener I've ever tasted in America." He passed away in 2007.
And there, among the hundreds of condolences, was a message from Douglas Babcook, with his e-mail address. So I clicked on it, and sent a one-line e-mail, asking "Are you the same Douglas Babcook that was at the Baderbräu Brewery back in the early 90's?" And he sent me this one-word e-mail: "Yes."
So we got to talking, and he was very interested in helping us bring this brand back. He gave us the recipe. I asked, 'Can we get the original yeast strain?" His first reaction was, "Oh, no, no, no. You'll never get that. That's gone." Then after a while, he said, "You know what? Now that I think about it, we stashed a version of that with a university laboratory in Canada just before Baderbräu collapsed." He's a dual Canadian-American citizen, so that's why it was in Canada.
So we brought it back, re-cultured it, and we were ready to brew.
Then we had to ask ourselves, how do we go about doing this? It was not a simple effort to do it (commercially). We talked to a lot of different breweries, and after a two-year effort, we developed a relationship with Argus Brewery (on Chicago's South Side). Argus needed an investment in their brewery, to buy extra tanks so we could brew there. Their brewmaster is a former Great American Beer Festival judge, he spent 30 years in England learning his craft, and as it turned out, he was kicking in Chicago back in Baderbräu's heyday. He wouldn't just be reading a recipe and following instructions; he remembered the beer, and he could use his memory to help us re-create it.
We're tickled with the results. I think it's a fantastic beer. For me, it tickles the neurons. It reminds me of being that college student, standing over the homebrew kettle and brewing while drinking Baderbräu.
Q: So there had to be a pretty major investment in Argus for new equipment. Did they have room for expansion?
Sama: They are a two-floor facility, and they were beginning to open up a second floor.
Q: I know they had started out as a contract brewer, but then their own branded beers just took off. They were contract brewing 5 Rabbit, and they just didn't have the capacity. Every brewer I talk to read about could be selling a lot more beer than they're making.
Sama: We have a three year deal with them to brew in those tanks. And we think that's enough time for us to get up and running in our own facility if that's where it leads.
Q: It's been just a few months since we had heard you were bringing the brand back. What's the reaction been so far?
Sama: We've gotten a lot of good reaction from guys like this one here (indicates a fellow bar patron) that are really heartfelt. We had a guy come in last night (to the opening party at Binny's South Loop) who drove all the way from Elmhurst to get a taste. And he said, "You nailed it." There are a lot of heartfelt memories. A guy had to come down here just to be here right when the first pour happened. We poured him the first one out of the tap, because had brought an original Baderbräu tulip glass, and we filled it, and he's just in heaven. Granted, this is a business and we're trying to make some money, but this really warms the heart. And it's been absolutely fantastic for me to reconnect with other Baderbräu fans.
Q: Were there other Baderbräu styles that you're going to go for?
Sama: Baderbräu also had a bock, and a lot of people were fans of that bock. I don't have the recipe for that, but if I can get it, I'll brew it. But we think that Baderbräu is a great platform for us to brew further beers in the German lager, and East European-German tradition.
Q: People are bound to start asking for a Baderbräu Light and Baderbräu Platinum at some point? What would you say to them?
Sama: No. We will explore bocks, maybe Baltic porters, Märzens (Oktoberfest beer), but no "lights" and "platinums."
Q: You'll be staying in the lager category for now?
Sama: I might do some hefeweizens or wheat beers as well.
Q: So you've got a brewing facility for the next three years. Are you looking for your own plant after that?
Sama: Yeah, but I know that it's not a simple endeavor. I want to do it right, and I don't want to be in the position that the original Baderbräu was in, where they built too much facility, but they couldn't service the debt. So I want to make sure that we have sales to cover the debt, and to grow.
Q: So, a lot of people have said that it tastes the same, even with a yeast that's been in a freezer for several years.
Sama: Yeast goes dormant when it's cold. So you can freeze it and keep it indefinitely. To us, it's a very clean brewing yeast with a little touch of fruit on the palate. But it doesn't impart a whole lot of flavor of its own. It's a super-lager.
Q: Looking into any ball parks yet?
Sama: (Laughs) One step at a time. Let's get it into Binny's first.
Background: Pavichevich Brewing Co. was started in 1988, brewing Baderbräu out of Elmhurst. Founder Kenneth Pavichevich originally intended to keep his beer draft only. He developed his own Baderbräu glass and went to account bars to instruct bartenders in how to best pour the beer. Reportedly Baderbräu was the only American beer served at the German consulate in Chicago, and was stocked at Oprah Winfrey's eccentric restaurant.
Pavichevich gave in to demands to bottle his beer in 1990. However, there were problems keeping up with demands and debt. Pavichevich took the company public, then tried to expand distribution to Washington, then as now an area saturated with its own craft beer scene. In 1997 Pavichevich missed a loan payment and the bank foreclosed on the company. Pavichevich had planned to reorganize, but was forced to liquidate the entire business instead. The Baderbrau brand was purchased by Goose Island, which brewed the beer for a while, to less success, eventually replacing it with Goose Island Pils.