Farm-to-glass beer making
Jared Rouben's market discoveries find their way into a new batch each week
Fresh start: A sign at the Goose Island Brewery advertises Jared Rouben's Farmers Market Series beer. (José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)
Jared Rouben, the friendly 30-year-old brewmaster of Goose Island's Clybourn Avenue pub, comes to this slice of bucolic urbanity in Lincoln Park early each week for one ingredient, and one ingredient only. He might leave with an herb, a spice, a vegetable, a fruit or a condiment, and at some point, he has picked each of the above. Ingredient secured, he heads to his brewery and steeps the find into a beer that will be tapped the following Monday and be gone two days later, if not sooner.
The next week he repeats the process. And he repeats and repeats, every Wednesday, until October, when the best of the Midwestern harvest has passed. Rouben's weekly experimentation has resulted in more than 30 beers made from more than 30 fresh Midwestern ingredients, like a baby carrot Belgian wit, a rhubarb saison and a helles lager infused with apple tree wood that Rouben smoked himself.
"The best chefs in the city go there to get the best ingredients," he said. "Why wouldn't I do the exact same thing?"
As long as there has been beer, brewers have let the seasons dictate their menus, and it's an especially natural fit for Rouben, a 2007 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked in restaurants for a few years — an expediter at Per Se in New York, a cook at now-closed Martini House in Napa Valley — but has had the brewing itch since learning to home brew while at CIA. He has been the pub's brewmaster since 2009.
The Wednesday I joined Rouben at the farmers market, his jaunt began like they all do: exploration.
Wearing off-white shorts and a blue Cubs T-shirt, Rouben took his time moving through the stalls, greeting vendors with warmth and familiarity. He hugged them, shook their hands and chatted them up about ingredients and about life. Rouben's market visits are a constant juggling of the now and the later. What ingredients are available this week? What will be available in two weeks? Next month?
"It's really important to have relationships with the farmers to find out what's coming up," Rouben said. "You find your favorite person for different ingredients. And it allows you to support a bunch of different farmers."
Our first stop was Growing Power, a stall filled with fresh green vegetables grown at urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago.
"Laurell is always my first stop," Rouben said of Laurell Sims, education coordinator for Growing Power's Chicago office. "She always has fantastic ingredients. And she's a home brewer."
"Hi, honey," Sims said.
Rouben gave a quick scan of the produce and asked, "What you got good today?"
He turned to me: "The produce looks incredible, but I don't think we're going to do a summer crisp lettuce IPA any time soon. Or a collard green porter."
Sims handed us each some borage, a small nettled herb with light cucumberlike flavor.
"Imagine that in a really nice kolsch," Rouben said, referring to a crisp German-style ale. "It would be refreshing and light on a really hot day."
On we went to the stall for Leaning Shed Farm, based in Berrien Springs, Mich., where Rouben came across inferno peppers, which farm owner Dave Dyrek said is "a small version of a banana pepper, with the heat of a jalepeno."
Rouben's mind went to a peppery double India pale ale, a mix of heat and hops he created, to grand effect, last summer with a different kind of pepper. He told Dyrek he was interested, but not for two or three weeks.
We came to Ellis Farms' green and white checkered tablecloth teeming with jars of honey. Once Rouben bought 75 pounds of honey here — more than $400 worth — to make a smoked honey porter with Stephanie Izard, executive chef at Girl and the Goat.
At the Nichols Farm and Orchard table, ripe with plastic cartons full of red, white, blue and luminescent pink berries, Jeff Trapp gave Rouben a lightly tart, sort of sweet gooseberry.
"These are kind of crazy, huh?" he said. "You should do a gooseberry kolsch."
But this day's plan was already in the books. At the Seedling farm table, Rouben shook hands with owner Peter Klein and asked for "the secret stash." Klein withdrew a box out of reach from the average shopper. It was filled with 12 cartons of little lush red gems — wild strawberries. They're smaller, creamier and denser than their more common strawberry brethren. Rouben had fallen for them the previous week, but there weren't enough to infuse an entire keg.
