We had a chance to visit with Kristina, owner of West Lakeview Liquors and current Associate Member of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. The Bozic Family has owned West Lakeview Liquors since 1988. Kristina took over in 2002. She has turned it into one of the best beer, wine and spirit shops in Chicago. In late June, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kristina and her father and talk about Illinois beer, the history of the West Lakeview Liquors building, and what makes her tick:
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: How did West Lakeview Liquors come to be?
Kristina Bozic: My dad bought the building in 1986. He had a machine shop in the neighborhood over on Cornelia (right near Ravenswood) in the industrial corridor there. He came to the country in ‘59. (To her father) When did you open the shop, first in the garage? He did it in a four car garage on Lill St in 1966. He moved to Clybourn Ave in 1969, and then in ‘77 he moved here to Cornelia. You know the woodworking shop, wood sign shop on Cornelia? That was his machine shop – he sold it to them. So, I grew up machining. My Dad is a kick ass tool and die maker.
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: Do you still kick it around every so often?
Kristina Bozic: My older brother has a small specialty machine shop near Diversy and Pulaski. I stopped in ‘99.
ICBG: So I am guessing that legos looked rather…
KB: When I was a kid, whenever we would go to Germany, everyone would have legos- I would just build houses- build something and take it down. I loved it. It was really cool.
ICBG: My full time job is as an engineer. So i have an idea, to an extent, what you are talking about.
KB: Also, CNC machines. So I was doing the programming, master cam work, and setting up the machines. I miss it. So, he (KoB) visits my brother a lot. He visits here a lot. We all live in the neighborhood. He pops into my brother’s shop and hangs out a little bit.
ICBG: If i heard you correctly, you bought this building in ‘86. Your website says it has been West Lakeview liquors since ‘88.
KB: It has been a liquor store since the ‘60’s- it was grandfather-claused into a liquor store. Originally it was called Schneider’s Drugs. A drug store with a soda fountain. They had beer and shots. It was just the way it was back then. It got grandfather-claused into a liquor store in the ‘60s. Then, I don’t know who owned it. United Discount Liquors? In ‘88 we got the store. So, my brother actually ran the store for several years.
ICBG: Is it the same brother?
KB: No, he lives in Woodstock. He still works in the industry, but in Wisconsin.
ICBG: Question: Has it (the store) always been split up into a market side and the liquor store side?
KB: No, it will be 5 years this fall since I opened that side (the market side). But now I am looking to combine it as one store.
ICBG: As I am sure you are aware, with having won Ratebeer’s best beer store for 5 years running now…
KB: The first time, someone emailed me ‘congratulations on being #9’. And I was like what?
ICBG: With your store being so popular for, one reason, for all of the beer you have, is that something that just sort of happened? Or did you design your inventory to make that so?
KB: It’s a combination. My brother, Peter, ran it in the 90s. He already did amazing stuff here. He brought in excellent wine. His palate is killer, …and beer. We were the top Summit store in the 90s. The top goose, the top a lot actually. Bell’s delivered in a station wagon. It was Sam’s, the old Sam’s, Wine Discount and this place in the 90s. Jon Barabas, if you know him, he’s from North Coast and Belukus and all of those brands. Summit was his brand at the time he was working for Union Beverage (which is a now defunct company). Every time I see him he would remind me that we were the top Summit store in the 90’s. After my brother moved to North Carolina there was a guy that ran it for a little bit. He did a great job and continued what my brother was doing. Then another friend of the family ran it for just a little while. He also did a great job. Then it got into the hands of someone that wasn’t so good. So that’s where i came in. I actually came in to sell it and get rid of it.
ICBG: What year did you join the business?
KB: Fall of 2002.
ICBG: Currently beer is a rather popular thing.
KB: How did I get into beer?
