River North, Chicago
Changing Perceptions: River North Brews with Kevin McMahon of Gino's Brewing Co.
Interviewed April 26, 2016
At Gino's Brewing Co. - Chicago
How do you separate yourself as a brewery started inside a pizza chain, in one of Chicago's most traversed enclaves? It's odd–one of the busiest and most visited neighborhoods in the city is often overlooked as a beer destination. River North, home to some of the trendiest bars and restaurants in the city, also houses three breweries cranking out beer that deserve your attention.
We sat down with one of the people behind the underrated beer flowing from River North, Kevin McMahon, brewmaster of Gino's Brewing Co. Not only is he fighting neighborhood perceptions, Kevin has the added pressure of representing a 50 year-old brand synonymous with the Second City, Gino's East Pizza. That didn't stop him from sharing some truths about his unconventional path to becoming a brewer, the future of Gino's, and his thoughts on the neighborhood that his brewery calls home.
Kevin, we heard your first career was as an oil rig diver in the Gulf of Mexico?
Yeah, the whole reason I ended up at Abita Brewing, actually, was because I was working offshore as a diver. I was terrible at it. I worked for Bosarge Diving out of Pascagoula, Mississippi. It's not worth going there, hah. There were a lot of nice people, but there's not a lot going on in that town.
Not your typical pre-brewer job...
I worked as a welder through high school and college. I like fabricating—I was OK at that. I had an instructor at Elgin Community College who knew someone who worked offshore. I just didn't know anyone who was doing something like that. It was definitely very different.
Did you have a diving background?
I had done recreational stuff, I had done the scuba shit, but this was way more intense. It was a heavy lifestyle, and I made a lot of money for the short period of time I did it. The work sucked...well most of the work was pretty badass. But most of the people sucked.
It was that, "Don't fuck with me, I've been to jail and my dick is bigger than yours" mentality. I am all about a little hubris and some ego, but when it was just coming out of your pores... It was too much. Plus music is a big part of my life and I work regularly with a couple groups, leading one of them, and I had to put that shit down for two years. You can't plan a gig, then three days before get a phone call saying you need to be in Houston in 10 hours–and be gone for three weeks.
If you weren't brewing, would you pursue music?
I almost studied to be a musician in college, but I just knew too many broke musicians. Now that I'm brewing professionally, I supplement my income with gigs. I work with a fusion group and also play with a southern rock and roll/bluesy band. But I would love to work professionally as a musician.
How's the beer scene in Pascagoula, Mississippi?
Umm, non-existent. When I left to go work at Abita and take the Siebel concise course, I remember my diving boss going, "Woooo, you goin' to be the next Budweiser." I'm thinking, "Yeah that's exactly what I'm going to do."
So, then you head off to Abita in New Orleans...
Abita is huge. When I got there they were doing 170,000 barrels. I started in the cellar, and within a month or two you get a little drier behind the ears. But you still don't really grasp it. At the time they were still bringing guys all the way through. In larger breweries you don't see a ton of dudes working both sides–cold side and hot side. At that time, Abita was still doing that. I liked that you could do it all. It gives you a real sense of appreciation across the board when you are handling brew day, then putting things in the brite tanks a month later.
Is it a different skill set, the hot side vs the cold side?
No, just a different application. The overall theme is the same–know when to be sanitary, know when you can be a little more relaxed. You need to know the science behind why you're doing what you're doing.
There are a lot of great brewery employees out there, but I feel a lot of people don't know the 'why', or don't understand the repercussions. 'Why do I chose to mash at this temperature? Why am I transferring from my fermentor to my brite tank at this speed?'
It seems like a scientific mindset is necessary to be successful in brewing.
But, that's the thing, I'm not that way. I have a lot of people say, "You must have been great in chemistry." I'm a fucking idiot! I can remember movie quotes, but I can't do basic division. That's the long and short of it.
