Five Years of Planning Culminates with Ravenswood's 'Band of Bohemia', for Alinea Expats
On a brisk fall November evening, we made our way up the Ravenswood Corridor, toward Lawrence Avenue. There, after dozens of dimly lit warehouse and industrial buildings, sits Chicago's highly anticipated new 'brewpub'. Resting in the glowing light of the new Metra train station was the shiny new brewing beacon, Band of Bohemia.
The newest brewery to the city began as an idea more than five years ago, by Alinea alumi Michael Carroll and Craig Sindelar, and has piqued curiosity from Chicagoans ever since there was mention of their plan. And this space is like no brewery that you've likely ever encountered before. It's airy and expansive, while remaining cozy, warm, and chic. On this particular evening, the space's doorwall was left slightly cracked, sparking interest from curious passersby.
We were eager to get a sneak peak of this former cookie factory (Oreo, is that you) turned brewhouse. From the kitchen of one of the most respected restaurants and chefs in the world, to this Ravenswood neighborhood eatery, these founders are sure to turn heads with their "Culinary Brewhouse" approach. We met up with the duo as Craig was putting the finishing touches on the space, and while Michael was cooking and prepping for just his fourth brew in this setup. We discussed the neighborhood, Grant Achatz, brewing influences and of course, culinary concepts.
Thanks for having us to check out this beautiful place. You can really get a feel for the space just from standing on the curb.
Craig Sindelar: We specifically left the windows unblocked during the buildout so the neighborhood could really appreciate the progress. Through my entire time here in Chicago, everyone papers it up and no one can see in. But we're here for the neighborhood, so we want them to be a part of this.
We heard mention of tickets. Will that be in the same vein as places like Next?
Well we haven't officially gone with the tickets yet but we would like to. There'd be a small portion of seating where you can purchase tickets. Even though we're here for the neighborhood, we know we're going to get a lot of destination diners, and we want to make sure that if you're flying in from Hong Kong, you can guarantee yourself a seat in a very busy restaurant.
Makes perfect sense. So what was this place before? We heard mention of cookies...
We knew they manufactured equipment that made cookies, but we didn't know who. A gentleman named Chester who worked in the building for 30 years dropped by and said he could tell us every inch of our building. We found out it was for Oreo cookies. They made 180 cookies per second. It was fun hearing the history. We're going to invite Chester back in so he can see what it's become.
This place is huge. You've got a lot of room to work with here.
We want to make sure there's enough room that the guests are very comfortable and, at the same time, as you walk through the work spaces you'll see there's adequate space for the staff, so that everyone can relax.
Having the new Ravenswood Metra station right outside the door is a big bonus. You can get here from downtown in less than ten minutes!
This was a nice surprise for us. We'd searched all over the city. Michael said, "Look at that building!" We got a tour of the building on the inside and it was a picker's paradise. There were antiques, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, it was packed. When we took a tour through here we were walking sideways for 5,600 sq. ft. We didn't know the Metra was changing and we didn't know about the Mariano's. We just knew the building itself was perfect and it was a great location. We did a lot of demographic studies of what's in the area. So the Metra was just a bonus. But once we found out more about that, that's where we decided to create this coffee program.
How many places did you look at altogether?
Twenty or so.
Well given your requirements as not just a brewery, but a full-service restaurant, I'd say you lucked out on this space.
Our landlord has been fantastic. They basically held this spot for us for two years. And this has been a project for us for about five years total now. So, we're very fortunate with their patience.
We keep our ears to the ground as far as new breweries here in the city go. We must have first heard rumblings of this a few years ago.
Yea, maybe even 2011. I gave my notice to Alinea about five years ago. But just finished my last shift there about a month ago. They were fantastic as well.
Hah, so you gave your "five year notice" then?
Yea, hah. I did. Maybe four and a half year notice. I literally just finished working there a month ago, after 11 years. And between working there–in a pretty intense restaurant environment–and trying to open this...there is a lot more gray up top now!
What was your role with Alinea, Craig?
I was the head Sommelier, as well as the floor manager. A lot of great Sommeliers came in after me and took on some of the work, allowing me to really take this project on.
