Beer Tips From Steve Hamburg, Chicago’s Cask King

BREWS CLUES: One of America’s foremost cask cellarmen offers advice

Steve Hamburg at the Map Room
Steve Hamburg at the Map Room

Chicago’s metamorphosis from beer wasteland to beer mecca is official (“Chicago’s Best Craft Beer”), and no one has had a better seat at the bar to watch that transformation than Steve Hamburg. A software consultant and occasional cantor, Hamburg, 57, serves on the board of directors at the Chicago Beer Society, travels the world to judge contests and teach beer evaluation, and is considered one of the foremost cask cellarmen in the United States. Here, 16 ounces of wisdom from a man who has probably brewed more beer than you’ve drunk.

1. Stroh’s, Old Style, and Schlitz. That’s all we had back in the seventies. There was a beer we used to get for 99 cents a six-pack called the Master Brew. We called it the Mystery Brew because each bottle tasted different.

2. My first shared homebrew? I made five gallons and gave some away at a Bears Super Bowl party in 1986. It was pretty bad, but they drank it all.

3. I saw the beer renaissance start. Chicago’s first brewpub, in 1987, was called Sieben’s. Then there was the Tap & Growler, where the beers were good for about a week. You’d go a month later, and they’d taste totally different.

4. It wasn’t better in the old days. I drank a lot of bad beer in bad bars. Now you can walk in almost anywhere and get a few decent taps.

5. With the smoking ban, I go to a lot more bars now. “Smokers were my best customers,” bartenders say. I could have been your best customer, but I couldn’t bear it.

6. Beer is perishable. That’s why I drink local. When I’m here, I drink local. When I travel abroad, I drink local. I will occasionally pick an unusual craft import at the Map Room.

7. I’m knowledgeable about one of the most obscure things in the world: cask-conditioned beer. It’s unfiltered, unpasteurized beer conditioned and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon-dioxide pressure. They call it “real ale.”

8. Most of the new gastropubs try to have a cask just to say they do. Most of them don’t know what they’re doing. I inspected Owen & Engine’s system three weeks before they opened. Now they do a nice job.

9. Portland, Oregon, has so many beer bars. I heard about a porno theatre there that served good microbrewed beers. It’s true—I went.

10. If you go out in a group in Britain, you create a “whip.” Everyone throws money into a pool—that’s the whip—and someone carries it. Whatever you drink comes out of that.

11. In Cologne, the coaster is your bill. They serve your kölsch on a coaster and make a tick mark. When you finish, they bring another and make another tick mark. The beer keeps coming until you put the coaster on top of the glass.

12. “The beers in Germany are stronger.” That’s a misconception. They’re not—they just taste better.

13. One country? I’d pick the United States, because we have the greatest selection. Craft brewers can duplicate styles from all over the world. But I’d take an English pub over an American bar any day.

14. Most pints in the United States are not a pint. They’re in 14-ounce shaker glasses, not 16-ounce beer glasses.

15. Goose Island hasn’t changed. It’s the same guys brewing the beer as it was before Anheuser-Busch bought them out. When they go, maybe I’ll think otherwise.

16. I’ve been judging since 1990, and I’ve come full circle. Early on, I thought critically about everything. But beer is something to be enjoyed. I know guys who take notes when­ever they drink beer. You’re in a bar! It’s supposed to be fun.

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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