ICBG: Yeah, and what are your thoughts on…
KB: It’s about time! All of this work is finally paying off buddy! All of us that have been around for a long time, it’s really exciting actually. That this is finally getting recognized. That all of these brewers are finally getting recognized. Whether here or there, anywhere. For obvious reasons, I am more of the import person but that has everything to do with my parents and spending a lot of time in Europe as a kid. I just really gel with the people there. It’s such a natural inclination for me to do more of the European beers. And nobody was doing them, nobody was representing them, or anything really. I met a guy by the name of Ron Extract who heard about what I was doing with the beer. I put an ad on Craigslist for a beer specialist and here came Ron. He worked for me part time while he was working for Shelton Brothers. He introduced me to a whole new world, and the next thing you know I am going to Europe. I have loved it ever since. I feel really lucky.
ICBG: Do you see this current beer appreciation continuing for a bit or do you think it will level off as it did in the early 90s?
KB: I see it more as an appreciation. It’s tough now. Stuff I used to get 5+ cases of, I now get one. I don’t even want it anymore. Keep it at the brewery. People are much more educated. Which I think is really awesome. People come in with knowledge or want to learn more. I have never seen that to this level, ever. I think that is really great.
ICBG: I completely agree with you. Better informed beer drinkers means better beer for us all.
KB: Our whole neighborhood, I carried these specialty items- that were always for the destination crowd. Our neighborhood is drinking them now!! That is the best thing you can ask for. To have everyone here learn and appreciate what’s on the shelves.
ICBG: I think it’s really great the opportunities that you and your store provide for folks, for example – Zwanze Day, last year. I think that West Lakeview was one of, maybe, 8 places in the country.
KB: 22 in the world
ICBG: In the US?
KB: I don’t know how many in the US.
ICBG: Still, much like what you were just saying it was an opportunity for people to come out and learn more. And your place was definitely a destination on that day, and continues to be.
KB: I was so appreciative when I heard I got it. I had no idea. I just got an email one day.
ICBG: Were you in a lottery?
KB: No, Jean (the brewmaster at Cantillon) just picked me. He said he wanted it here.
KB: I know. I actually just saw him this past weekend. I was in Worcester (MA) for the 12 % Shelton Festival. It was amazing. It was a bunch of teddy bears in one, big room. It was so cool! Everybody is so nice. They have all the brewers in one room to meet and chat, and there are so many collaborations going on. Four brewers doing 1 beer. It was really great.
ICBG: A sea of beards and smiling faces.
KB: It wasn’t too crowded. There were about 1000 people over the two days. It was really incredible actually. I brought two of the guys (her employees) with. They totally enjoyed it. They worked (they were volunteers) at the show but that got them to learn. They learned a lot.
ICBG: That kind of environment can’t help but excite you if that is something you are into.
KB: And they are. They are into it. Actually there were 8 people in the room (at the 12 % festival) that worked here. At one point or did. It was pretty awesome actually.
ICBG: How do you decide what to put up on your shelves?
KB: Oh, I am a good curator I guess. I do a lot of research. I talk and communicate with the brewers a lot. For me it’s pretty simple – if everyone else has it, why would I want it? I think the beer cooler is the exception. That is our bread and butter really. Things in the beer cooler turn over really quickly. I’ll get all kinds of stuff in there. But the warm shelves – just talking with the importers – I work directly with them – so I order my stuff a year before sometimes. Like my Boon Marriage Parfait Kriek, I ordered that a year ago, 20 cases. I got it. It is an excellent beer.
ICBG: What is your relationship like with the Illinois brewers, and to somewhat greater extent, the folks at 3 Floyds?
KB: They are really nice, super friendly. Lincoln rules… and he Pipeworks guys?
ICBG: That’s what I was just going to ask you.
KB: Love ‘em.
ICBG: Can you say a little bit about your relationship with them?
KB: Well, they worked here which is how they met. I am really happy about what they are doing.
ICBG: They have really put their foot into the collective Chicago brewery arena. Ninja vs. Unicorn..
KB: Oh my gosh! I can’t buy enough of it. I made the mistake of only buying 10 cases. -Laughs- They are really good brewers. BJ is a kick ass homebrewer, and to translate that into the size that they’re doing now. They are doing great. They have had no bad batches. They’re really kick ass. I could swear more if you’d like.
