I have never been to a RAM Restaurant and Brewery before and, I admit, I had already labeled it as a ‘chain brewery’ before I had even experienced the beer. What better way to combat misconceptions than by going directly to the source, right? I contacted Thomas Nelson, the Schaumburg location’s brewer, and set up a time for us to talk beer and hopefully squash some of my ingrained fallacies.
I arrived at my interview almost an hour early (was not expecting traffic to be so light!) so I took that opportunity to hang out at the bar. Having never had a RAM beer before, I was not sure what to order. The bartender just started placing tasters of many of their brews down in front of me to aid in my decision. I ultimately chose the Big Red IPA and was momentarily horrified when the bartender reached into a freezer and pulled out a frosted glass. Despite the marketing gimmicks such as color-changing serving vessels that show the consumer when the beer is sufficiently freezing, it is actually detrimental to serve a beer too cold. I decided to not let this cloud my opinion of the place (and I added a question regarding frosted mugs to my interview) and just tried to enjoy the beer. Which I did. This amber-hued ale provided a malty caramel backbone for the bitter hop bite up front.
When it was time to meet up with Nelson, I was lead into the brewhouse. He gave me a brief tour and then led me outside to show me the hop vines. Yes, Mr. Nelson has 10-year-old vines of Cascade hops growing right up the grain silo and he frequently uses the harvest to dry hop his beers. Nelson then led me to the patio so we could commence the interview. We were sitting and chatting for about five minutes when a server brought out a selection of all of their beers. Tom lead me through a tasting, instructing me which beers to taste first. He placed the Blonde next to the Light Lager (his “homage to Schlitz”) to compare the similarities and differences. The Light Lager didn’t have the bite that the Blonde did, and it was much drier. Both were solid representations of their respective styles.
We worked our way through the other beers, comparing and contrasting similar styles. We tasted the Barefoot Wit next to the Hefeweizen, and the Stout next to the Porter. In between tastings, I asked Nelson about his beer journey and his experience working for RAM Brewery (see interview transcript below). A huge thank you to Nelson for being so generous with his time and his beer, and the next time you are in Schaumburg, make sure you stop by and give their beers a try!
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: What is the structure of RAM? How does each RAM distinguish itself from the others?
Tom Nelson: The RAM is a private, Iverson family owned and operated company based out of Lakewood, Washington. It was established in 1971 but we didn’t start brewing beer until 1995. We have over 32 locations in the Northwest, Midwest, and Colorado, and we are opening three new locations this year. While all locations have the same set of flagships, each RAM brews distinctive seasonal beers. This Schaumburg location currently has a White IPA, an American Light Lager, and a Black IPA on tap. Seasonals will vary from location to location.
ICBG: Tell me a little bit about the beers that are brewed here.
TN: We brew all of our beers on premise. We have six award-winning flagship beers that we have available at all times . Our flagship beers include Chicago Blonde Ale, Big Horn Hefeweizen, Buttface Amber Ale, ’71 Pale Ale, Big Red IPA, and Total Disorder Porter. We take pride in the consistency of our flagship beers. The majority of the beers we brew are ales, but I have a passion for lagers. Some of my favorite lager styles include Maibock, Oktoberfest, and Dunkel Lager, which I call Frostbite. My favorite, though, is Norm, a Czech Pilsener named after my Dad. Lagers take a little more time, a little more patience. The end result is well worth the wait.
ICBG: What are your creative liberties with regard to the beer at RAM?
TN: I am able to brew various styles of seasonal beers throughout the year. Coming up with a name sometimes is the hardest part. As far as creativity, though, the dry hopping with the hops I grow here, that’s kind of cool to do. I can take any of our flagship beers and just add some hops to it and create a different taste profile.
TN: It depends on the season. I like Czech Pilseners this time of year. I like Oktoberfest in the fall. In the winter time, Stouts are one of my favorites styles. Any time of year, though, I like IPAs such as our Big Red IPA. We also have a Black IPA on tap and we’re also brewing a White IPA for the Great American Beer Festival. For that one, we are trying to get a lot of the citrus flavors from the hops; we were fortunate enough to get some Citra hops. One of our servers is a homebrewer and I encourage him to experiment so we are going to collaborate on this.
ICBG: I know it is like choosing among your children, but what are your favorite beers at RAM?
TN: Big Red IPA & ’71 Pale Ale. And, of course, Norm. Oktoberfest, Stout and the Black IPA are also favorites.
ICBG: How did you get into beer? What is your beer journey?
TN: I was a homebrewer and I worked for several years at a homebrew store. I started doing odd jobs for breweries. Bottling line, helping out install equipment. I just kind of hung out and watched and got offered a position based on my knowledge. I started homebrewing in 1988, started brewing professionally in 1994.
ICBG: How long have you been with RAM?
TN: 15 years. I started with the RAM in Dallas, TX in 1997. I moved to Schaumburg to brew for the RAM in 2000.
ICBG: Some beer geeks may discount Ram for being a chain. How do you respond to that?
TN: I think once they try our beers, especially the seasonal beers, they will realize that every RAM brews great beer. We have been in the beer business a long time and have been recognized at the Great American Beer Festival and other beer festivals with numerous medals.
ICBG: How has the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild assisted RAM?
TN: I’ve been a member of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild since 2000. Initially, it was the best way to meet the other brewers in the area; meetings were at a different brewery each time so you’d get to see the different breweries. I also like that the Guild helps with the shipment of beer to festivals like GABF.
ICBG: What do you hope to get out of Guild membership going forward?
TN: I enjoy the field trips we would do. I look forward to events like Replicale and Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB). Exposure for RAM through the website, such as this interview, is also beneficial.
ICBG: What are your plans for participating in Chicago area festivals this year?
TN: I’ve mostly been staying local. I did the Barrington fest, I do that every year. I do the Hop and Vine Solstice here in Schaumburg at the nature center. Next week I’ll be at the Golf Links in Schaumburg, it’s a fundraiser for Schaumburg Parks and Recreation. In September we have the Ryder Cup. I am even brewing a lager for the Ryder Cup called 19th Hole. Everybody, including non-golfers, can stop by the RAM in Schaumburg for an ice cold 19th Hole. I’d like to see more of those scavenger hunts; I think they had something like that during American Craft Beer Week, where you have to go to each brewery in the area. That would be fun.
ICBG: Has RAM done any collaboration beers with other breweries in Chicagoland?
TN: No. It’s a matter of tank space and the fact we sell so much beer on premise makes it difficult to collaborate. You also run into the logistics of getting the beer transferred. The legalities right now are kind of… You would have to go through a distributor.
ICBG: I’ve noticed that all of your beers are sold in frosted mugs or pints. Why is your beer served that way?
TN: Our beers are available in either an ice cold 13oz, 18 oz glass or 24 oz mug. The ice cold glass is one of the trademarks of the RAM dating back to 1971 and is part of who we are. ‘Coldest beer in town.’ Now if a guest wants our beer in a room temperature glass, we will gladly accommodate them.