It must've been nice to get to lay out this floorplan for the brewery and restaurant from scratch. It's very symbiotic here.
We want everyone to see and appreciate it all. When you're out there as a diner, you can see into the brewery – we've got the big windows looking in there. The kitchen is big and wide open. So, wherever you sit, you can view almost everything.
Let's head back into the kitchen where Michael can really get into beer with you.
Before we lose you, a couple quick questions. When you go home after a day at Alinea, or Band of Bohemia, what are you drinking?
Umm, probably a Schlitz. Or my favorite might be Estrella Damn, out of Barcelona. Or Brekle's Brown from Anchor. That's my favorite right now. I'm really a wine guy, but after a day of work, I want a beer.
And what's Band of Bohemia look like in, say, a year?
We've signed a very long lease with the neighborhood. So, we plan to be here a while. But, we're really hoping to keep expanding, growing, evolving with the neighborhood. The neighborhood is very important to us.
[Moving back into the kitchen, as head brewer, Michael Carroll, preps and cooks ingredients for the next batch of beer]
Michael Carroll: Hello gentlemen. Did you get the full rundown of the space? Well, since we're talking about beer, and this all has to go into the beer...and I have to get this done, let's just chat here in the kitchen.
Of course, sounds perfect – considering you are the "Culinary Brewhouse." What is it you're prepping?
Maitake mushrooms which will go into my next beer. It's a porter, with the mushrooms and Basmati rice. I'm toasting the mushrooms and rice in the oven, so it will add that nutty, roasty character to the beer. It'll be pretty earthy too. The mushrooms have that sort of umami, heady texture and note to it. It's gonna have this richness to it. It originally was going to be a lighter, spring beer – but with winter coming on, a porter made sense.
So, you previously brewed at Half Acre, a brewery with a pretty distinct thumbprint. This is definitely not in that same mold. How did you come to this concept?
Well, I originally come from a culinary background. I've been in kitchens for years and years. More than anything, it's about 'flavor.' And when I was working as the bread maker for Grant [Achatz], I learned you could do anything with the flavor. You could really branch out with the ingredients. We did loads of stuff and it would work. Getting into the brewing world, it's not that different. The first ever bread I made for Alinea was an orange chicory rye. It's also the first beer I ever made for Half Acre. That was probably 2010 or so.
Wow, yea - there weren't many Half Acre beers I can remember from back then. The Half Acre Lager was one. Also, The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game, I recall.
Hah, what'd you think of that one? I made that. It was not my best beer. There was so much in that beer, so much going on with it. It kept morphing into something new each time you'd drink it over a few weeks. It was a smoked beer, with bay leaf, rosemary, smoked malt...and caraway. We originally brewed that for Next, but then the menu changed so it didn't get used by them.
Well, I remember that because it was a "I don't know what's in this, but I know it's something I've never had before" beer. We're starting to see a lot more emphasis on these food-centric beers.
Yea, the food pairings have always been a thing. I've working in a lot of kitchens where we've done that, but it does add an extra layer for the chefs that can be difficult. Plus, there aren't a wide range of things that go well with IPAs. So now, it's a little more of the thought "Why not make the beer more food-centric?" Why fight it? If you're gonna drink and eat – then why not make it easy since your palette is already adjusted. And so I think that's a trend that's coming around a little more. And just the idea of "specializing" a bit more. Penrose does the Belgians, Off Color does the revival styles. Plenty of folks do IPAs, and a lot do them really really well.
These Maitake mushrooms are pretty unique, but what's your dream ingredient to brew with?
Oddly enough, it's sauerkraut. Like a nice barrel-aged beer with sauerkraut. But they won't let me make it because it'll be too gross and stinky! But I bet it would taste awesome! Then we could throw a party out in the parking lot for Oktoberfest, with a nice German sauerkraut beer! [Looking for approval from passing chefs and staff]
So you you were tasked by Grant Achatz to bake bread for Alinea, and you brewed at Half Acre. But before all that, where were you?
I'm originally from the suburbs here, Lake Zurich. Then moved to New Jersey. Then went to school in Vermont. Got most of my culinary practice in Oregon – well, really my backbone of experience.
