Talking Beer with Pat Berger
On the list of Chicago craft beer bars where you might find The Hop Review perched at the bar, Lakeview's Paddy Long's and the West Loop's Kaiser Tiger are damn near the top. Both establishments offer a completely different atmosphere with the former being your classic neighborhood Irish joint; the latter oozing 'sophisticated beer garden.'
While seemingly coming from opposite ends of the bar-spectrum, both places have something in common - a whole lotta bacon and a fantastic beer list chock full of quality, often hard to come by brews. They also happen to be co-owned and lovingly curated by Pat Berger; respected beer judge, bar owner, blogger, and a Chicagoan through and through.
If you're into beer (you are reading this right?), this is not a man you pass up the chance to learn from. Given that opportunity, we stopped into the beautiful Skyline Lounge at Kaiser Tiger to chat Chicago, judging, archaeology, and bad beer drinking with the charismatic owner.
Cheers Pat! Let's get right down to it. You began with Paddy Long's in Lakeview, but how did you end up here with Kaiser Tiger?
Well, the West Loop is one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city. My business partner, Chris Latchford and I, are also partners at Paddy Long's. He got obsessed with this neighborhood a couple of years ago. I'll be honest, besides going to Haymarket - I'm good friends with Pete Crowley - I never really explored this neighborhood much. Chris was dead set on it and saw an opportunity down here, so I started to come check things out. We weren't looking for something this large. If you've ever been to Paddy Long's, we were looking for something a little bit bigger than that. We were looking for a bigger kitchen, but not for a 10,000 square foot warehouse by any means.
Chris knew it was a hot spot and he knew Google was opening nearby. We looked at a lot of places, but this one just kept coming back to us. It's a beautiful space and the price was good. We are west of the hot area, but we also paid west of the hot area prices. People are actually living in this neighborhood now. Another thing we can't over emphasize is the importance of the United Center. There is so much going on over there, and it's not just the Bulls and Blackhawks. There are 260-some events there throughout the year.
That all said, it is a different feel than Paddy Long's, which is your neighborhood bar. When I'm there, it takes me ten minutes to get from the door to the end of the bar because I know everyone at the bar and have to stop and talk to them. This place is building a regular base, but it will never be a neighborhood pub. It's an event space, a beer garden. It's catering to sports fans.
So what about Paddy Long's? It's become quite the craft beer destination in Lakeview since opening.
Paddy's will be eight years old in July. It was the brainchild of myself and Chris. He was a regular of mine when I was at Corcoran's in Old Town. We became friends, and bonded over rugby. Chris is from Dublin, and was an advertising guy, worked at Leo Burnett on beer advertising. People often comment that we have good branding, and good promotions. He is in charge of that and is very good at it. He later decided to move back to Ireland for work after 12 years here. He called me one day and said, "Hey I got tickets to Ireland-England. Come over!"
During that hazy drunken weekend of pints and rugby, he did nothing but complain about his job and how he wanted out. And of course I was like, "Well lets just open a bar!" A couple months later he was back in town to visit and said, "That's it, I'm quitting my job. What bars are for sale?" The only one I knew of had the location, the set up we liked, and it had the history as the fourth oldest continuous liquor license in Chicago. We ended up buying it. Chris, being Irish, wanted an Irish Pub. This was no problem. I can do an Irish Pub in my sleep. But I was also really into beer and started sneaking all these beers on the menu. Being 2007 in Lakeview, people really didn't know what to make of it... but they were interested.
It's sometimes easy to forget that Chicago was a pretty barren beer city back then. So, how did that become the focus of your new place?
Chris, who has always been able to see the bigger picture, started seeing that the beer was what people were talking about. They weren't talking about this great new Irish Pub. They were talking about this great new beer bar in Lakeview, that also served a lot of bacon. So he honed in on those two things. I remember one day about six months in, he said "We're changing it to Paddy Long's Beer and Bacon Pub." He wanted me to redo the menu, put even more bacon on, and go even bigger with the craft beers. So I told him that's fine, but I'm going to take off the Smithwick's and the Harp. It seemed weird for an Irish pub, but people reacted very favorably and it was a huge success.
What was on tap during the early days at Paddy's?
Oh it was 3 Floyds. It always has been, and still is. Alpha King is our number one seller at both bars. The fact that I could get it was unique as I've known those guys for a long time. The first couple years we were open though, the best selling beer was Guinness. We still do a keg a week. I would love to take it off, but we are an Irish pub still, and it would piss some people off. I am not in the business of pissing people off.
