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)
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.