Buying In: Josh Hastert of Quenchers Saloon, Chicago's Original Beer Bar
Interviewed January 8th, 2017
At Quenchers Saloon - BUCKTOWN, Chicago
Tucked into the fringes of Logan Square, Bucktown and Wicker Park rests Chicago's longest standing beer bar. Quenchers Saloon has sat at the corner of Fullerton and Western since 1979, with a focus on serving more than just American adjuncts, since the beginning. And yet, even with nearly 40 years of experience pouring some of the finest beers from around the globe, Quenchers is often left out of the conversation of Chicago's best beer bars.
Josh Hastert is no stranger to Quenchers, he had been booking punk shows at the bar long before taking over as the saloon's Beer Buyer. Since assuming the role, Josh has been on a mission to bring the bar back into the spotlight. He's quickly reconstructed the draft list–while still paying homage to the bar's European import traditions. Never afraid to take a risk, he's brought in some of the most sought after handles available anywhere in the city. Josh sat down with us, on a bitter cold January morning and amidst their month-long Stout Fest, to walk us through the method to his craft beer madness, and tell us exactly what has helped Quenchers become the mainstay it has.
Josh, how did you end up with your role at Quenchers?
I started off doing the gigs here. I was running the booking company, Phantom Note Productions. At one point or another we booked for most of the venues in Chicago. We started out at Fireside Bowl in 2008. We ended up doing Underground Lounge, Bottom Lounge, Reggie's, Beat Kitchen, Subterranean, and then Quenchers. We never knew what we were getting here, but Quenchers became our room. I live right down the street, and this was my bar since I moved back here in 2008.
Once we got Quenchers and started booking here around 2010, this became our sole focus. Since the craft boom in the 90's, Craig [Gunderson, Josh's partner in beer site, Thirsty Bastards] and I would always visit breweries. So I always had an ancillary interest in beer, finding new beers, and drinking well. After a while it was just me annoying the fuck out of the beer buyers here.
You'd been with Quenchers how long before you took over the buying?
I was doing the music end of things for six years.
What was your process booking acts for Quenchers?
A lot of it is similar to how beer comes into the market. You get something, and you say, "Lets see how this works out." It could either be good, or it could be garbage. You book them on a Sunday night or Tuesday and see who they bring out. Certain bands you say, "Wow, these guys are good, they know what they are doing." Others, not so much. And some are terrible bands but they bring out people. Most of it comes down to how many people they can draw in. There is nothing worse than booking a show, then the band asks how many people usually come by on a Sunday evening–just expecting people to show up. That doesn't happen anywhere, ever!
Do you have a band you're particularly proud of that came through here?
One right now that is getting a lot of buzz is Turnspit. Gillian McGhee is one of the singers and she started out as our intern. Sam, my partner at Phantom Note, was her guitar teacher. She's doing exceptionally well now. They just released a very good EP and a lot of labels are expressing interest.
You mentioned how you used to bug the beer buyers here while you were still booking bands...
I was always talking with Earle [Johnson, Owner]. When I talked with him—and don't get me wrong, I personally like all the beer buyers who worked here—but the direction that Quenchers was going wasn't exciting. Quenchers started in 1979 as a beer bar, and unless someone corrects me, it's the longest running beer bar in the city of Chicago.
What was the menu like back in '79?
Mostly Belgians and Germans. The first year was a couple Belgians, a couple Germans, and a lot of American adjunct lagers on the taps. It was kind of a sports bar thing. But when Earle took over in 1980 it became solely a beer-focused bar.
Quenchers sits right at the crux of several neighborhoods. Which do you identify with?
I call it the "Buck-Square Triangle." If you listen to the–lying–Target over there, we are in Lakeview, haha. Earle has always associated Quenchers with Logan Square. No one seems to want to claim us.
One of the early draws of Quenchers was the 'European Tour of Beer.' Explain the approach to that one.
It started off right after they opened, with all of these beers from around the world. Back in the 70s, Billy Beer was considered a special beer. Everyone was used to American lagers, so if you had an English IPA or Belgian sour, not everyone wanted to buy those. We still get the crowd that just wants to drink yellow fizzy beer from around the world. They want a fucking American adjunct lager from every country they possibly can get.
Isn't that your favorite part of the buying process?
It's fine, and there are some exceptional beers up on that list, don't get me wrong. If there's a beer from a country I don't have, I will put it up there.
Kingfisher from India is terrible! I just found out it's made in New York, too. Kinda like how Red Stripe is associated with Jamaica, but comes from Pennsylvania. Some Sapporo is made in Milwaukee.
Why carry beers you know are not good?
It's one of those things that it isn't about drinking a beer—it's drinking heritage. We get a lot of people wanting to drink beers from the country they or their ancestors are from, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Who's the typical drinker coming in here?
We have three pretty separate groups that come in here. One is the old school beer guys—they drink mostly imports. Then you have what I would call the younger beer nerds that want hyper-local, weird stuff—the Untappd drinker. They want something new and interesting every time. Lastly, you have the punk show crowd that wants to slam as many Blatz as they possibly can.
I can't help but notice you have a Malort tattoo. Is that a new addition?
