On the busy thoroughfare of Western Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, in the shadow of pulsating neon lights of the Kerosotes movie theatre, lies Owen & Engine, a British-style gastropub that transports you from the noisy streets of Chicago to the English countryside. All of the exquisitely prepared food is sourced from local farms, and the same attention to detail is displayed in their carefully crafted beer selection. While the entire beer program is superb, Owen & Engine has become a destination for those seeking out a proper pour of cask ale. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), cask-conditioned beer is conditioned in a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. Rather, it is naturally carbonated through the process of secondary fermentation where active yeast continues to eat sugar and produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Owen & Engine has the largest number of cask ales available in Chicago and they take great pride in this fact. I had the opportunity to sit down with Elliott Beier (pronounced “beer,” seriously), a Certified Cicerone and the Beer Director at the Logan Square gastropub.
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: How did Owen & Engine become a destination for cask-conditioned beer?
Elliott Beier: The idea to have so many cask ales available was the owner’s prerogative. She had been traveling through England when she was inspired to open a place and when they started the build out, they decided that they were going to do cask, and they were going to have more casks than anybody in the city. Everybody said, ‘you’re going to do what? You’re crazy. You’ll never sell that much.’ Cask beer is even more perishable than regular beer. If I have a firkin on for any more than five days, unless it is something incredibly strong, chances are it’s already starting to turn and I’m going to have to dump the rest of it. Which affects our costs quite a bit. It’s harder to sell through casks in summer, especially when it’s warm out. People don’t think about cellar temperature beer. The American palate wants something cold. We are starting a thing on Wednesdays where we will be doing a dollar off all casks from here on out, just to help move casks along. But come winter, we have no problem at all. We’ll go through two or three casks per line a week during winter.
Many people come to try their first cask with us at Owen and Engine. There aren’t a lot of places that offer cask ale. We even have a following of people that want to drink cask ale and want to drink it right, and they come specifically to us for it, especially if they want a variety of things. We have people come in pretty regularly because they know we will have what they want on cask. It’s a niche within a niche, but it’s a growing niche within a niche. But people are definitely seeking us out to scratch that itch.
ICBG: How did you receive your current position as Beer Director at Owen & Engine?
EB: The owner knew that she wanted somebody who was going to be able to share his/her knowledge [of beer] with the staff, with everybody, be passionate about good food, good drink, good beer. When I was first hired, I was just a bartender; I wasn’t a beer guy. In fact, our original beverage director told me within the first week when I was bugging him, telling him, ‘hey, we should get this,’ ‘hey, we should get that,’ or ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we got this [beer] to pair with this dish,’ he turned to me and said, ‘Elliott, this will never be a beer bar.’ So, he didn’t last very long. And I got control of the beer program about two weeks after we were open. And I did my best to turn it into a beer bar.
ICBG: How did you get into beer?
EB: I have always kind of known that I liked beer. I had my first taste of something other than BMC swill at the Mellow Mushroom in Charleston. Somebody gave me a sip of their Rogue Hazelnut Nectar and I just had this epiphany, ‘beer can taste like this?!?! What?!’ So after I finished Americorps, I moved back to Kansas City and when we would go to parties I would be the only guy bringing the nice beer. I just didn’t like the taste of Natural Ice or anything else my friends were drinking. Miller Lite was OK but I wanted something I could taste, you know? So, not too long after moving back to Kansas City I got a job at a little beer bar called Waldo Pizza and picked up as many shifts as I could and trained to do everything. We had 144 beers by the bottle and another 16 on draft, and at the end of every shift, you got a shift beer. So you could pick any beer you wanted, within reason, bottle or draft, and drink it at the end of your shift. And I just started going through the entire list and tasting everything. And, having the last name that I do has pushed me to want to learn more.
ICBG: When did you receive your Certified Cicerone?
EB: So, I started getting into beer at Waldo Pizza, and just tasted and tasted and tasted [every beer they had available], and found out about the Cicerone program in 2007 and I was very curious about it. When 2008 came around, a round of people went in to take their test and I basically said to myself, ‘Alright, this is a real thing, you gotta do this.’ And I buckled down, studied, took the [Certified Beer Server] test the night before I flew out to the Great American Beer Festival of 2008, Scotch drunk at three in the morning. I had been waiting to take the test because I wanted to be sure I was going to pass and I had no idea how hard it was going to be, and I studied and studied and studied, and kept putting it off thinking to myself ‘I got to make sure it’s right, I got to make sure it’s right,’ and low and behold, Scotch drunk at three in the morning because I finally got impatient with myself and just went and did it. I finished the thing in 15 minutes and received a 93%. So, apparently I had been studying enough. But I kept studying, I started taking on larger beer roles at the beer bar, and then I interviewed for a job at Boulevard [Brewing] at the same time that I went and signed up to take my Cicerone exam. I hadn’t heard anything [from Boulevard] for a while and flew to Chicago to take the Cicerone exam. I then flew back to Kansas City and found out at the same time that I had the job at Boulevard and that I passed the Cicerone exam. So I spent another year working in the city at Boulevard and at Waldo Pizza and then came straight up here [to Chicago].
ICBG: How has that certification assisted you in your field?
EB: It’s helped quite a bit. I have an innate understanding of beer styles and so I know, for the most part, what to expect out of various beers when I get them. So I know, especially when it comes to food, exactly what I should be drinking or what I could recommend without, for the most part, having tasted it first. It has helped me train my palate, sharpen my palate. There are a number of jobs that I would not have had if I hadn’t had the Cicerone. Or at least it would have been a lot harder. All three of the jobs that I’ve had here in Chicago have been because of my Cicerone certification. Whether or not the first two utilized me because of it remains to be seen but all three of the hirings have been just because of the depth and breadth of my knowledge of beer. But it’s also extended me the opportunity to do more. Because of my certification, I am tasting with the Beverage Testing Institute and I can proctor Cicerone exams now, too. So, I’m staying active.
