WEST TOWN, CHICAGO
An Ode to Nature: Creating Botanical Beers with BJ Pichman of Forbidden Root
INTERVIEWED FEBRUARY 10, 2016
AT FORBIDDEN ROOT – CHICAGO
In an increasingly crowded craft beer market, it becomes harder and harder to separate from the rest of the pack. It's even more difficult to run with a unique approach to brewing and not have it not come off as gimmicky. Such was the case with West Town's Forbidden Root and their lineup of wild-ingredient botanical brews.
It all started with the idea from owner and Rootmaster, Robert Finkel, to create a root-beer-flavored beer using only the best, natural ingredients. With the help of one of the most respected minds in beer, Randy Mosher, and the passion and drive of a local homebrew guru turned Head Brewer, BJ Pichman, Forbidden Root quickly grew from a small seed to a boundary-pushing brewery. As Chicago's first botanic brewery, Forbidden Root is using wild ingredients to create brews that are as adventurous as they are familiar. Pichman recently took us through their brand new brewpub and shared with us the process of making these unique beers.
BJ, thanks for taking the time to show us around the brewpub.
Yeah, this is it! It is about 7,000 sf. In the back there, there's a black cinderblock wall we erected to separate the brewery from the dining area. The building was formerly a classic movie theater called The Hub. This all used to be wide open with the screen all the way in the back. It was a pretty good sized theater.
In the 80's or 90's it became a music venue, and then went underutilized for many years. At one point a Catholic charity came in and put a drop ceiling in and made it a call center or something.
It's very cool how you were able to salvage so many details of the original building.
The brick and the ceiling is all original. Because it was a movie theater, the floor was slanted for seating, so someone at some point dug it up and re-poured it level.
Upstairs there are a couple different former projector rooms – we're going to use that area as our lab of sorts. This is where we plan on doing a lot of the tinkering and where we'll keep our spice catalog.
Was this building landmarked?
It was on orange status. Which kind of means, "check with us." It wasn't historical, but it was on a list to be considered. It didn't hold us up thankfully, and really we weren't planning on changing much anyway.
What was the process like selecting this specific building?
Well, we went around for six months or so, trying to find something. The one thing we knew for sure, was that we wanted to be anchored in a neighborhood. We didn't want to be in an industrial park. It was really important to us. This area's a pretty good community. And I am not gonna lie, I live a mile down the street so this building was my first choice. Not because it is a nice commute though – I love Ukrainian Village and West Town. The space is great, and in the perfect neighborhood for us. So yeah it was a couple month process, and then there was the battle of actually getting the zoning and license.
Your zoning 'battle' was pretty well documented. Anything you haven't said already?
It was just a small group of people who have ideas for the neighborhood, and they aren't known for being pro-alcohol or pro-bar. There was a lot of educating on our part to let them know what a brewpub is. A brewpub's not a 4AM sports bar. It's just as much a restaurant as it is anything else. We spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people. And obviously majority won, which is great.
How would you describe the aesthetic now?
Well you see the jars everywhere with the different herbs and spices. It's meant to be, what's the word... well I guess it's like a rustic lab. It's laboratory-like, but also inviting. We tried to keep it warm.
We weren't able to find much on your background as a brewer. How'd you end up here at Forbidden Root?
Homebrewing, for 10 years. From my kitchen, to the front porch, to the garage. As soon as I started homebrewing I joined the Chicago Beer Society. Back then it was still an appreciation society, but it was also a lot of active homebrewers. This was before CHAOS and some of the other local clubs.
There, I met Randy Mosher, Ray Daniels, Steve Hamburg, and Jeff Sparrow. It was awesome! I was a little starstruck, but was very happy to find out they were all helpful and supportive. I just started going to the meetings, hanging out, becoming more active in the community – and cranking out batches and trying new things.
What kind of brewer were you early on?
I don't think I was any different than most homebrewers. I jumped in and made that fateful mistake of trying to do something crazy your first batch. As a new homebrewer you can't just brew a classic style, it has to have something extra in it, right? I played around a lot in the beginning, and then I realized there were too many variables; too many levers that I was pulling. So I backed it down. I went back to trying to nail down something basic and simple. Five or six brews later I was getting back into experimenting. I wanted something different, something I couldn't buy.
