Strange Brew: The Resurrection of Chicago’s First Craft Beer
University of Chicago alum Rob Sama was just another financial analyst with an off-hours passion for homebrewing until some random Google searching took him down a winding and fortuitous path. Now Sama is the founder, or at least the man responsible for resurrecting Baderbräu, one of Chicago’s earliest craft brews, which will be poured this upcoming Friday and Saturday during the second annual Beer Hoptacular (at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago Ave.; click for info and tickets). Sama spoke to executive editor Cassie Walker Burke about his new venture.
What is the significance of Baderbräu to the average Chicagoan?
I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago [graduated in 1993], and I got into homebrewing there. Our favorite beer we would drink was Baderbräu, Chicagoland’s first original craft beer; it was first brewed in 1989 in Elmhurst. Goose Island was up and running at the time, but it wasn’t bottling.
What was it about the taste of Baderbräu that made you remember it all those years after college?
It was a Czech Pilsner. It had more of a hop bite in the front, a little bit of caramel in the back. But part of what got us was that the founder, Ken Pavichevich, had built a brewery in Elmhurst. He came to talk to our college homebrewing club. That didn’t happen at the time. For the most part when we wanted to drink good beer, we had to drink imports. [Ultimately the Pavichevich Brewing Company shut down operations in the late 1990s].
How did you find out the trademark was available?
I was chatting with an old friend [from college] online, and I wasn’t sure what had happened to Baderbräu. I looked up Baderbräu.com, and it was available, so I registered it.
After I got the domain name, I read an article in the newspaper about lapsed trademarks, so I looked it up, and it had lapsed two months before I bought the domain name. I quickly registered it. I never thought I was going to be in the beer business, but now I owned the trademark of this beer that was huge when I was a kid.
You claim that the taste today is a replica of the original. How did you find the recipe?
I hunted down the original brewmaster. I found his name, Douglas Babcook, in an old newspaper article, but I had no idea how to find him. But then I found a condolence page for the late Michael Jackson—not the singer, but the beer critic—and there was a condolence left by the same Douglas Babcook. I sent him an email, we got to talking, and he consulted with us to get the recipe.
In the interim, what were you doing professionally?
I was a financial analyst. After I graduated college [in 1993], I lived in New York City, California, and Boston. I moved back to Chicago to start Baderbräu.
How did you get ahold of the original yeast strain?
When it comes to beer, much of the flavor and uniqueness comes from the yeast. We wondered early, is it possible we could get our hands on the original yeast strain? We asked Babcook, and he first said "no way." Then he called us back out the blue, and he said that there was this one kid [in Canada, living near Toronto] who might have it. This kid said he had been sitting on it for 15 years; we paid him to get a copy of it.
How do you copy a yeast strain? Do you keep it in your fridge? Does it get sent through the mail?
He had started a craft brewery that had failed. But he had [the yeast strain] cryofrozen. There are a couple of labs across country who cryofreeze yeast, then package it up and overnight it to you so that you can use it.
In the early batches, which you brewed at home, did the taste come close?
I had the first batch I brewed was prior to getting the recipe from Babcook; I went online and read [email newsletters from] Homebrew Digest. Once upon a time, they had these mailing lists, and I found many of them online—and then I found these recipes from some people who felt that they had close to accurately created [Baderbräu at home]. I tried it myself, and felt like I had come up with something fairly reminiscent of the original. But once I got the original recipe, I had even more precision.
Chicago has a burgeoning craft beer scene. Is it a good time to release something new, or do you worry that there is so much happening in the market that you might get overlooked?
If I were starting from scratch, with no name recognition and no brand, I might find it more daunting. But, in many ways, the hard part is done—getting people to know what it is. Now we just have to get them what they want.
Photograph: Baderbräu Brewing Company