Everyone knows 3 Floyds now as this juggernaut brewery, but in 2007 they really weren't and were having their fair share of problems. Craft beer was not what it is today. People are so into craft beer now... I mean have you ever heard of a brew pub closing in the last ten years? But I worked at three in a three year span. All of them closed and no one gave a shit. I wish I could say I foresaw it, but I would still be doing this if it wasn't so popular because I love beer. I just wouldn't be making as much money. Every thing came up "Pat Berger" the last few years. Beer became really popular. Beards are popular. Weed is about to be legal. Everything is coming up Pat Berger.
We really enjoy reading your thoughts on the Kaiser Tiger blog. One of your earlier posts about how you drink shitty beer so we don't have to, really stuck out. What do you look for when you are writing your tap list?
It's a combination of a lot of things. I'm looking for good beer first and foremost, it's that simple really. I have never pigeonholed my beer list, where I am concentrating on Belgians or locals. I concentrate on really good beer, the best beer I can get. Sometimes it's local, sometimes it isn't, but that is my number one criteria. After that, I do a lot of seasonals and I do try to keep something for everyone on tap. I try not to have too many of one style, or all hops, or all malt. No matter what your preference is you can find something you like. That can also be the tricky part though, because sometimes the best beer you can get is all one style. My reps have a tough time figuring me out because I jump all over the place and it drives them nuts.
The definition of a shitty beer has seemed to change in recent years. Just because it's a craft beer doesn't mean it's any good.
Oh, definitely. I don't even consider the macros as shitty beer, because they are really hard to make. Flavorless beer is the hardest beer to make. When it doesn't have any flavor, off flavors pop up and are very apparent. You cannot hide anything. The easiest beers to make are the most flavorful - Russian Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs. I consider flavorless beers like that to have a place for some people. Kaiser Tiger and Paddy's isn't the place for them. But some people don't want to taste anything and I don't blame them or think lesser of them for that. That's being a snob, and I appreciate that a Miller High Life taste the same every time I have one. That's hard to do.
Let's switch gears and go way back. How did you really start getting into beer?
My dad was always super into beer and scotch. He was a teacher, so he didn't have a huge budget. It was always Olympia Gold or whatever was on sale. For growing up in St. Louis, I grew up in a household void of Anheuser Busch products. My dad never bought them. They were not cheap and if he was going to drink a flavorless beer, he was going to drink whatever was on sale at the grocery store. He was Irish, so Guinness and German and English imports are what he did.
My Dad had a buddy who started home brewing, and I was just infatuated with it. I asked if he minded if I tried this. He said "sure" and drove me to the home brew store. I may not have even been 16 and I made my first Irish Stout. My dad said he would drink it all, but he let me have some. He being Irish, and us going back to Ireland, I had drank with him in pubs by this time. I was always allowed to have a beer at home. Even as a little kid, he kept his beer in the basement, and it was my job to go get his beer. The toll was always one sip. As an eight year old I always loved that one sip.
So after catching the beer bug from your father, how did you end up in the restaurant business?
I've been in the restaurant business since I was fourteen, as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant and I've worked at a bunch of restaurants growing up in St. Louis. But I always saw it as a part time job. I went to school for archaeology at Loyola... that didn't pan out. I spent every summer in college at a dig site in Syria. It was really interesting, but you would spend eight hours at the site in the hot sun, then four hours in the lab. Then you would have dinner, go to bed, then get up at four in the morning and do it all over again. After dinner I'd enjoy my one beer for the day - worst beer ever by the way - a Syrian brewery called Al-Chark. It was my last summer over there, and I was getting ready to go to grad school when I got back. One night, I was trying to relax, but the other students were still going on about archaeology. I was like, "What the fuck is wrong with you guys, did you not get enough today?" I realized then the problem wasn't them, it was me. I wasn't passionate enough about it to devote my life to it.
I was back at square one. I went back and worked at a restaurant and thought, "I guess I could do this. I'm good at it, I really love beer, why don't I get a job at a brewpub." So that's what I did. I started applying to all the area brewpubs, which was only three or four back then. One of them hired me on, and then it closed soon after. It was way before its time but it gave me the opportunity to work in a brewpub and just be around beer. When I found out a new brewpub was opening, I applied to be a manager That was another disaster. It was in Wrigleyville and the Cubs crowd just wasn't interested in craft beer. We didn't serve any macros and it tanked. That space eventually became the Goose Island Wrigleyville location.
