The first thing Jared Rouben does when we meet is suggest we talk over a lunch of charcoal-grilled chicken, refried beans and arroz amarillo. We're here to chat beer—specifically, his coming-soon Pilsen brewery, Moody Tongue—but food is never far from his mind.
"Beer is food. Brewing is cooking," Rouben said, explaining his style of beer-making which he calls 'culinary brewing.' "I became a much better brewer when I started using culinary techniques in the brewhouse, when I started thinking like a cook to create different flavors."
Even the brewery's name references a discerning palate. "Any time you make a choice, or think about what you're tasting, that's where your moody tongue comes in," he said.
It's not hard for Rouben, 32, to put on his chef's hat. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he's worked both kitchen and service positions in Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago. A passion for beer brought him to brewing school, then to Rock Bottom Brewery and finally to Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub, where he made his mark creating beers with more than 50 chefs and farmers from nearby Green City Market.
"It's always been about bringing the two worlds together," he said."I think an 'aha' beer moment was Marisol [a beer Rouben brewed with chef Rick Bayless]. I had to be able to bring ingredients together that one might not have found in a brewery before. That was a culinary beer for me, to be able to use incredible ingredients and incorporate them into a beer where everything made sense."
In advance of Moody Tongue's brewery and tasting room debut in late May or early June at 2136 S. Peoria St., Rouben continues to search for fruits, teas, coffees and spices that will enhance his beer. Knowing the farmers that produce his ingredients, as well as designing the walk-in refrigerators, sterile kitchen area and custom fermentation tanks to handle those ingredients, are the base of his culinary brewing philosophy.
Naturally, he reaches for a food metaphor: "Everyone has access to a burger, but all burgers don't taste the same. It's about where you get the meat from, how you handle it, what you do with it."
To put that in beer terms, Rouben describes one of his debut brews, a Belgian golden made with cold-pressed pawpaw juice. He's teamed up with Oriana Kruszewski, a Winslow, Ill.-based farmer, to grow this unusual fruit, which has a tropical flavor like a pineapple-mango-papaya hybrid.
"It's about going from seed to pint," he said. "People are actually growing ingredients for us for specific beers. That's something I'm really proud of."
That's true of the green coriander he sources from Fairbury, Ill.-based Spence Farms, which will become part of Moody Tongue's second debut beer, a wit. But if all those flavors sound a bit ... out there, Rouben would like to clarify.
"I appreciate that crushed green coriander and pawpaw may not be on the dinner table every evening, but I wouldn't put it in the beer if I didn't think it made the beer better," he said. "We're not doing experimental stuff here. Having the new things no one's done doesn't make the best beers. The best beers bring your ingredients together and find balance."
Rouben said that though he may brew with some unusual flavors, his beers are firmly based on classic styles such as pilsners, helles, milds and bitters.
"We have a lot of flexibility here, but when you have that kind of flexibility, you have to be pretty careful. It's about the guest, and if they don't know what they're consuming, if we forget it's beer, then what are we making?" he said.
Again, Rouben sees the language of food as key to introducing drinkers to his beers.
"I think everyone's a lot more comfortable with food than they are with beer. For however many years you've been living, you've been eating," he said. "I'm not trying to dumb it down or say beer is simple, but what we do in the brewhouse is very similar to what a professional cook does in the kitchen."
He gestured to the metallic fermentation tanks behind him, which reflected the sun filtered through the skylights of the former glass factory that houses Moody Tongue.
"These are just giant pots, by the way. Heat, time, taking a raw ingredient and manipulating it. That's brewing."
Like a chef who finally opens his own restaurant, Rouben said he's more than ready to be in control of his brewery. After leaving Goose Island Clybourn nearly a year and a half ago, he saw 65 spaces before settling on this 100-year-old building. With a 10,000-square-foot facility specifically suited to his style of brewing, he has the flexibility and resources to brew the beers he's long dreamed about.
"You have malt, hops, yeast, water. Those can only do so much for you," he said. "When you look beyond your brewers catalog and talk to your farmer, you can create a lot more within your beer. That's one of the things that's great about culinary brewing: You're not limited."
email@example.com | @redeyeeatdrink
Sizing it up
Brewing systems are measured in barrels (abbreviated bbl), one of which equals 31 gallons or 2 standard kegs. Here's how some Chicago breweries stack up.
Atlas Brewing Company: 7 bbl
Une Annee Brewery: 9 bbl
Pipeworks Brewing Company: 10 bbl
Haymarket Pub & Brewery: 15 bbl
BuckleDown Brewing: 15 bbl
Off Color Brewing: 20 bbl
Moody Tongue: 20 bbl
Revolution Brewing: 60 bbl