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Hitting Rock Bottom: An Interview with Brewmaster Chris Rafferty

By Paul Schneider in Food on Mar 6, 2012 5:00PM

Among craft beer drinkers, the chain of Rock Bottom brewpubs is often an afterthought. We sat down with award-winning brewmaster Chris Rafferty of the Chicago location to discuss his lowly place in the craft brew food chain. We thank Rafferty's corporate overlords for allowing him to spare some time for this interview.

Chicagoist: The great thing about being a brewer is getting to be creative. Except you. You have to brew what all the other Rock Bottom locations brew. What's it like to have your soul crushed by the man?

Chris Rafferty: Well, I see we're off to an all too familiar start. I always spend time clearing up this particular misunderstanding. Anyone interested in what craft beer producers are doing and take time to visit breweries, try their products, and even engage with the brewers themselves are well aware that each Rock Bottom brewery is managed by a highly trained and experienced brewmaster. Each of our brewers is bringing a really high level of creativity to their work. True, we are part of a large restaurant group, Craftworks, along with Gordon Biersch Breweries and Old Chicago restaurants, and as a result present four flagship recipes at all of our locations. That in itself speaks to the task of creating consistent, high quality brews given the variables of brewery designs, locations, water - not the simplest endeavor. Aside from that example of a very high degree of brewing professionalism we are engaged in, each and every brewer is responsible for creating, brewing, and having on tap at any given time a half-dozen more offerings representing the range of beer styles - traditional and modern/experimental ales and lagers. The many, many awards won by Rock Bottom brewers over the last 20 years are the result of that unique, individual passion and creativity that our brewers have in common with any other professional craft brewer. This brewer's soul is healthy and nourished doing what I do at Rock Bottom Chicago.

C: You recently released a series of high gravity beers with gangster-themed names like Alt Capone and Dillinger's Demise. Tell us about those beers and the genius at corporate who cooked up the idea.

CR: The genius of the "Notorious Chicago" series of high-gravity ales is completely homegrown. The idea, recipe formulation, brewing, and marketing of these ales can only be credited to brewer Marc Wilson who works in the brewery here, with me, at Rock Bottom Chicago. It's just another example of creative freedom that our brewers have to brew, and market their beers to a local taste.

C: Man, your media training must be really good. We'll crack you though. Moving on. We attended your Polar Beer Festival last month on the roof of the brewpub. Pretty cool stuff. How did the festival go at the other Rock Bottom locations, like in wintry San Diego?

CR: Right. OK. We're gonna get you straightened out on all this if it kills me. Polar Beer Festival is the first, and only, winter-outdoor-strong beer festival in Chicago and it is an event exclusive to Rock Bottom Chicago. It was my idea, two years ago, to throw an outdoor festival on our rooftop beer garden in February. Thats how Polar Beer Festival 2011 came about. It has been a sold-out event two years running now. And the great thing is, we had 12 Chicago and Illinois breweries join us in serving nearly 30 beers to nearly 300 attendees this year. If you are lucky enough to be at Polar Beer 2013, you will only be experiencing it only at Rock Bottom Chicago.

We also conduct other events unique to our downtown location - we are a stop on the Chicago Open House tours conducted by the Chicago Architechtural Foundation, we host skyline sightseeing brew cruises with Shoreline Cruises, and our monthly beer school brewery tour and beer tasting.

And if that is cleared up, I would also point out that each Rock Bottom taps a new seasonal style of beer each month that varies from location to location.

C: Chicago Craft Beer Week is coming up this May. How's it going to feel sitting on the sidelines with all the real craft brewers like Haymarket and Solemn Oath hooting, hollering, and having a good ol' time?

CR: Umm...I certainly hope that Pete Crowley, at Haymarket, and Tim Marshall, at the very anticipated Solemn Oath Brewery, [both Rock Bottom alums,] will be kickin' it this year for CCBW. I'll be glad to have some company, a long way from the sidelines, hosting and conducting events at our brewery. Last year we sold out an al fresco, pork themed dinner "Pig-Out Under the Stars" and toured a slew of beer week attendees through our brewery for a beer & cheese tasting. This year, we will again be at the Beer Under Glass kick-off event at the Garfield Conservatory, conducting the beer and cheese tasting brewery tours, and presenting another themed beer and food pairing dinner. Chicago Craft Beer Week is a great opportunity for all the local breweries to showcase their specialties and celebrate great locally produced craft beer - I wouldn't miss out on it for anything.

C: Clearly you're not understanding what we're getting at here. Let's try this. This summer, Chicago Magazine featured craft beer in their July issue. They prefaced a rundown of their list of the 36 best local brews with this gem: "We limited our search to beers brewed within 50 miles of the Loop, and we skipped all chains (sorry, Rock Bottom)." That really captures it. See what I mean?

CR: Tagging Rock Bottom Breweries as a chain is way too simplistic. Most craft-beer enthusiasts have experienced, and know, that a visit to any of our breweries is unique in creative and locally focused beers. Our task has been, and will continue to be, to brew unique, high quality ales and lagers - we just need to keep showing anyone who paints us as cookie-cutter entities that we are a highly awarded brewing group, well respected in our industry, and dedicated to providing top quality beer and food to our local markets. When I think about that "sorry Rock Bottom" comment, it's all to clear to me that, really, some folks still don't get it.

Once before, we were hoodwinked into picking Rock Bottom's Barrel-Aged Sticke Alt as our beer of the week. We even encouraged you to attend a firefighter chili cook-off at the brewpub. We won't be fooled again.

Photo credit: Michael Kiser, Good Beer Hunting