Industry Chat: Paul Leamon
of Beermiscuous Craft Beer Café
We are currently living in the greatest era of beer's history, with new breweries opening up daily on seemingly every corner and back alley. Fortunately, there will never be a shortage of the next must have beer. But how can one possibly keep up and try them all? We attend festivals, tastings, and pairings just to keep pace; but there has got to be an easier way.
Paul Leamon has traveled the world drinking the finest ales and lagers. Yet he always seemed to run into the same obstacles when trying to procure craft beer. He would either have to take a chance on a 6-pack – or he'd have to remember that great brew he had out at dinner, the next time he was at his local beer shop. So Paul decided to take decades of frustrations and turn them into Chicago's first 'Craft Café.' With over 350 bottles (140 of which are local) and 12 drafts, Beermiscuous is a beer lover's paradise. Like something you had on draft? Take it home with you. Not sure you want to commit to a 6-pack of a beer you've never tried before? Buy a single bottle, sit at the bar – or next to the fireplace – and consider your selection. With the unique on-/off-premise license at Beermiscuous, the possibilities are endless. We sat down with Paul to find out how all of this came about and why no Chicagoan has done this before.
So, Paul – why beer? How did you get your start in the industry?
It really started back in college. While studying at Indiana University, I did an overseas program to the Netherlands – which is a hop, skip, and a jump to Belgium. I was traveling all over the place there, enjoying everything. As a college student, you're not used to seeing a great looking beer; or enjoying a great tasting beer with a good meal. You're doing keg-stands late at night to get drunk, not to enjoy something. It was an enlightening moment for me to experience that.
When I came back – this was in '91-'92 – the craft beer movement was still starting to take off. When I graduated and moved to D.C., Dogfish Head was just getting going in Delaware and distributing in the D.C. area. Flying Dog out of Baltimore had just set up shop. So there were a lot of interesting things going on there that I started getting involved with.
Ever try your hand at homebrewing?
Yeah, Virginia had some early homebrewing exemptions that a lot of other states didn't have. I started homebrewing early on, and that coupled with my travels overseas created a interest in craft beer that grew over time. I just loved the movement. But it was never a career interest; it was more of a hobby.
And now you're the founder of the city's first "craft café." What drew you to take the leap from hobby to career?
My background is in venture capital investment banking and starting companies. I just loved being an entrepreneur. I've been in the healthcare and real estate space but ended up selling both of those ventures. Then two years ago I had the idea to do this. This concept came from frustrations over two decades of shopping for craft beer, which has gotten even worse today with the proliferation of brewers out there. Like going into a Binny's: great selection, thousands of options, but you can't sit there and try one of those options before taking that 6-pack home. And conversely, if you go to a great craft beer bar or restaurant, you buy something that you've never had before, and you might like it. But you're thinking, "Oh shit I've got to write this down." Or you'll remember it the next time you're in the liquor store. There was never a way of putting the pieces together.
What you have here is the option to take it to-go, or sit here and drink it. My perfect customer is somebody who comes in here, stays for an hour or two, has a couple pours from the draft – maybe shares a few bottles out of the coolers – and then takes a 6-pack home. Maybe they'll do that a couple times a week. Even if you didn't come in here planning to take something home, you may taste a couple in here and end up feeling pretty good. Maybe you tried something that you hadn't had before and you want to take some home. Well, we have the ability to provide that option.
So, "Beermiscuous." Tell us a little more about the name and its genesis?
As I've read through the industry over the last several decades, the use of the word "promiscuous" gets used frequently. I was reading a New York Times article that talked about how today's beer drinker is more promiscuous, and there are no brand ties or loyalty. People may have a favorite beer, but they're always exploring and looking for something new. So "promiscuous" just stuck in my head with today's craft beer scene in general. I wanted to play off of that theme. And it was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek; just a fun and identifiable name. You either love or hate the name. A lot of the people who wrote us up when we were opening were not fans, but you remember it. It represents this space where you can try anything at anytime, and it's super simple to explore.
Can you talk about the space itself, and the process you went through finding it?
A lot of folks ask, why this place? Why Lakeview? It took probably 12 months just for site selection in this city. I had focused on several locations from Wicker Park to Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, all the way up to Andersonville. I even looked in the West Loop a little bit. I looked at maps of the city's licensing processes, zoning districts, as well as moratoriums and dry precincts. There were red zones all over the city where you were limited. There were very few places where you could do everything in the same space. So you're dealing with the zoning department, the liquor department, the food & health department. They all have to weigh in, and none of them talk to each other. So it's just a messy process. In the end this space had been vacant for a long time, already had the right zoning, and had no moratoriums. We met with the alderman who was very supportive – as was the neighborhood. It was never like, "This is the corner it has to be on." It was more 'right space at the right time.'
When people mention the major bottle shops in the city, they think of places like West Lakeview Liquors, Bottles & Cans, and of course the many Binny's locations. Do you find you're starting to get known in that sort of realm?
