With over 10 years of industry experience, Joe Katz knows a thing or two about drinking and selling beer in Chicago. In a previous life, Joe was challenged with creating and building out the craft beer segment for Stoller Wholesale, traditionally a wine and spirits distributor. During those years, Joe was living, breathing, and drinking all things craft beer. Frequently, that would involve him taking his work home to Carly Katz – co-owner, wife and, most recently, mother – who was always rather pleased about that. Together, they explored the variety and flavors that craft beer was offering and continued their education by going through the Cicerone program.
Along the way, an idea popped into their minds that they could venture out and try it on their own. After all, they had all the knowledge they needed to make it in this industry. Their idea? A "liquor store" unlike any other in the area. One that didn't include 40oz bottles of malt liquor, cigarettes or the complimentary layer of filth on the bottles. Instead, they envisioned a bright, clean and welcoming storefront filled with a plethora of craft beer and a variety of both wine and spirits.
We recently had the opportunity to stop by and see their idea's fruition – one of North Center's newest craft beer additions, Bottles & Cans, and talk shop with owners Joe and Carly Katz. Conveniently located on Lincoln Avenue, Bottles & Cans has been supplying the neighborhood with all the beer, wine and spirits any Chicagoan could handle. Always willing to talk about beer, Joe and Carly gave us the ins and outs of running a craft beer store in the Second City.
Thanks for having us. Let's talk about the store and location. How did you decide that this location was going to be the home of Bottles & Cans?
We knew from the get-go that we wanted it to be in this neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that we love and that is full of craft beer lovers. You have Half Acre and The Bad Apple just up the street. And shortly after we opened, unbeknownst to us, you'd have Spiteful and Begyle opening up too. Just awesome breweries creating some great stuff. We had already looked at maybe 30-40 places, and then one night Carly and I were out for a walk and we both kind of stopped dead in our tracks. We walked right in front of the space. We saw the 'for rent' sign on the window and we were like 'how have we missed this before?' We go running and walking up Lincoln Avenue almost every night. This must have just popped up. It worked out perfectly.
You opened your doors just about nine months ago. What was the the process like from initial idea to first beer sold?
We opened in mid-October of 2012. The planning process for it, and the decision that we were actually going to do it, started about fifteen months before that. It's one of those, 'if you're going to do it you really got to be in it' kind of things. I don't want to say it’s difficult; the city actually makes it pretty straightforward and simple to do it. It's just a long and grueling process. It's one process after another and you can't start the second thing until you've completed the first thing. It's just a long, drawn out and exciting way that they do it.
Most of the time it was just us sitting and talking with the alderman and picking his brain, finding out what he wanted in the neighborhood. We explained to him we didn't want to sell 40oz bottles of MGD, cigarettes, lotto and half-pint bottles of Smirnoff. We said we wanted to be 'this' and he said that’s exactly what he would want in the neighborhood.
Yeah, your shop might be the nicest liquor store we've ever been in! It seems like it fits right in with the vibe of neighborhood. I've never seen a liquor store with so many strollers in it!
Yeah seriously – I mean heck, any day now we are expecting our first-born and no doubt about it, we are raising that kid in this store.
What's the story behind the name and logo? Was that something you came up with?
We had the name for a while, but we have to give the credit to Carly’s brother for that. We were kicking around name ideas and he was a big part of that process. He's the one that came up with 'Bottles & Cans.' Months later, we came to discover that we're pretty sure he stole the name from the Beck song, hah.
Same story for the logo. We have to give credit again to Carly’s brother. We were visiting him in Portland and we were talking about the store one day, and we said it would be cool to have it be a silhouette of a bottle or a can or something. He goes, 'Oh, I'm going to go in my room for a while' and starts sketching. He comes back with this and we we’re like, 'Oh My God! That’s Awesome!'
Let's switch gears and talk beer. With such an enormous variety available, how do you decide what to put on your shelves?
There's a lot out there.
Are you drinking that much?
No, sadly. And I’ll acknowledge one of Carly and my’s most dreaded things is when people ask us for a recommendation on a beer and we haven't tried it yet. As much as we love to pretend that we've sampled all of it, we would be raging alcoholics.
Everyday that we don't have an actual tasting going on we are at least trying to crack open a couple of things we haven't tried, even if it's just a sip of it, and then pour the rest for customers. Otherwise, it's a lot of working with sales reps and trusting them to tell us this is something new and that it's working. If The Bad Apple carries it and they sell a lot of it, it makes sense for us to carry it too. We try to stay ahead of the industry and know what's coming out. We spend a lot of time on Beer Advocate and Beer Pulse reading reviews and industry news about new breweries and beers that are coming out.
You mentioned holding some tastings. How often are you doing those?
We try to do 4 per week. Summer's a little tough since everyone has something going on, but we try to do one on Thursday and Friday and two on Saturday. We aim to have as many beer tastings as we can. Days we can't find someone, we'll try to open and educate people on different lines.
Nothing beats walking into the shop and getting handed some free beer!