ICBG: I follow them, like I follow you, on twitter, and they never seem to really stop. I say this in the most glowing praise i can but they seems to be more than a job for them. They seem to be genuinely enjoying what they are doing. I mean, to the point where it could be 4 in the morning and they would still be smiling. I need to get in for a tour with those guys.
KB: You know, I gave them a barrel the other day – a whiskey barrel, a bourbon barrel.
ICBG: From where?
KB: Evan Williams Single Barrel. That’s my thing. I am really a bourbon girl. I have been picking barrels out of Kentucky the last few years. I get the barrels and then I just give them to everybody, and those guys offered to make a beer for our 25 year next year. They are doing Hyper Dog in a bourbon barrel. I can’t wait for that puppy. I love Metropolitan. I am a lager person. I love what Tracy & Doug are doing. If I am out anywhere and I see the Alt or the Kolsch on tap, that’s what I get. Unless there is a Zwickel .
ICBG: What are your thoughts on the growing number of breweries and brewpubs in Chicago and Illinois?
KB: It still won’t match what we had 100 years ago so I am all for it. (pointing behind her) I want this corner bar to turn into a little brewpub, and we should have that all over the city. I think that would just be stellar. I have these crazy ideas, but that’s how it was 100 years ago. So, it doesn’t matter how many breweries are going to open right now. It’s full circle.
ICBG: So you don’t think we’re near full saturation or anything of that sort?
KB: I think there is definitely a market for it – especially local. The more the merrier. There is not enough. I order Half Acre, half the time i don’t get any because they are out. So there will be more, he’s expanding, which makes me happy.
ICBG: Did you get a chance to get out and enjoy any of the Chicago Craft Beer Week events this year?
KB: No. I did not. I did go to Revolution’s party. That was fun.
ICBG: What did you think of that?
KB: I had a great time. I thought it was awesome. Got to see everybody. I was heading to a wedding reception for a friend at a pool hall. I had a blouse on and jeans and I was more dressed up than anyone at the pool hall. I could have worn shorts and a tank top and I would have blended right in.
ICBG: Just so I don’t forget, did you have a chance to get out to any other ILBG events such as FoBAB?
KB: I went to FoBAB in 2008, 2009 & 2010… didn’t go last year. Opted for the 3F 15y Party instead with my brother Peter. The Great taste, I went to the last two years…
ICBG: Is that as big a party as I have heard it is?
KB: I think what happens the night before is so beautiful. All of these bars turn into little enclaves of people. You meet new people, New Holland Bar, Floyds Bar, all the different breweries set up shop. It’s great. A lot of fun.
ICBG: The social aspect is as appealing if not more.
KB: That’s what is important to me. You know Todd Alstrom? I ran into him at the Shelton/12% Festival- he is a teddy bear. I mean it. I went to Haymarket’s opening party with Jeppe from Evil Twin and his little boy Elliot (they were visitng from Denmark and we did a tour of local breweries- Goose, New Glarus, Tyranena, whatever). One appointment got cancelled, so we got back early and we went to the Haymarket party. It was awesome! We ran into Todd and Candice. Would have never guessed that from reading the things he writes, but he is the nicest guy in the world. Anyway that’s how we met. When I saw him at the festival (12% festival) this weekend, I walked up to him and asked him… (Everyone always asks me) ‘What is the best beer you have tried here?’ I don’t know how to answer that because they are all good, unless they’re butter bombs and they’re really horrible, they are all good to me. Anyway, I asked him that, and he’s like ‘I don’t come here for that I come here for the people’. And I told him ‘OMG, you are the first person I have ever heard say that!’ That’s why I go (to beer festivals) and it was the first time I ever asked someone that question.
ICBG: Craft beer people are soooo approachable….
KB: Wait until you get into whiskey!
KB: Very nice. Wine? It’s a little different story. Beer: Teddy bear land. Everyone is so approachable. It’s just a big community.
ICBG: Well that is all that I have. Is there anything else you would like to add about Illinois beer or the guild?
KB: Go Guild!! ))