Brewing is just practice. It's making mistakes. Yeah, grasping the basic science is really important, but I had a recent epiphany–if you line up 10 brewers and they're all comfortable with the same ingredients, they're all fantastic with sanitation, everyone is on a level playing field. But let's say two of them have better sensory than the rest. Those two brewers, I feel, would excel.
That's a pretty admirable quality, to have that humility.
If you cut out all the other bullshit, if you don't have the palate to really find out where you are coming up short, how the fuck are you going to fix it? Am I that guy? I don't know. I honestly don't. I feel that I'm just young enough in the application process to where I'm getting comfortable enough with the ingredients and everything. It's really weird to say, because if you tell me you want an English Bitter or a Czech Pils, I can put together a pretty good shot at the thing. I just haven't made enough shit here yet, to really start seeing other sides of it. There are still so many styles that I haven't made, and there are some that I am finding that I really enjoy making.
Which beer are you most proud of?
I think our Gino's Pale Ale was a miracle, and will continue to be a miracle as long as I can keep a supply of Mosaic hops–which is difficult. Also, my Oktoberfest that we tried last year for the first run, was one of the best things I ever made, from a style perspective. I couldn't have been more proud of that thing. I'm really stoked to make it again this fall.
Do you remember a specific beer or instance that got you into craft beer?
I remember exactly what I was doing, who I was with, and what we drank. It was my sophomore year at college and I was working at a fabrication shop, saving up some money to pay my way through school. I had a friend of mine, who was super into craft, but I didn't really get it.
We worked together, and on the way home one day, he stopped off at a liquor store by his house and got a six pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He popped one of those open for me and I had never had anything like it. It's really quite nostalgic for me. I didn't know at the time, but I never looked back after that.
Back then you were going to parties, you were paying five bucks for a red cup, drinking Keystone Light. I just remember saying at the time, "Fuck this. If this is what beer is about, I'm not a fan."
So what came after Abita?
I was at Abita little over three years, and then went straight to Two Brothers.
Were you looking to get back to Illinois?
It just happened. I was ready to move west to Seattle with a friend of mine, who was just struggling to get the funds together. I was getting a little frustrated, but I decided I was going to ride out the end of the year with Abita. They took really great care of their people and the end of the year they were always very generous with letting you know how much they appreciated you.
I decided to stick around, but two hours later my roommate comes home and says "Hey man, I love living with you, but I want to try living in New Orleans." He knew I was up in the air about it, so I just said "Fuck it, I'm out too."
So then you made your way back to Chicago. Had you stayed atop the beer scene here?
I was always trying to stay hip on what was going on in Chicago while I was on my five year hiatus. I came back, I knew Leo Conaghan pretty well, the Brand Manager at Two Brothers. They just had a brewer leave the production side of the brewhouse and needed a third man. In a week or two of coming back to town, it just worked out.
I was there for a year. I got a lot out of those guys and I hope they got a lot out of me. They gave me the chance to work a manual system. And I don't give a fuck who you are, you are not going to be a pub brewer clicking a mouse on a computer.
How did you go from Two Brothers to Gino's?
When you go to Siebel they offer you the opportunity to get on a listserv, like an open-ended email list. A lot of companies will reach out to them when looking for a brewer. It just so happened that John Hannafan, their Dean of Education, was also working as a consultant for Bravo Restaurants for equipment purchasing and hiring of their brewer. I had studied under John when I attended Siebel, and it all kind of fit in. It's not like I was slaying it somewhere and they reached out for me. I applied like every other joker.
What do you say to someone who might put their nose up at a brewery within a pizza chain?
What do I say to that? I get it, I do. Do I think I have anything überly special here? Hmm. There is a lot of room for improvement, but I have also never been more confident about what I'm pouring than I am right now. But that's 18 months in, and it doesn't mean shit. There's a long way to go as far as growth–in a good way.
I guess I would say, "Why not?" If you really do enjoy beer, and you know there's a place close by.. or where you can at least get some fucking killer deep dish out of it... You may think my beers are shit, but you don't have a soul if you walk out of here saying this deep dish isn't what's up.
