An Interview with Christopher DiBraccio, Owner of Brixie’s Bar and Grill
On a fairly dilapidated strip of Ogden Avenue in Brookfield, IL, surrounded by cheap motels and funeral homes, is one of Chicagoland’s best kept secrets: Brixie’s Bar and Grill. This establishment has been around since prohibition was overturned and it was one of the first bars in the suburbs to accept and appreciate craft beer. Brixie’s is now run by the granddaughter of the original owners and her husband, Christopher DiBraccio. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with DiBraccio and learn more about this craft beer institution.
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: How long has Brixie’s been around? What is its history?
Chris DiBraccio: Brixie’s has been around since 1934; my wife’s grandparents opened it the year after prohibition ended. Prohibition ended in December 1933 and they got their liquor license in April 1934. And her grandparents ran the bar into the late 1960s and then her parents took it over. And then my wife and I took it over in 2000. So we’ve been at it just about 12 years now. So we’re third generation.
CD: It started with my father-in-law. There was a big craft movement in the late 1990s; Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and some local ones around here like Golden Prairie and Baderbrau. So my father-in-law started bringing these craft beers in. He had 28 tap handles but there wasn’t that much American craft beer around at the time, so he had a bunch of German beers on tap. My father-in-law kind of got my interest peeked in craft beer while I was working for him back then. And then you had the rise of craft in ’97 and then it kind of came down a little bit after that. The strong ones survived but Baderbrau did not, Golden Prairie did not. Bell’s was a big player back then. So you had your Bell’s, your Sierra, your Sam’s. Even Goose Island was around back then. We’ve had Three Floyds since they’ve been around; they just had their 15th anniversary so that was 1997, 1998. Two Brothers, we were supposedly their second account. [So, as the American craft beer scene grew, we brought on more American craft beers.] We’ve been around for a while and my father-in-law has been doing craft beer. 2002 is probably when I took [Brixie’s] totally over and I added four handles, and I made it all American craft beer. I got rid of the Foster’s, I got rid of the St. Pauli Girl. We always had at least 10 of those [light lagers on tap] but then I went to all American craft beer. Right now we have 30 craft ales and lagers and two craft ciders on tap. I’ve probably brought it to the next level but the market is available to do that now, where it wasn’t readily available for my father-in-law.
ICBG: Who do you feel is your customer base? Do people come in from Chicago or are your clientele mostly from the surrounding suburbs?
CD: When people ask me to describe [Brixie’s], I say it’s a ‘neighborhood bar.’ I would say we are somewhat regional, though; I wouldn’t say we are strictly a neighborhood bar. There’s no way we are drawing customers from only the three or four blocks surrounding us. We’re drawing from the near-west suburbs. Do we get people from far north? Do we get people from Chicago? Do we get people from far south and far west? Yes, but it is mostly near-west: Berwyn, Cicero, Brookfield, LaGrange, LaGrange Park. Our core customer group is the 10 or 11 surrounding suburbs. People ask if this is a sports bar. My answer? No. We don’t open until 3pm on Sundays, we’re not going to open early for the 11am football game. If I had a lunch crowd or a brunch crowd then, yeah, I would be. But not for sports. I can’t compete with bucket specials. I don’t have buckets. Sometimes I’ll do pitchers but it’s not cheaper; I’ll charge you for four pints. It is what it is.
ICBG: Brixie’s has been around quite a while. How have you seen the Chicago craft beer market change over the years?
CD: It’s been really good. As I’ve told people in the industry, it is a good time to be in the industry. The consumer is much more accepting of craft beer today. I tell my staff all the time, we push quality over quantity. Back in the day, back in the 1980s or early 1990s, you would push 10 domestic light beers for $1.50. Now, with DUIs and people wanting better tasting beer, people don’t want to drink $11.50 worth of light beer. I may sell two craft beers and the customer will be on his or her way. So, quality over quantity. The drinker’s not looking to down 10 anymore; they are looking for two quality beers. The craft beer might be higher ABV sometimes but there’s more to taste.
It’s a debate in the industry whether to even have [domestic light lagers] available. And the debate is, like, we don’t need to carry that. Those places are more in the city. Craft beer in the city is so much more mainstream than it is out here. If someone comes in and orders a Miller or Bud, I’ll tell them that we have a craft brewed lager that has more taste. We try to support the local, support the small. I tell my staff is to make a unique place. What makes Brixie’s unique is to not have all of those [domestic lagers on tap]. Not to have the newest Miller 64 or the Chill Bud 55. We do have some of those in bottles but those don’t make us unique. I can throw a stone at all of the places around here that have all of those. What makes us unique are the 32 taps of different [American craft] beers that you can’t get anywhere else. I went through my taps the other day and out of 32 of them, 20 of them you could rarely find in the liquor store; they are available draft only. Like [Goose Island] Green Line, Solemn Oath, Revolution. They’re not really in the liquor store right now. Craft beer drinkers come to drink stuff they can’t get anywhere else. You can’t get it at a liquor store; you can get it at a good beer bar and that’s about the only place you can get it. We don’t try to change the customer; you don’t have to drink craft. We just say, ‘hey.’ When they look at the tap handles and they don’t see Miller or Bud, they kind of know what we’re about. And if they like us, they like us.