Oh, absolutely. It get's asked, "Did this really just start as a bottle shop?" My thought was, there is only so far a bottle shop can go, unless you have on premise sales as well. They all want to do tastings, which is great. But with the state of Illinois, you are limited to three two-ounce pours. Yeah, you can hang out there for a little bit and taste a few things, but you can't taste everything. You are limited by what they're going to open that day. So there is only so far that can go. I wanted to add that extra element of being able to sit here and drink. I think we're capturing a customer that originally thought of us as a bottle shop, but "Oh, you can stay here and drink too?" A lot of times – just due to the shape of our cafe – people walk by on the Lincoln Ave. side and don't even realize we have this whole area back here. So our reputation started more on the bottle shop side and has evolved into a place you can go hang out with friends and drink...have a business meeting...study all afternoon. It's just that kind of atmosphere. It's not just another corner taver. We wanted to keep that café type of feel. I think the market is starting to appreciate that this is that kind of place.
Is there an education factor? Not just to the city, but to the average person walking by that doesn't realize you can take a beer to-go, or vice versa?
We get phone calls all the time, asking if you're allowed to take beer out of here. As soon as they come in, you can tell this is their first visit. We give them the full rundown. There's definitely an education factor, also with the intended flow of the café. Everything is self-served: just reach in and grab what you like and bring it up to the counter. We don't do table service, but we do pour it into a glass for you. Just like a coffee shop.
Besides having to educate your customers on how to shop and interact within the cafe, do you use the shop to help educate the customer on beer and the industry in general?
Absolutely. We plan on doing some educational events this year. But first of all, everybody that I hire has to be Cicerone certified. At least the first level, Certified Beer Server. We start asking the customers questions as soon as they walk in. People usually can tell you what they like, and then are looking for a recommendation that's similar. So we're educating each customer.
With the more formal events, we'll do a 'Tasting Tuesday' with brewers. We encourage the rep, or the brewers themselves to bring an educational component to their tasting. That way it's not just "Hey, try this new thing." Two Brothers brought samples of the hops for every single beer. You could see, feel, and smell the hops that went into that one beer; interact with it, understand it. We have also done special tasting events. My curating "Beerista," Austin Harvey, used to work at Goose Island. He is a level two Certified Cicerone and leads a lot of our tastings. He'll talk you through the background of all the beers you taste at these events. We've also done a ten year vertical tasting of Bourbon County Stout for our top eight rewards members.
How does your membership program work?
This originated from another frustration I had with the market over the years, especially as rare beers became more and more popular. You either stand in line over night and get lucky, or you just happen into whatever liquor store that slipped X beer onto the shelf. I didn't want to do that here. I wanted to reward the people who shop here frequently. So we created a rewards point system. It's free and easy to sign up. It's typically a point for a taste and two points for a full pour, it's not dollar-based.
It must get pretty competitive for your top members if you're offering point incentives.
Yeah it does. Our top guy has about 550 points. While we have offered some events to those members, the key thing to the membership is bottle reservations. For instance, Bourbon County, when we got it this November, didn't get stuck on the shelf. Not one bottle. What we did was email our rewards members and told them what we'd received in regards to BCBS, and that they were welcome to place a bid with their points to reserve a bottle. They still buy the bottle, but they get to reserve it for a week and a half. So no more standing in line or having to get lucky.
You have a lot of inventory. How do you manage to stay on top of what's available? Not just from Chicago, but all other markets.
Austin [Harvey] is my buyer. He does all the meetings with the brewers and distributors. We will get 10-15 people in here every week trying to get us to taste what's new. At the same time, just because something is local does not mean we are going to put it in the cooler. It has to be a high quality beer. Plus we have limited shelf space. So it's that balance of having a variety of a broad spectrum of styles. Right now we have about 370 beers, as well as 12 on draft. Of those, 140 are local. That's the highest selection of local beers on premise in Chicago. On the flip-side we didn't want to be a place with 1,000 different bottles, because you can become overwhelmed quickly.
You mentioned some of your events. Is that something you're doing here frequently?
We try and do a food night every week. We bring in a food truck or partner with a local restaurant, usually on Wednesdays. But it's BYOF any day, and that's another education piece. The market is starting to understand you can bring in food – and we have people who will bring in a cheese plate or even pack a picnic basket. We've also had groups do potlucks here. We host events who have taken over the entire space; usually non-profit events or fundraisers. We're getting more and more interest for group events here. We can do 10-20 people in the basement and up to 40 up here without shutting down the café. We've also had parties of 100 that will take over the whole place.
As a homebrewer, one of my favorite things we've done is "Open Mic-ro Night." We invite all these homebrewers once every other month. We select five of them to showcase their beer and bring samples for everyone. They're able to talk about it, their inspiration, what they put in it, and their brew process. Everyone who is in the café that night, if they want to participate, gets an evaluation form and gives the brewer some feedback.
You've got a huge selection here, but what's your go-to beer..?
My preference on styles changes from season to season. So right now I'm all about the barrel-aged stouts. Then I always love an IPA. Navaja from Half Acre is one that I am currently drinking. Spiteful is putting out some great beer, I love their Working for the Weekend. And I tend to always be pulling something from Pipeworks out of here.
Looking forward, where do you see Beermiscuous in the near future?
My plan right now – because we draw customers from every corner of town – is not to do another store in Chicago, at least for now. My hope is to have a small chain of these in other cities. I have another idea, but I still have to iron out all the details with the regulatory piece of it... Let's say I had one of these cafés in San Francisco – you can't get Russian River out here, but you can ship a box from business to consumer. My Beermiscuous San Francisco could ship to a rewards member in Chicago that bid points on getting Pliny the Elder. So there are ways I could create a greater network. I would love to have cafés around the country, even internationally...
Photography by Jack Muldowney