And you and Craig met while working at Alinea?
Yep. Well, when I first started at Alinea, I wanted to start in the kitchen. But they start you in the front of house there. And I was really interested in that part, too – how to wait properly, serve properly... and that's where Craig came into play. He was really one of the main guys there, and he was awesome. His presence of tables, his demeanor–I really learned a lot. It was a really awesome experience. Then they were looking to start making bread, and I thought, "I've made bread before, I can do that!"
So, how exactly did you end up at Half Acre from Alinea? What drew you there?
I had never heard of them at the time. I was leaving Alinea and I wanted to do something else in general. So I thought, maybe I could go work in a brewery. So I Googled "Chicago breweries." And at the time they were one of maybe four options.
It was a really interesting time, it was right before the real boom for breweries. I kinda just jumped into it with Half Acre. They weren't really hiring, but I sent them a resume. And they were like, "Well, we called you because you sent us a resume!" Haha, like what the fuck? I thought that's what you do. So they brought me in and offered me a part-time role. And part-time turned into three years. That was 2008.
So, with Band of Bohemia – how do you position this to someone who comes in here and doesn't know the idea or the concept. Are you a brewery? Are you a restaurant? Obviously both, but it's unique.
How we like to put it is that we're a restaurant that makes it's own beer. Because if you look at the space: it's restaurant. It'd be like if you went to Girl & the Goat, and they made their own beer, what would you call that? Probably still Girl & the Goat. Same idea if they did that at Longman & Eagle. We just figured, "Why can't we make our own beer?" and do a similar decor, ambiance, food and so on.
What's the spirit behind the name, "Band of Bohemia"?
It's basically the idea of a group of artisans. It started as referencing the turn of the century artists, poets, writers, gypsies of Paris. But it's also this idea of just being Bohemian – always evolving, changing and being different. Seeing what's out there. The thought that you're 'never right,' just being open to new things.
Is there anything or anyone you've taken a cue from in Chicago as you've concepted this?
For me, it was always Grant Achatz. If anything just because he allowed me to do just whatever the hell I wanted to do. I'd never had that before.
Well, I'd love to go to Alinea. But I'm not gonna lie, I can't afford to go to Alinea.
Haha, nobody can afford to go to Alinea.
What's your price point going to be here? Are you going to be up there?
No no no, first and foremost, we're a neighborhood restaurant. It would be improper of us to exclude our neighbors by making it too high. I'd say on average $35-$50 a head. If you want to just come in off the train and have an appetizer or a beer, that's fine too. Beers will be around $6 or $8. But they wont be standard "pints" necessarily.
We've read of your respect for the proper beer glassware, as well...can we please get rid of the shaker pint glass?
Haha, yes. And I think a lot of people are starting to consider the glassware more. It makes a big difference. When we brew a beer, we'll pour it out into a bunch of different glasses then go through and see which showcase the best aroma, how does it look, etc. We want to see which glass showcases the beer best, and it actually affects the aroma and flavor of the beer. It's really a neat thing.
Alright, so how about when you get home...what are you drinking?
I usually drink crappy wine. A Sauvignon Blanc, maybe $10 price point.
To wrap this up, we read your quote, "The philosophy that one can create a unique beer that is appropriate, if not essential, to a finer dining experience." This is obviously at the forefront of what you're offering. But still, I can't help but wonder of the beer drinker that doesn't associate beer with food.
We're gonna piss off a lot of people... I dunno if that's the right way to put it. I brought a beer with roasted beets and thyme to a party once–a nice Polish meal gathering. I thought it was appropriate. And a lot of the beer geeks at the party where like, "What the fuck? A beet beer? I could maybe drink one of these." But then the other half of the group was, "Whoa, did you make this beet beer? Holy shit." So, there's always balance. There are going to be those people who will wonder where the 9% IPAs are. So yea, I guess we might piss off a few people initially.
Photography by Jack Muldowney
Thanks again to Michael & Craig for letting us by their new space in Ravenswood. Band of Bohemia opens to the public November 19th, and will be serving a coffee bar for morning commuters and Metra travelers. And of course, after work drinks and bites are highly encouraged.