Bees and branding, branding and bees. Yep, that’s how one of Chicago’s newest - and most exclusive - beers came to be. And not just any beer: a beer unique to Chicago's own Field Museum, the brainchild creation of Off Color Brewing's John Laffler and Field Museum's Megan Beckert. But first, some history.
Started by Dave Bleitner and John Laffler, Off Color Brewing introduced itself to Chicago in early 2013. Just five years earlier, the duo met while studying beer making at the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology. After an internship at Metropolitan Brewing, Dave went on to work at Two Bros. Brewing while John moved on to Goose Island.
It was at Goose Island that John became involved with their infamous barrel program. When it was time to make Gillian, a tasty farmhouse ale with honey as a main ingredient, he went straight to the source for information about bees: the Field Museum. After befriending a bee scientist, the relationship flourished and continued onward.
Three years ago, Megan Beckert, began overseeing the Field Museum’s food program. Immediately she became intrigued by creating dining experiences that would push the Field Museum brand versus advertising an already established restaurant chain. And she also wanted to promote something that was inherently a part of the museum’s mission: community and sustainability. She slowly began convincing the powers that be that the museum could develop their own branded restaurants. With the support of new President Richard Lariviere, that wish became a reality and soon Field Bistro, a cafe featuring locally grown or produced items, was born. And she happened to know a couple of dudes that might want to make a special Field Museum beer.
When approached by the Field Museum to make the beer, Off Color was intrigued. A self-proclaimed science geek, John was, well, geeked out by the concept. The opportunity to create a beer for the institution not only challenged him but genuinely excited him - his beer exclusively made for one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural institutions.
So off they went to make beer. The parameters? It needed to be clean, straightforward and approachable for the main stream visitors that come through those museum doors. Nothing too hoppy, spicy, fruity or overly crazy. After four versions, they finally landed on the right one, something that John calls a Chicago style pilsner. What is that? In a sense, it’s a variation of a Czech Pils.
During my beer-making lesson with John I learned that there is one correct way to may a Pils. Veer away from that, and you’ll create a variation...which is exactly what he wanted. Inspired by a beer drinking experience he had in Belgium, he chose to dry hop this particular beer (most lagers or pils are not) and ultimately created the Chicago style pils.
Okay, so we have the beer, now what should we call it? No one will argue that the Field Museum’s most recognizable and most famous object is Sue, the largest, most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex. Discovered in South Dakota in 1990 by what would be her namesake, Sue Hendrickson, the Field Museum acquired Sue and introduced her in 2000. She’s been the main attraction ever since. Aha, Sue Brew! That would be a great idea except that Sue has a myriad of fans way under the legal drinking age and naming a beer after an object beloved by school children throughout the world might not go over so well. Alrighty, so what makes Sue Sue? Taking a look at her, she’s a bit on the ferocious side. That gal has some serious teeth and claws. And there you have it. Tooth & Claw debuted with the Field Bistro in November 2013. The suds are available on draft and, later this winter, it’ll be available in bottles to go.
The Field Museum is made up of various scientific departments, one of them being Anthropology, the study of human cultures and community. Beer making is, without a doubt, a scientific process. Yet beer making is also an anthropological phenomenon because of the people needed to make it, and drink it. I’ve always been a big fan of the Field Museum (heck, I worked there for seven years) and I’ve always been a big fan of beer (heck, it’s my life now), but what I love about this story is that it all came to be for the same reason that science and Anthropology and saloons and beer are important to our history and culture: community.
Here you have a major Chicago cultural institution and a wonderful new local business teaming up to create something special in a place for people to gather & share stories...over a beer. Megan and her team called upon John and Dave to create a space that had this sense of community, and THAT is exactly what defines the tavern experience, past and present.
This, my friends, is the kind of stuff that makes Chicago unique and makes her one of the greatest cities on earth.