CD: Not long, not long. I’ve always wanted a way to get into the Guild. I wasn’t even aware that they had associate members until [Illinois Craft Brewers Guild Executive Director] Justin [Maynard] told me. I met Justin at the CBS picnic last year but I’ve known Justin’s brother since high school. Justin asked if I wanted to be an Associate Member and it was just a no brainer for me. To be a part of that group and to be a part of the brewers and align myself with them. The other Associate Members are people I look up to. We all know each other, we all talk to each other.
ICBG: What does this membership mean to you? How has it helped you?
CD: It’s just a plus; I enjoy being associated with these people I respect in craft beer. I was at the annual meeting at the Revolution production brewery last month and I got to meet people, see other bar owners. I talked to the Solemn Oath guys. There are all these new breweries coming. I got to talk to Tony [McGee from Lagunitas], any time I get to talk to Tony is great. Tony played guitar at Brixie’s, like, five years ago. Tony’s just fantastic. The craft brewing industry has just been great. It’s kind of a whirlwind now. I get to meet great people, great beer lovers, and there are so many events that I enjoy going to. I’m kind of a fan [of craft beer] too so that helps.
ICBG: How do you get the ideas for the various events that you guys have?
CD: I would like to say it was all original but we look to see what other bars are doing. In the craft beer industry we all borrow ideas from each other but then throw our own little twist on it. We started doing our own thing on Fridays so people know if they come in on Friday, there will be something special on tap, something they haven’t seen before. For instance, this Friday we are doing a high gravity series and all of those beers are hard to find, hard to get. And as long as these craft brewers keep making these interesting, fantastic beers that I can get my hands on, that will continue. High gravity is just some of the more experimental stuff.
ICBG: I saw on your website that you have a craft beer group for women. How did that come about? How has the response been?
CD: We had our first meeting last month, and our next meeting is on August 30th. The idea was mine that I gave to my manager, Angie. There is a homebrew club that meets here and I looked out at the brew club members and it’s 95% guys. And it can be intimidating for a woman [to participate if it’s all guys]. I think craft beer’s great, I think different styles lend more to the palate. Goose Island definitely has some awesome [transitional beers], like their sours or light, fruity beers. Not that women only like fruity beers or they don’t like an IPA or a double IPA, but guys tend to just be ‘imperial this, imperial that.’ For the first [women’s group] I had Rachel from Goose Island come in to talk about beer. They’ve always marketed wine and spirits toward women, but craft beer is just as great and can be enjoyed just as much.
ICBG: What is the decision making process to determine what beers should go on tap?
CD: I have a new Assistant Manager who helps me with the beer decisions. There are so many factors: style, price, what I already have on tap (I don’t want too many of the same style). And then I let the customers determine it. Is it summer? Chicago’s a great wheat market. I could have five or six wheats on [in the summer]. If you’re on the West Coast? You’re lucky to find any wheat beers out there. You’d have 10 IPAs and black IPAs and double IPAs; very rarely are there any other kinds of beer. And price has a lot to do with it. I try to keep a $5 pint here. And then the higher-end beers are served in snifters and I will charge up to $7. Very rarely will I put anything out that is in less than a 12-ounce snifter because I don’t like to do it; it’s just my preference. And I want that snifter to be at 8% ABV, I want the ABV to be there. [Dogfish Head] 120, [Goose Island] Bourbon County would be exceptions; I put those in seven ounce glasses. The craft beer consumer is more educated and knows that ABV correlates the price, meaning the amount of malt and the amount of raw materials that you put into the beer obviously boosts the ABV as well as the price tag. And the other predictor is that it has to be American; I have 32 taps of American craft beer and cider. I want to support American craft brewers. I think the craft beer movement is going to become more localized.
ICBG: What are your favorite styles of beer? What is your favorite beer currently on tap at Brixie’s?
CD: With big beers, as much as I enjoy them for business, they are not my favorite beers to drink. I’ve always been more of a porter guy rather than imperial stout guy; a well-balanced IPA guy rather than a double IPA guy. I’ll have a little bit but Bourbon County? [Three Floyds] Dark Lord? I don’t drink it that much, to tell you the truth. On Dark Lord Day I was drinking Zombie Dust; I love Zombie Dust. With all the hype I didn’t want to like Zombie Dust but after tasting it? You cannot not like Zombie Dust. It’s fantastic, it’s absolutely fantastic. That Citra hop? It has the most fragrant aroma. And it just leaves you wanting more.
Of the beers that I currently have on tap, Dirty Bastard from Founders is a favorite; I love that beer. It’s a little high alcohol for me but I love it. [Lagunitas] A Little Sumpin Sumpin, that is a great style. It’s a hybrid pale hoppy wheat. It’s a great balance. Also, Revolution Anti-Hero, Left Hand Milk Stout on Nitro. Firestone Double Jack I’ve got on right now, I love that brewery. And Green Flash. Their prices have gotten a bit expensive but I find myself going back to it, and my patrons love it too.
ICBG: Where do you see Brixie’s in the future?
CD: The big debate now is whether to open another location. How big do you want to be? Do you want to concentrate on what you have here? You should be the best you could possibly be before you start looking to open somewhere else. If we were going to open another space it would probably be in the city. While the suburbs are an untapped market and definitely need more craft beer, the draw of the city… That’s where I fell in love with craft beer. The city’s more appealing to me right now. You see these bars and restaurants sell craft beer because they think it is trendy and they are selling a ton of it. I don’t think craft beer is a trend; I think craft beer is here to stay. But it sells better in the city.