You have a killer Gino's Brewing happy hour deal here, too.
$3 pints! In River North!
What has it been like in the neighborhood–because the crowd is so different in River North compared to Lincoln Park, or to a Lincoln Square? Besides Rock Bottom, you are the only brewery in River North.
And Eataly's Birreria.
Ah, yes. So three in the neighborhood–maybe the city's busiest 'hood...
A lot of people forget about us. It's not on people's radar. That was a big thing about taking over this space. We are in the old Michael Jordan's/LaSalle Power Co./a couple other things before us. I think that as far as the neighborhood, there is a lot of business. There are condos in this area too, but a lot of people going to work. The people going to work in Lakeview and Lincoln Park are just sorta hanging out–it's more chill. Here, there're a lot of driven, corporate hustlin' people around.
Those other neighborhoods are wonderful, why? Because you're comfortable there. You are hanging out in Logan Square or Wicker Park it is a little more relaxed. Down here i's still the madness and nonsense of downtown and a lot of corporate America. You have a lot of young, hungry professionals making decent money that want to blow off some steam, and maybe they don't want to take a fucking Uber all the way up to Burnt City or Half Acre. That's a hike.
Folks in Chicago treat their neighborhoods very differently.
There is still the opportunity for us. Think about Europe. This is total horseshit, because I have never been, but from what I understand there is a pub on every goddamn corner. And they all make it work. This is a big fucking town, ya know!
You know how lazy people are on their walk to work. They freak out if they have to cross the street because the sidewalk is closed. That's why there're so many Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts everywhere. You have your route. You venture off that and you find things you didn't even know where there. So why wouldn't a brewery in this area work? You could probably squeeze 10 more pubs in this little area.
Does it bother you that there isn't a wider acceptance in the Chicago beer scene of what is being produced in River North, here–and at Rock Bottom and Eataly?
It's a vibe thing. When you're in this area, what's the vibe? It's not the same as if you shoot up Milwaukee Ave. It's still that heartbeat of the loop, the fringes of it. I think that as a location, it is fucking killer. That's been why it has been so important for me to try and make sure that the pub on the first floor of this building is comfortable, relaxed.
Hopefully, even if you walk in with your nose up, you level yourself out a little bit. There's a lot of history behind the Gino's East brand. And at the end of the day, this brewery is at least trying to offer its patrons the ability, even in River North, to be able to walk in and have a pint for $3 during happy hour. Where the fuck else ya gonna get that in River North?
As far as we know, nowhere.
Yes, it's 'just another beer and pizza place.' But the pizza is legit, and I am definitely utilizing the heritage of the brand to allow me to let people know there's something else to look forward to when you come here.
What is it like working with such an established, and large, brand?
They are wonderful. Seriously.
Do they give you carte blanche to do what you want with the beer?
Absolutely, but there's a level of respect that can almost go without saying between us. They help me with any resources I could ever need. Which, as a start up, you almost never get that luxury. I'm so fortunate in my situation, and the fact that ownership has been so inviting–so helpful. The family that owns the brand has owned it for 30 years. And there is a reason for it, they do good business.
How big is the brew system?
Ten-barrel. Our first year (2015), we did 440 barrels. I think that's pretty respectable, considering everything is consumed here. With contracting we are looking at 2,000-2,500 this year. The fact that we were able to get into the other stores and franchises helps show what the brand can do.
We keep referencing 'heritage' and being a Chicago staple, but the real challenge is staying relevant. That's something that the people in charge are really trying to make sure they do right. I think the brewery is the start of things they are trying to do. It's a copout to say 'trendy,' but there is some truth to that.
Hopefully folks learn to look past the perceived 'trendiness' of craft beer, and just try it out for themselves.
When I first met these guys, they wanted a brewery for years because they thought it would be cool. But from a business standpoint, to make something that is equal quality or superior to what you can buy elsewhere... It's like quarters to the pint when you are manufacturing your own. It's just good business.
