The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Kinzie Chophouse Gives Beer the Wine Treatment

By Erika Kubick in Food on Aug 3, 2014 7:00PM


Chicago has always been known for its steakhouses; more recently, though, our city has been celebrated for the blossoming craft beer scene. While some restaurants devote a large portion of their bartending to craft beer, the choice beverage alongside steak has consistently been wine.

Take Kinzie Chophouse in River North, for example.

The steakhouse has received numerous accolades for its wine program, including the Wine Spectator award of excellence from 2002 to 2014—not surprising, considering owner Susan Frasca is a trained sommelier. The restaurant, however, has recently begun to expand its beverage program to emphasize the place of craft beer alongside wine.

About a year ago, Susan noticed that the Kinzie’s beer sales were hurting badly, and that’s where Corey Stambaugh and Marcus Nowlin stepped in, two beer nerds and Kinzie employees who wanted to renovate the restaurant’s approach to beer.

We met with Stambaugh and Nowlin to discuss their cultivated beer program and how they’ve taken craft beer to their top shelf.

“Restaurants always push you to wine, …beer has always been considered somewhat of a low class drink, but that idea is obsolete,” Nowlin said over a glass of Gulden Draak, an anything-but-lowly Belgian tripel, served in a tulip. “When it takes this much work, and this much passion,” Stambaugh said, chiming in between sips, “it becomes high class.”

Before Stambaugh and Nowlin started their work on the beer program, a trio of mass-produced beers populated the tap at Kinzie Chophouse: Miller Lite, 312 and Stella Artois.

As they both adamantly argue, those are all essentially the same beer and not one is brewed in Chicago. (Now that Anheuser-Busch has largely moved the production of Goose Island’s flagship line out of state).

Their first order of business involved axing 312 and replacing it with the Bottom Up Wit from Revolution Brewery in Logan Square. Beer sales improved almost instantly, and Susan gave the beer-loving duo full control of the restaurant’s beer program.

Before renovating the beer selection, Stambaugh and Nowlin had already been discussing their independent beer ventures with one another; now it was time to apply their passion.

Their intentions for the beer program are twofold: to introduce the beer novice to craft ales while impressing brew snobs alike. The most remarkable beers that Kinzie offers are found on the Captain’s List, eight boutique, large-format bottles listed in the back of the wine book.

The bottles range in price from $15 to $29 and will rotate seasonally. The tap now serves six beers, and will always have brews from both Lagunita’s and Revolution Brewery. Stella Artois and Miller Lite remain on tap too, because people still order them.

“Wine doesn’t have that problem,” states Nowlin. “There are no 7/11 wines on our list, but we have to keep the 7/11 beers."

While generic, both Stella and Miller Lite can act as gateway beers to, say, a Bottom Up Wit and a new beer experience. Corey and Marcus remarked that even Susan has found a beer lover in herself, sipping on their newly added brews after work.

In the beginning, both Stambaugh and Nowlin didn’t believe that the beer program would take off, but in the year since they took control, beer sales have outstripped cocktail sales. For now, their challenges with the beverage program concern space, with the beer cooler overflowing into wine territory and the pressing need for brew-specific glassware cramping the bar area.

In the next couple of months, the boys are looking to double the taps to 12 draft choices, as well as to add a few more bottles to the Captain’s List, expanding the selection to ciders and sours.

They also hope to offer beers from Pipeworks, citing the experimental Bucktown brewery as one of their very favorites. Good luck with that, Chicago knows that they are not alone in that venture.

Pipeworks, in particular, has become a sought-after favorite not just in the beer community, where they’ve cultivated a cult following, but also with restaurant sommeliers.

Restaurants like Moto and Longman & Eagle have collaborated with the brewers and Table, Donkey, and Stick, among a few others, serves a rotating selection of their bombers.

While Pipework's distribution is extremely limited, Stambaugh and Nowlin might also look into brews from Moody Tongue, a new brewery out of Pilsen headed by ex Goose Island brewmaster Jared Rouben. Moody Tongue is also expanding the notion of beverage pairings with their “Culinary Beers”, brews with aromatic compounds similar to wines and made specifically to serve alongside food.

It’s the age of beer and we’re glad to see exciting ales and lagers popping up at restaurants from Evanston to Hyde Park. Let’s raise a glass and cheers to more beers!