ICBG: How important is it for a restaurant or bar to have a Cicerone on staff?
EB: For places that want to be focused on beer, or beer and food, it’s incredibly important insomuch as it shows both a.) you have somebody that knows what they are doing and b.) since they know what they’re doing, they are going to keep the beer in the best possible form. Beer is perishable and it needs to be taken care of. And there are a lot of places that are kind of jumping in saying, ‘hey, we’ve got craft beer too’ when they’re not taking care of it. They’re not having their [draught] lines cleaned regularly; they leave their bottles out exposed to sunlight, all things that are bad for beer. And especially as far as the rapid pace that craft beer is developing in Chicago, if craft beer isn’t treated right, somebody is going to be like, ‘hey, I want to try that craft beer.’ And if they get it from an infected line because the place isn’t cleaning it well enough, they are going to taste it and they may very well decide that they hate that beer and will never try it again because it wasn’t taken care of. It’s important to show that you have a Cicerone because you want to inform people that you are taking care of the beer, that the beer is the best that it is going to be. It’s not an afterthought, it’s something that you take seriously within your restaurant or bar.
ICBG: What exactly brought you to Chicago?
EB: I wanted a city with a better beer culture. Kansas City’s beer culture is getting there. Chicago, when I decided to move, was on the verge. I could tell it was about to get a lot more aggressive. Chicago’s beer market seemed the most exciting, the most interesting, and it had the most potential for growth as far as people getting into it. Low and behold, in the last year, year and a half, craft beer has just exploded here in Chicago. For a long time I wanted to be in a different area where they have a big breadth of beer and a much wider array of food than just pizza to try and pair the beer with. And I finally have that at a place like Owen & Engine that does an amazing job both in execution and variation of style.
ICBG: What are your thoughts on the growing Chicago craft beer scene?
EB: I think it’s really, really exciting that so many breweries are opening up [in Chicago] this year. I know a lot of people have talked about shelf space and whether or not we can support this number of breweries. Of course we can. I mean, Portland, Oregon, for example, has more breweries than any other city in the world; somewhere around 54 breweries in a city of 600,000 people total. And they support all those breweries just fine. 40% of all dollars in Portland spent on beer in the grocery store was spent on craft beer. Chicago can do this, especially with the way the culture here is changing and exploding. It’s just a matter of educating the consumer, getting everybody out there and exposing them to different styles and showing what beer can be for them. It won’t be ‘just go out and have a beer’ anymore. I think it remains to be seen, though, to see how the local breweries will stake a claim in a certain set of styles that they stick to or that they excel at. Everybody and their mom have an everyday pale ale and a golden ale. And it’s hard to be remarkable within that category because there is just so much out there. And then the incumbents that have been around forever are so well established with their pale ales and golden ales that it’s going to be hard to carve out your niche in the market using just those styles. It’s going to be very hard to unseat the kings. Solemn Oath is doing something great, focusing on Belgian styles and being known as a Belgian brewer is going to be particularly wonderful for them. And Pipeworks is smart, they’re making their mark by doing all extreme beers, which is great, too. Their beers have been amazing.
ICBG: When did Owen and Engine become a member of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild Associate Member?
EB: We joined this year. 2012. We had known about it. But, honestly, we didn’t know that there was an option to become an Associate Member until [Executive Director] Justin Maynard approached us back in March. But as soon as we figured out that we could be a member we jumped at the opportunity. We’re a part of the fight, as far as the market side. We stand by the ‘no crap on tap.’ We want to showcase what beers can do. So we will be happy to sell it and educate people and tell them, ‘hey, try this.’
ICBG: How has the Guild supported you so far?
EB: They’ve passed along information on events that were helpful. They’ve also re-tweeted our beer-centric tweets. I know that they are trying to be as helpful as possible.
ICBG: How does a beer get chosen to go on the tap lines at Owen and Engine?
EB: Occasionally I’m approached [by breweries] but for the most part I kind of know what’s going on. It’s all about trying to fill niches. And so I have handles that I have set with certain styles, so I know that I always have an IPA represented, I know I always have an English Bitter, I know I always have a German-style Pilsner represented. I am trying to, with five/six/seven handles, cover the spread of styles and then with the rest of them, just have fun. Get esoteric, get interesting, get weird, and try to have the interesting one-offs. As far as firkins go, I get what I can. [Owen and Engine owns] 24 of our own firkins that we ship out to various breweries. We keep most of them local but some of them we ship out. I rinse them out and send them empty to the breweries that are far away. The close guys, I can just drop them off. But after [the breweries] fill them, they ship it up through the supply chain to the distributer, and then they send it to us.
ICBG: What is your favorite beer style?
EB: Overall, my favorite style is Saison. Generally because it’s the Gatorade of beer. It’s quenching, you can drink it any time, it goes with almost any food, and it’s got enough hoppiness to it that it’s not going to fall over, but not so much that it’s abrasive. It has nice, soft wheat characteristics, it’s very effervescent, nice peppery [flavor]. Generally Saisons have a different aspect of Belgian yeast than other Belgians, it’s got a more peppery/spicy yeastiness than the clove/banana/bubblegum notes. And I really enjoy that. That being said, it just kind of depends on the weather.