Meet the Brewmaster – Chris Rafferty of Rock Bottom Chicago

I do not get star struck by movie stars or singers; I really could care less.  But get me in the same room with a professional brewer, an individual who expresses his/her intelligent and artitistic prowess through the canvas of beer, and I turn into a blubbering idiot.  So when I was contacted by Marc Wilson, Assistant Brewer at Rock Bottom Chicago, inquiring about a possible meeting with Brewmaster Chris Rafferty to discuss a new high-gravity beer series entitled Notorious Chicago, I was insanely excited and immediately said yes.

In a previous post, I outlined how I had come into Rock Bottom to grab lunch and some beers while I was downtown running errands.  Apparently one of the Rock Bottom board members saw my write-up and suggested that the brewers get in touch with me. How cool is that? I have not been to Rock Bottom much since Pete Crowley left to open Haymarket Pub and Brewery, but I will definitely be frequenting this establishment in the future. Rafferty is making some of the best beer in the city, and I feel his beers are often overlooked because Rock Bottom is a chain. I hope I am able to dispel that notion and encourage you to give his beers a try.

First of all, let me just express how excited I am about the Notorious Chicago high-gravity series; I don’t remember Rock Bottom doing a similar series in the past. According to Rafferty, it was thought up by the Assistant Brewer, Marc Wilson. It will consist of three beers that will be released the first three months of 2012.  The first installment, Alt Capone, is January’s release and is already available at the brewpub.  At 8% ABV, it is not your average Alt which is typically a sessionable German ale (I made the faux pas of saying it was a lager! Doh!) It was quite malty but had that clean, easy-drinking feel of a typical Alt. This could be a dangerous one… The February release is Jimmy Hoppa, a dry-hopped double IPA.  The final beer in this line-up is Dillinger’s Demise, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout.  This big beer was brewed in October and has been in a barrel for several months.  This beer will be released sometime in March, so be sure to sign up for Rock Bottom notices to find out the exact launch date! All beers in the series will then be available, bottle conditioned, in 22 oz. bomber bottles.

Brewmaster Chris Rafferty

Chris Rafferty started like many of his brewer counterparts: as a hobbyist home brewer.  He was unimpressed with the macro-lagers readily available at the time, and Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams were just starting to get recognized.  He traveled in Colorado and the area surrounding the Rocky Mountains and his eyes were opened to the world of craft beer. Inspired to pursue a career in brewing, he literally knocked on the door of a brewery in Nashville, Tennessee, asked for a job, and got one in the mail room of that establishment.  This was about 20 years ago when the craft beer market was just starting, so it was fairly easy to ask for a position at a brewery and actually get it. Needless to say, the craft beer market is a little more competitive now and it is more difficult to merely go up and ask for a job.  Rafferty confesses that he is approached frequently by hopeful brewers and brewer assistants looking for that foot-in-the-door.

Rafferty has been with Rock Bottom for many years, starting at the Denver location and then moving on to the Arlington, Virginia brewery where he won numerous awards.  He moved to Chicago about two years ago when Pete Crowley left to pursue his own endeavors at Haymarket Pub and Brewery. Rock Bottom locations are clustered together into regions, and Rafferty now serves as the Senior Brewer for this region, meaning he is involved in recipe development for the flagship beers and assists with the brewing operations of some of the other locations, as needed.

I often wonder if the fun and magic of brewing is lost when you cross the line from hobbyist to professional brewer.  I asked Rafferty if he still enjoys it and a smile immediately came to his face.  “I have no reservations waking up and going to work,” he said. “I can’t see myself dedicated to anything else.”  It is so refreshing to see someone who has worked in the same industry for 20 years and still loves what he does.  It is a rare sight these days and I am insanely jealous.

Rafferty was more than generous at our visit.  When I was initially contacted by Wilson, I thought the meeting would last MAYBE an hour; I would learn about their upcoming events and beers; and then I would be on my way.  This couldn’t be further from what actually happened.  When I arrived at the brewery a little before 5 PM, Rafferty came out and showed me to a table in the bar area.  He got me a beer and we got down to talking.  Since I was insanely nervous, I kind of blanked on the questions I had prepared (so unprofessional!) but thanks to the 8% ABV Alt Capone, I loosened up a bit and the conversation flowed a little more freely.