How will the Gino's brewery grow and stay relevant in coming years?
That is a good question. I think as far as the pub, it will be important to keep raising the bar on quality. Within that span, I can grow and learn and make better beer. Making sure that our franchisees and owned stores push our line of flagships. Right now the real focus is just taking care of our restaurants, but being able to offer something that we are pouring here that we can put into production and distribution at a larger scale.
We're loving this pineapple beer, 'Pineapple Impostor.'
A lot of people like the Impostor IPA.
For what you said about dialing in on traditional styles, this isn't really one. How did you develop this recipe to get those pineapple flavors, without using pineapple?
Have you ever had Deschutes Fresh Squeezed? Dick so hard, you could hang a wet towel from it! It's fucking delicious! I just read the damn label. Oh, you're using a bunch of Mosaic? Then you see others using Mosaic. I wanted to try using them and wanted to use them in a pale ale–not quite a SMASH beer–but showcase these hops. It's all the Mosaic hops.
We were talking earlier about sensory. To me, body and aroma are probably the two big things for me that would separate one beer from another. I want them to not even have to think about it, just get punched in the fucking face with aroma.
In your opinion in that one of the more underrated aspects of craft beer–aroma?
You know, I put a lot of thought into shit like that. I had a good friend of mine set me straight recently. I had Jared Ruben, of Moody Tongue, on my podcast, he is one of the guys I attribute a ton of our success to. He is a lovely human being. We were talking, and I was telling him how I feel about certain things, and he goes, "I don't care what the brewer meant to do, or be interpreted out of this beer, beer should just be delicious."
No rebuttal. He is right.
What are you drinking when you're not here?
I like Rye Whiskeys. Well, it's not even "whiskeys," it's Templeton. Double Rye from High West is kind of close, but there's nothing like drinking a Templeton on the rocks. I love everything about that liquor.
Any favorite local breweries?
I like a lot of the work from a lot of people in town. I'm just like anyone else though, sometimes it's hard to commit to the price of a 4-pack. I love a lot of Rev's work. I really love what Jared Rouben is doing. He's got a very specific approach to ingredients. He delivers on everything he tells you in the beer.
And you know what, a lot of people rule out Rock Bottom, but they're making fantastic beers. I like Temperance's work. I love what Claudia is doing up there. She's got an IPA out right now that's killer, The Escapist. I like Spiteful's work. I just recently met the Pipeworks guys as well and they're great. I have so much respect for Matt Potts at Destihl. I think they're like the Russian River of the Midwest. I haven't had a beer from them I didn't like.
What's Kevin McMahon's pizza?
I love East Coast styles. I love the deep dish and I love the thin crust here. It's still not the East Coast–but all the ingredients are super fresh and you can just taste the difference. In the Midwest when you get thin crust, you get a lot of cardboard. But there's nothing like buying a wedge the size of a paper dixie plate and you've got to fold that bitch in half. That's the kind of thing I love.
You better speak quietly with that talk around here... What's on your pizza?
Anything you can throw on it. Honestly, I eat a lot of salad. I drink so many fucking calories, there's just no way I could be downing pizza all the time. If you're asking me here– it's the Zio Gino pizza. It's Italian sausage, red and yellow peppers, and caramelized red onions. That's fuckin' delicious.
What would you graffiti on the walls here at Gino's if you walked out for the last time?
"Drink Responsibly." No, not really. It would probably be along the lines of "Please enjoy." Sometimes I get too wrapped up in this shit, but you've got to live a little, make mistakes, and learn. So maybe something too, like, "Continue to better yourselves." That's something I respect about ownership. They're changing things up and are always trying to make themselves better. Complacency and mediocrity are the death of growth. Too many people accept that shit.
Fuck that. Mediocrity is not acceptable. There you go! There's your quote.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A big thanks to Kevin for sitting down with us and sharing a truly honest and candid conversation over a couple pints, and some deep dish. Be sure to swing by the brewery at the River North Gino's East location or try one of their flagships at Gino's across Illinois.