At that time, in 2006-ish, you could still get some pretty nice craft beer. It wasn't anything near what it is today, but if you wanted a really nice IPA you just needed to go around the corner to get one. Doing something different is what interested me.
Experimentation drove you.
Yea. I did that for years, and then three or four years ago Randy Mosher approached me about being part of a project. I was laid off from my market research job of 12 years, and had picked up photography on the side. I was doing a photoshoot for 5 Rabbit, and when we were wrapping up, Randy approached me wondering what I was doing nowadays. I told him, well, nothing. Enjoying "fun-employment," getting my severance and unemployment checks. He asked if I wanted to do some pilot batches for a project he was working on. I called and talked to Robert [Finkel], and he let me into his grand idea of doing a root beer beer...
That must have seemed pretty out there at the time.
I was suspect. It seemed kind of weird. The project didn't have a name, it didn't have anything. But being the super craft beer nerd that I am, I was really interested and it seemed like a pretty cool challenge.
I quickly jumped on board, started brewing some pilot batches, and we kept going. It was a long arduous process. Ultimately, we realized we had more than one idea. The early batches were crazy, it got well out of hand. We did so many variations of this "Forbidden Root" that we needed a mental break and thought, let's try some other flavors. That's how the brewery was spawned.
Was it an education process for you, using so many new ingredients?
Yeah, absolutely. Randy is a great teacher and can put what is in his mind into words better than anyone. I am getting better at it, but nowhere near Randy. Back then it was like, "It's good, I like it, it's not overly sweet or bitter" – I was very basic. Getting the vocabulary down and understanding that process was a huge education process.
Also, we started doing this rapid prototyping. That's getting a base beer, whether or not we brewed it or picked up some non-distinct beer, and actually creating the extracts ourselves and dosing the base beer. Does this herb or spice taste good in a beer? If so, how much of it? What base beer does it taste good in? That was really cool. Everyone just sitting around with pipettes and graduated cylinders.
And look where that landed you!
It has been a crazy process for me. I never had any intention of brewing beyond the pilot beers, but then Robert kept inviting me to more and more meetings. We were sitting down and talking about the beer and I ended up naming it and the name of the company. I was like, "Whoa this is getting really serious, I'm here a lot." Next thing you know we have a brewery. That's when he asked me to be on full time, and I obviously said yes.
It has been almost four years between those pilot beers and this grand opening. That's quite a bit of time.
Yeah, especially being a homebrewer and being invited to design and build a brewery, and get it operational. I had gone and helped friends at other breweries, but I had never worked in a production facility. It was terrifying. There was so much to learn, but there are a lot of resources out there. The brewing community is really great and tight. I would go into a brewery and ask if I could help out for a day. The first thing I would ask them was, "If you could re-do this tomorrow, what would you do differently?" I would pocket all those ideas.
So you were responsible for laying out the brewspace?
Yeah. Originally we started with a consultant who started the process, but it changed drastically and that person left the project. I asked Robert if we would be replacing him, and he was like, "No, you can do it."
For me the biggest challenge was the trades. All the different trades that are involved in this. There are plumbers, steam workers, welders, stainless steel welders, which are two different welders. There are electricians, general electricians and control electricians. Then there are software people, because we use an automated system. Trying to coordinate all those people and figure out that this person has to be done before that person can come in. That was the most stressful, getting all that worked out and making sense of it.
Above the front door it says "Fine Botanic Beers." Explain what exactly that means to Forbidden Root?
It's part of a methodology. We think about the ingredients—roots, herbs, spices, flowers. Anything that's herbaceous, rooty, and botanical really excites us. There are so many different options, and different ingredients we can use. Things people are not familiar with. We go through a lot of tastings. We throw out more than we keep.