Not at all! And it's not just us handing out the beer. There are times when customers will bring us special bottles they've picked up on their travels and we'll always open them up and leave them on the counter so everyone can taste 'em.
That's got to be one of the best work-related perks I've heard.
It's wonderful. It's so nice. We have the best customers in the entire world!
So, you obviously have a good idea of what's going on in the craft beer industry. What kind of trends are you seeing as of late?
Well IPAs have been the trend for a long time, everyone has been a self-proclaimed hop head. Recently though, sours have become the new popular thing; and it originated with your true Belgian sour and its migrated into the American style. You have some amazing sour beers coming out of American breweries. Goose Island with their 'three ladies' (Juliet, Lolita, Madame Rose), Uinta makes Birthday Suit, Brewery Vivant out of Grand Rapids has some amazing beers that all have a nice tart tongue to them. Tart Side of the Moon is unbelievable from there. Sours are a style that have definitely become mainstream now.
This summer especially, it seems like the session IPA is blowing up like crazy. Are you seeing a lot of people come in looking for that style?
So, IPAs have been hot forever and sours more recently, but the idea of a hoppy beer that isn't super heavy and is crushable has started to come up big. Some great examples of that style are Tallgrass 8-Bit, Founders All Day IPA, and Two Brothers Sidekick. Beers like this are starting to show the hop heads that you can get the same flavor profile in a lighter bodied, crushable, 'you-could-have-6-in-a-sitting, if-you're-so-inclined' type of beer.
We just fly through that 8-Bit Pale Ale. It's probably – given the amount of time that they have been distributed here – the best selling item in the store. People just love it. The label is eye-grabbing and iconic with the old NES system and all that, but the beer is fantastic. It's this sessionable pale ale that is low in bitterness, but high in the citrus and tropical fruits and it's just so delicious.
What do you see as your 'sleeper' beer or brewery; something that kind of flies under the radar?
I'm going to say 'brewery' and go with Clown Shoes out of Ipswich, MA. They've been in the market for about 3 years now. I think Clown Shoes is one of the better underrated breweries that we are offering right now. They make some high quality stuff, a lot of it is hoppy-driven beers. But for the most part they are in that moderate to moderate-high ABV range. So it's not that super imperial stuff, but it's really high quality. We have three beers from them right now. The white ale called Clementine – it's your traditional Belgian wit, brewed with excess clementine, sweet orange peel and coriander so it has a little more of a citrus twist to it. Their Belgian IPA, which is quite colorfully named Tramp Stamp, but it's delicious beer. It combines essentially the sweet clementine and sweet orange peel that you get out of the Clemetine, but with Amarillo hops so you get a really noticeable West Coast style bitter IPA with some Belgian yeast notes. And then they just came out with their Galactica which is a galaxy-hopped IPA, absolutely delicious. These are all available in bombers but we just started to get it in 4-packs as well. They recently started a barrel-aging program using a lot of Knob Creek barrels. They've been putting Russian Imperial Stouts and Smoked Imperial Stouts in those Knob Creek barrels, so they are putting some really exciting stuff out there.
Any minute now you are expecting your first child, a baby girl to be born. What do you have set aside to celebrate!?
One of the hardest things I've had to do the last 9 months is keep in mind that my lovely wife has had to watch me drink all of these delicious, one-off, seasonal or limited release beers that have come in. We have a bottle of Pipeworks Raspberry Truffle Abduction, Pipeworks Orange Truffle Abduction, a bottle of the Prisoner which is a once a year release Zin blend from California. They are sitting there waiting and they are the first three things that we will open together. I can happily – I don't know if it's happily – admit that I have not tasted the raspberry or orange Truffle Abduction. I have been waiting for Carly. As soon as that baby comes, we are cracking 'em open.
You pretty much have the pick of the litter when it comes to getting the beers you wanna drink. What's in your fridge at the moment?
Right now in our fridge we have Two Brothers Sidekick, Tallgrass 8-Bit, Founders Rubaeus, and Spiteful Alley Time – their new pale ale. We go with a nice mix, but like anybody, you go through moods where you want pale ales, wheat ales or porters, but the Sidekick has been one of my favorites this summer so we have had that in the fridge for as long as it has been available.
Along the same lines, it seems like you could get any beer you want. Are there still things on your 'beer bucket list' that you aren't able to get?
Totally. Illinois has gotten lucky lately though. Sculpin was always one that I said at some point I'd better find. Now we are flooded with it. Before we opened the store, I would have said Pliny and Heady Topper but as I said earlier, every once in a while we have customers who'll bring us treats and I can very happily say we have had both of those beers walk in the door. Westy 12 is at the top of the list. We got our 6-pack when it was released. We haven't opened it yet, but I've been waiting for Carly. I had no problem giving Binny's my money that day.
A big thanks to Joe and Carly for spending time chatting with us on a busy afternoon. And congratulations to them on the birth of their daughter Audrey, since this interview! Stop in to Bottles & Cans at 4109 N. Lincoln Ave. seven days a week and find keep an eye out for updates on their tastings and newest offerings on Facebook and Twitter.