Sounds like things certainly weren't going "Pat Berger" back then. Where did you head next?
After I left there, I went to Flatlander's (Lincolnshire, IL), and I really started to wonder if I was like an albatross. Like I was the jinx or something. But Flatlander's did really well. That's where I really cut my teeth learning proper restaurant management. I thought I would only be there a few months, but ended up staying three or four years. I learned a lot and decided I wanted to open my own place. I worked a lot as a bartender and it was marvelous. I worked four nights a week and made almost twice as much as I did as a manager. Then I got married, had some kids, and was very comfortable just bartending, making a lot of money. But then Chris Latchford came into my life, kicked me in the ass, and we opened Paddy's.
Yeah, that started while I was at Flatlander's and had taken a few trips to Belgium. Back then Belgium was the beer capital. Craft beer here was in its infancy, and just not that good. I was going over there to learn as much about beer as I could and decided I should take the BJCP. I had done some judging, but really wanted to get certified. I talked to my friend, Greg Browne, into taking the test with me. We would study every Sunday at the Map Room. Greg is really my beer mentor and has been doing the beer school there for almost 20 years. He doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
Any tips for aspiring test takers?
Without Greg I certainly would not have passed that BJCP exam. I wouldn't have even tried it. There were no study groups back then, there was no Cicerone. All you could do is find old tests online. I did that, and I did a lot of homebrew judging. Blind judging will change the way you taste beer. There is no better way to develop your palate. Looking at a beer, seeing where it's from and seeing the label, will always affect your pallet. It's just like food. We drink with our eyes, we taste with our eyes, we taste with our mind too. If it is made by someone I know, I am probably going to have a better opinion of it. The best part is at the end when they bring out what you had, and you realize you gave Sam Adams huge scores. We give Sam Adams huge scores all the time, it's really good beer. And I know I threatened to punch him in the balls or something, but I really do respect him and his beers.
Yea, about that Jim Koch blog post...
I didn't know that blog post was going to go so viral. It was just a joke, but it did hit a cord when I read that he was giving some shit to a server. If he ever did come into my bar and pull that shit, I would have tossed him on his ass, I don't give a fuck who he is. Personally, I think he did it on purpose. He is a very smart man, and everyone was talking about it. And where did that story come from? It came from him. He said it in front of a group of reporters at an event. It was another PR move that was fucking pure genius. Hats off to the guy. He is playing the game better than all of us and becoming a billionaire in the process.
How do you feel about the last few years as part of the exploding Chicago craft beer scene?
It's fantastic. Like I said, I would have never predicted it, I never would have imagined it. I thought I was just a beer geek trapped in an Old Style city. I kind of resigned to it. It took me by surprise and it took me a little while to realize it was going on. I was older at that time and wasn't going to all the beer festivals like I was when I was young. Suddenly people were coming into Paddy's talking about the beer, before I had to explain what it was. The first time I put Bourbon County on tap at Paddy Long's, it was on tap for two fucking months. No one touched it or cared about it. Now it holds the record for the fastest keg ever poured at Paddy's - 17 minutes. It has been a pleasant surprise. Like I said, I would still be doing this, even if beer wasn't popular, I just would be making way less money.
The beer scene here is just so great. We had our first resurgence with Half Acre, Metropolitan, and Solemn Oath. Now I can't keep up, which is a great thing. If I can't keep up with all the breweries then that's good. You hear people say there are too many breweries. Too many fucking breweries? What are you talking about! That's like saying there are too many good things. I'll keep drinking them and letting you know whether or not they are good.
So what are you drinking when you're not at work these days?
Well I have a kegerator at home, and right now I have Firestone Walker Union Jack in there. I drink a lot of Firestone, they are just so solid and dialed in. Alpha King, now that's my everyday beer. That's what I drink all the time, every day. I know exactly what four Alpha King's will do to me. It is calibrated in my body. I would have Alpha King on at home if I could, but I can't waste those kegs with my own kegerator.
Where do you see Pat Berger, Paddy Long's and Kaiser Tiger in three to five years?
I will have to forget how hard it was to open Kaiser Tiger to ever want to open another place. It took me seven years to forget how hard Paddy Long's was. I don't see another place in my future right now, but talk to Chris. He has the ability to talk me into all kinds of crazy shit.
I did film a pilot for a television show. Where I am the host that goes around to different cities. It's a travel show all about beer. We just wrapped that up a couple weeks ago, but as of now nobody has picked it up. So no congrats yet, it may never make it off of YouTube.
Photography by Joe Madurski