Klein asked what Rouben planned to make.
"We're going to go back to the brewery, taste some beers and decide," Rouben said.
"You should put it in a white beer," Klein said. "I'm thinking a red and white beer."
Rouben nodded a noncommittal nod.
As we left the market, strawberries in hand, Rouben said he was happy to have seen apricots at one of the tables. He was told the apricot harvest would be thin this year.
"I would love to do an apricot IPA," he said.
We headed to the Clybourn Street pub, which opened as the Goose Island's original hub of operation in 1988, long before it bottled beer at its Fulton Street plant. Rouben usually arrives with little assumption about the kind of beer he will meld with that day's ingredient. His options are usually broad, and include any of his beers that are on tap or fermenting in the brewhouse. That day's array included a straw-colored blond ale, a deep, dark oatmeal stout and several styles in between: a saison, a Belgian blond and a wit among them.
He said all were worth considering, even the oatmeal stout, because opened-mindedness is key to invention. To my surprise, even his hop-laden IPA, was in play.
"There's a lot of mango and pineapple (flavors) in there," he said. "You don't think strawberry would do well in there?"
But it quickly fell out of contention, as did several of the other beers with big flavors, because they "wouldn't do the strawberries justice." That included the stout, a style that led to one of Rouben's self-admitted misses: In a blueberry stout last summer, fresh Michigan blueberries were lost in the beer's roasted richness.
Rouben's method for deciding which beer to marry with his ingredient is decidedly fun: slip a strawberry in the mouth, consider and savor it, then add a little beer. Repeat as necessary, with as many beers as necessary. I lobbied briefly for Rouben's hefeweizen, a hazy golden brew laden with banana and spice. With the strawberry, it would have been a magnificent flavor punch. Rouben agreed, but wanted something a little more delicate, a little more refined.
He was thinking of his bright, subtly spicy saison, which is a lighter and more elegant beer.
"It has nice Belgian aromatics — a little white pepper, Meyer lemon peel, it's nice and dry," Rouben said. "A little sweet might balance everything out."
We headed into Rouben's small office in the brewery, outfitted with a sink and some heavy-duty kitchen equipment — in this case a heavy wood cutting board and a long, shiny knife. Most of the ingredients get some form of manipulation, be it chopping, grinding, baking, smoking, toasting or pureeing. The strawberries were relatively easy — he dumped them into a sanitized cheesecloth bag that he pressed into a half dollar-size hole in the side of a keg, essentially turning the berries to a savory, fruity goo on their way down. Rouben sealed the hole, connected a long hose to the top of the keg and filled it with saison sitting in a towering silver tank above.
All that remained were five days of waiting.
The following Monday, I went back to the brewery and took a seat at the bar. Rouben's smile said he was proud of his creation. He set two glasses in front of me: one with the wild strawberry saison, which he named Strawberry Sundae, and the other filled with the regular saison.
The deep golden colors were close (the strawberry version, unsurprisingly, took on a slightly rosy tint), but the flavors, sure enough, diverged. The original saison was bright and refreshing. The strawberry saison took on tartness and weight. It was a more complex, layered beer.
To our right, a woman in a strapless pink dress, who had just finished a pint of Rouben's bright, refreshing blond ale, asked the bartender for a taste of the Strawberry Sundae. She had no idea the brewmaster was sitting two stools away.
"Does it come with ice cream?" her husband joked.
Moments later a tiny pour arrived and the woman sipped.
"Oh yeah," she said. "It doesn't taste like strawberries."
She meant it as a compliment: Strawberry Sundae was not too sweet and not too cloying. It was a real beer with real ingredients, not a cheap flavor gimmick.
"I'll do one of these," she told the bartender, tapping the glass.
Rouben nodded and smiled.
"That's good," he said.
Jared Rouben's farmers market series of beers is available at Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub, 1800 N. Clybourn Ave., most Mondays (through October) by 11 a.m. The beers are made in very limited quantities and usually gone by Wednesday, at the latest. Call first, 312-915-0071.