The idea is, we are getting these spices and herbs and figuring out a profile. If we put lemon and ginger and honeybush together, we have a really amazing tropical situation. But how do we deliver that to a beer consumer? If we just give them a bag of spices, then it would just be a tea. We have to figure out how it works into a beer and what makes sense. Sometimes it lands on a classic style, sometimes it doesn't. We're not bound by that.
You must have a laundry list of ingredients you want to use.
Yeah, we have a huge list of ingredients we love that we haven't found the right beer for or combination yet. We have the whole book shelf up there of fun, different things we can pull out. As we learn and as we play, more things will pop up.
Given the botanic approach, where in the city do you go for inspiration?
Epic Spices, right across the street. It's amazing. Steven, the proprietor there, is one of the best. It's funny because I have been going to him for years, but now when I go in there, more often than not, I run into a brewer. I've run into guys from Pipeworks and Half Acre. So I'll go in there and he'll show me products that he's excited about for beer. That really inspires me.
There's a quote on your website, "At its best, food, drinks, and seasonings can capture the essence of a place, time, and culture." That's a really strong, unique ethos.
First of all, if you think of a beer that would capture that sentiment, it would be Sublime Ginger. It's a time and place, a warm weather beach beer. It transports you. We don't want people to walk in and be like "Should we get the pizza or the burger?" That's played out, especially in Chicago. People have expectations, and the bar has been set very high. So for us it was, "How do we go beyond that and make it interesting and something different they can't get elsewhere?"
Do you feel an obligation to pair your beer with the food coming out of the kitchen?
To be perfectly candid, I am not a big beer pairing person. I don't drink beer with my meals. I drink water with a meal. It's just my preference. That being said, we've done two dozen beer pairing dinners, and there have been some really amazing stuff happening.
How much will the brewpub act as a quasi-tasting-panel for you?
We are not going to serve bad beer. I've already dumped a batch from this system and didn't even think twice about it. Yet I had people saying that it wasn't bad and they kind of liked it. I was like "No, no, we are not serving this." If I can't be happy with it, I'm not going to put it out there.
Our beers are accessible, especially the Forbidden Root, which is familiar. Sublime Ginger, familiar, and accessible to people. When we go to a beer fest we tend to have long lines, and a lot of repeat drinkers. Often times it's the person who may not necessarily be the uber craft beer nerd. It's the reluctant friend that was dragged along.
There's a fairly large staff here for training. How important is that staff education component?
It's huge. We've put a lot of emphasis and a lot of time and effort into training. They have all gone through three days, a few hours each day – going through a sensory course, giving them some language, talking about history, I took them in the back and talked about the process. We tasted and went through all the ingredients and described them. We need them to be able to talk about it.
What is your music choice on a brew day?
Right now we're listening to White Lies. I have very eclectic music choices. If there's anything I'm a snob about, it's music. I like everything except pop country. I can listen to John Denver, but I can't do anyone who's on a country music station right now. Yeah, anything from jazz to metal. I like metal, but I am not a metal head.
So you're not Local Option?
I'm not cool enough. Literally, I am not cool enough.
You have some Hamm's in the cooler – just in case?
Have you been to Pub Royale in Wicker Park? They do a drink called the Dressed Hamm's. It is a can of Hamm's, with hot sauce, season salt, and a squeeze of lime on top. I've been addicted.
When you're not drinking Forbidden Root, what are you drinking?
So we talked about the Hamm's...haha. I like are Surly, I also love Firestone Walker. Surly Abrasive is one of my favorite go-to beers. Firestone Walker Easy Jack, Union Jack...their barrel program...
Well, who would've thought a few years ago that you would be standing here, in this space.
I know, I was thinking about this today. Years ago, before Randy invited me to the project, I sent an email out to the Chicago Beer Society list saying I was really tired of my job, I wanted to get into the brewing industry – but I have a family and a mortgage. I couldn't just up and quit my job and risk it all. Where do I go what is my next step? I sent it to everyone. And Ray Daniels got back to me. Randy Mosher got back to me. And a bunch of brewers had ideas to share.
And it ended up happening.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Thanks again to BJ taking the time to chat and share a few beers just days before the brewpub's opening. Be sure to swing by to try some of the most unique, yet approachable beers available in Chicago.