Rafferty pouring tastes of Jimmy Hoppa IIPA straight from the fermentor

Once the hubby arrived from work, Rafferty asked if we would like a tour of the brewery.  A private tour of the inner workings of Rock Bottom Chicago? Yes, please!  I was surprised at how small the actual brewhouse was; it is a narrow room with just enough room for a hot liquor tank, a mash tun, a brew kettle, and two brewers.  Pretty tight quarters in there.  From there we went into the fermentation room where Rafferty showed us the original four fermentors, and then the ones that were added later to meet the demand of Chicago’s thirsty public.  What I didn’t know is that this building is an architectural landmark, and is even included in some architectural tours of Chicago.  While in the fermentation room, Rafferty poured us a taste of Jimmy Hoppa, the second release of the Notorious Chicago series of high gravity beers, straight from the fermentor.  This is going to be a fantastic beer, full of fruity, citrusy hops and hefty mouthfeel. I can’t wait to try it once it is dry-hopped!

Dillinger's Demise Russian Imperial Stout resting in bourbon barrels.

After the fermentation room, Rafferty lead us downstairs to where the tap line kegs are located, in addition to the many barrels of Dillinger’s Demise Russian Imperial Stout resting comfortably in bourbon barrels.  I am a sucker for a big, boozy RIS so I cannot wait for this March release!  You would think that this would be the end of the tour and the hubby and I would be shown upstairs and escorted out.  But wait! There’s more!  Rafferty went into the refrigerator and pulled out three 22-oz bottles of beer.  The first one he opened was a smoked beer that had a delicate, not overpowering smokiness that was quite good.  Next, he cracked open a coffee beer where Rafferty added cold-pressed Metropolitan coffee to the secondary fermentor.  The last beer was a rye lager, but as it was getting late, Rafferty gifted it to us to take home.

After three hours of beer, a little-too-long-awkward silence indicated that it was time for the hubby and me to be on our way.  We thanked Rafferty profusely for his generosity and insight into the life of a professional brewer.  At this point, he asked if we were hungry.  It was almost 9 PM and neither the hubby nor I had consumed anything except beer since lunch, so we said “yes.” Little did we know this meant that we would get a free meal and more beers!  The generosity made me a little uncomfortable; I immediately went home and drafted a thank you note (my mama raised me right…)

Serving tanks.

Rock Bottom: More Than Just a Chain Restaurant

I admit, I have often said, “Rock Bottom is a chain! I don’t want to go there!” While yes, it is a chain (there are 29 locations nationwide), the brewing side of things is quite local. Before 2010, brewers had carte blanche when it came to brewing activities. Rock Bottom was acquired (at least in part) by an investment firm in 2010, though, and since then every Rock Bottom is required to have the flagship beers (Kolsch, White Ale, Red Ale, a Stout and an IPA) on tap and then the brewmaster is flexible for the remaining line-up.  Regardless, all of these beers are brewed on the premises. And if you are a more adventurous beer drinker, as I am, Rafferty and his crew have plenty of one-offs available for your drinking pleasure.  On this evening, they still had the Winter Wheat (delicious!), Sled Dog Imperial Red, a barrel-aged Belgian Tripel that was aged in cabernet barrels, a porter, and a dry-hopped red ale on cask.

An exciting tidbit that Rafferty shared is that Rock Bottom will start selling bottles of their beer at the brewpub. That will be exciting; it will be cool to be able to purchase some bottle-conditioned beer as opposed to the standard beer on draft. And it will probably give those of us who cannot make it down to the brewpub on a regular basis a chance to try some of the rare one-offs.

I asked Rafferty if he ever wants to own his own place as his predecessor, Pete Crowley, has done.  He does want his own place, but it is more like a retirement plan than a soon-to-be career change. He states that he is still young, should still be able to actively brew for another 10 years or so. At that time, he wants to move to a little remote location and have a small brewery, maybe in New Mexico.  He is also happy that he can concentrate on brewing while working at Rock Bottom; he doesn’t have to worry about any other part about working for a brewpub such as the food, décor, etc.  So, while yes, Rock Bottom is a chain, there are many benefits for a brewer to work there, and it allows brewers to have the freedom to brew what they want to.

Rafferty and the entire crew at Rock Bottom was amazing. I can’t wait to go back to try the remaining beers in the Notorious Chicago series.  A criticism I have about Rock Bottom is that they do not do enough to promote the dedicated, talented, local brewers they have.  While Rock Bottom is a chain, the brewers are local and should be welcomed into the craft beer scene.  Hopefully I can encourage them to step up the marketing efforts to dispel the myth that the beer produced at Rock Bottom is “corporate.” I recommend perhaps beefing up their social marketing efforts, stressing Twitter and Facebook to attract beer geeks like me. Just a suggestion… For upcoming events and to join their free Mug Club, check out their website here.

All photographs courtesy of Christopher Murphy.

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