Chicago's craft beer scene is getting an unlikely new player: one of the city's most renowned chefs.
Homaro Cantu, founder and executive chef of Moto, has signed a lease on a 7,000-square-foot space on the city's Northwest Side, where he plans to open a full-scale organic production brewery by next summer. The partially titled project — the name will be crowdsourced — will, naturally, include food: a low-key Mexican concept inspired by Cantu's grandmother's cooking.
"Doing experimental food is my passion, but my best food memories — that's from my grandmother," Cantu said.
That means beef, pork and chicken pulled off a bone and housed in flour tacos rolled on the spot. Cantu said he envisions a "very unpretentious" brew pub, with a prominent bar and no table service — just a pickup window cut into a kitchen wall.
The Charlie Trotter disciple, best known for inventive tasting menus 20 courses deep, won't resist more progressive fare too.
"Maybe if I get some beautiful duck, we'll do a braised duck with black truffle taco," Cantu said.
There will also be a rotating sugar-free dessert made with the "miracle berry" — a West African berry that makes the taste buds taste sour as sweet — which Cantu has promoted heavily.
Tacos will cost from $2.50 to $4.
"The most expensive thing on the menu won't go past $6," Cantu said.
But at heart, the project at 4419 W. Montrose Ave. will be a production brewery. Cantu and his partners have ordered a 15-barrel brewing system (an average size for a young, ambitious brewery) to make "kitchen-focused" beer.
The brewery plans four year-round, food-focused beers, including a green tea and honey ale, an Earl Grey milk stout, an "old fashioned" ale (brown ale with orange peel aged in whiskey barrels) and, because it's essentially required by the craft beer police, an India pale ale. The plan calls for the beers to be packaged in 16-ounce cans and 22-ounce bottles.
The brewer will be Trevor Rose-Hamblin, 30, who grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich., moved to Chicago six years ago to attend Kendall College and became a Moto intern. Rose-Hamblin worked his way up to become the restaurant's general manager, but he'll leave that job to take on brewing duties. He's also a partner in the brewery.
He called Chicago's Pipeworks Brewing — whose bold beers have a nearly cult following — his model.
"It's cool, creative beer with chef-driven ingredients," said Rose-Hamblin, who has brewed several times with Pipeworks.
Chef-driven beer has been on a recent upswing; former Goose Island brewer Jared Rouben releases the first beers from his new food-driven Moody Tongue Brewing on Saturday, and suburban 5 Rabbit Cerveceria routinely brews with food ingredients, which have included dulce de leche and chanterelle mushrooms.
So, why is a well-regarded restaurateur getting into beer?
"The business model is good," Cantu said, who interned as a baker at Widmer Brothers Brewing, in his hometown of Portland, Ore.
"Beer is about to enter a rock star phase," with brewers reaching a popularity equivalent to the most famous restaurateurs, he said.
Cantu, 38, has been busy lately. Though he closed iNG, the restaurant beside Moto, last month, he has a forthcoming coffee shop called Berrista in Old Irving Park and helped plan The Trotter Project, a recently announced charitable organization named for the late Charlie Trotter, whose legendary restaurant employed Cantu from 1999 to 2003.
He's best known as a kitchen scientist, from his indoor gardening to the flavor-changing miracle berry. He even has his own TED Talks page, where he has discussed "cooking as alchemy," among other subjects.
The location of the brewery (also in Old Irving Park) is far from the craft beer hot spots, but Cantu and Rose-Hamblin both live nearby, and Cantu said he believes the area is on the rise.
"When we opened Moto 10 years ago, there was nothing there," he said of the Fulton Market corridor. "As a result we have a lengthy lease that's advantageous to us."
The brewery space, which Cantu said sat empty for "years," has a garagelike charm that Cantu plans to retain: walls of brick and cinder block, snaking pipes, cement floors and skylights in a 22-foot metal ceiling.
The name of the project will be crowdsourced from among 12 choices that include the word, "Fork," such as Red Fork, Green Fork, Fat Fork and Crooked Fork Brewery. Voting is open at nameourbrewery.com.
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