My newest. I broke every single rule—I was drunk, the artist was drunk... I woke up the next morning and was like, "Did I get a Malort tattoo?" That's the only way to get a Malort tattoo. You should never get any tattoo in that state, unless it's a Malort tattoo.
We'll certainly keep that in mind next time we're on a bender.
So then, how did you actually make the switch from booker to beer buyer?
It kind of started during my interview process, when I took over, from Phantom Note to Quenchers. I would talk with Earle, and he knew I was a beer guy. I would go to FoBAB or Day of the Living Ales and tell him about it. I bugged the fuck out of the beer guys, asking them to get this or that in. So the position was open at the time actually, I wasn't trying to usurp someone's position.
But you would've if you had to...
I totally would have. So, talking with Earle, I told him, we have been around since the 70s, and everyone knows Quenchers, but we've rested on our laurels. We have a very good beer lineup, but it was boring. We would get in the same beers all the time, mostly California and Colorado. We didn't do a lot of local. The deal was, back when we started off, we were the only game in town. Now every fucking restaurant that opens has at least six taps of really good beer. Many are the same of what we were running here.
That has always been stuck in Earle's craw. We've been around since the 70's, we've been doing craft beer the entire time, but we're always left out of the conversation when it comes to craft beer in the city.
Why do you think that is?
I think because we have been around since the 70s, and if you want to get people talking again, you have to take some risks. We had a boring, safe menu of mostly IPAs. You need to switch it up, get some weird ones in there. You have to dig and find things other people don't have. Right now, there's nothing up there I won't defend. There are beers up there I don't like. There are beers up there I wouldn't drink. But there is no beer I bring in where I won't stand by it.
A big part of it now is building the relationships. Now we'll get beers like FFF Floydivision, which is their experimental beer they do test marketing with. Same thing with Maplewood—they'll keg beers just for us. With Pipeworks and Three Floyds, our old buyers would get into arguments with those guys and we couldn't get shit from them. Pipeworks went from not selling to Quenchers, to us getting the cream of the crop. Now we have reps saying we need to get this beer in Quenchers, because they know if we put it on, they have five other bars that will put it on too, because we have it.
Do you embrace the underdog mentality? It's weird to say that because you've been around so long, but does it bother you when you say you are left out of the conversation?
It doesn't bother me, but it bothers Earle. That's one of the things though—if it bothers Earle, it's my job to do something about it. It takes a lot to bother me. Earle is concerned about why we're not in the conversation, and part of that is because people tend to gravitate to the new.
Earle and I just did an interview with Business Insider about European beer versus American craft beer. If you are a good beer you will survive, but back in the day if you wanted something other than American adjuncts you would go to European imports, now that drinker is going to the newer craft beers. It's still fun though to find European beers that are incredible.
What is the biggest challenge with trying to keep the list of bottles from around the world and cater to today's craft drinker?
It's impossible because you can't make everyone happy. So you try and make everyone as happy as possible. People will come in and complain there's no brown or red on, so I put one on and it sits for two months. That one guy drank it, but no one else did. There's still one guy who is frickin' salty that I took Guinness off. It was just him and frat boys.
You also have to look past your personal preference.
Oh yeah, if I didn't do that, the list would be all sours, all the time. Barrel-aged sours. Not kettle sours, get the fuck out of here.
What are your best sellers?
Local IPAs—3 Floyds, Half Acre, Maplewood. Any local IPA we'll blow through on draft.
Do you ever run into beers that just don't move?
Sure, we sell them as the 'Mystery Beer.' It's a great way to move through a couple cases.
So, 'Stout Fest'—you took that over when you came on. How have you adapted that over the years?
I've made a point, this year especially, to collect for Stout Fest all year long. I already have stouts for 2018. I'll work 12 months to get one 1/6 barrel of Abyss or something similar. Sometimes you have to do a favor for the rep and buy a barrel of something they are trying to push, but in return you ask them for a favor by allocating a barrel of something rare. That was months ago, but having the situational awareness to plan for an event months down the road. We are curating a menu, not just buying whats available.
What are some of the stouts you're most excited for this year?
Right now, Dino S'mores and Big Hugs are the ones I like. We have a couple Alesmith Speedway Stouts coming on—the Vietnamese and Hawaiian. That Hawaiian Speedway is one of my favorite beers ever. We have a Dragon's Milk Reserve: Vanilla Chai that's going to be really good. Velvet Merlin, which we have never been able to get before, we got this year.
Are there any beers that are just flops, that you were personally excited to get in, but didn't resonate with the customers?
There are beers that are flops that are good beers, and I will stand by endlessly and defend. One that comes to mind was from HammerHeart out of Minnesota. They do Nordic style beers, mostly smoked IPAs. I love them. It's my favorite thing, and I think I'm the one that's drinking them all.
For a brewery like that, are you finding them at beer fests or from traveling?
Part is beer fest, part is travel, part is just talking with people. Or from beer nerd crap like blogs and shit. Also, I've told our reps I like weird beers and to let me know if they get anything out of the ordinary.
It's great to come to a place like this where there is something you've never heard of before.
I'm an Untappd drinker. If I go into a bar, I want something I've never had before—something I've never heard of. It might not be good, but I want to try it. I've butted heads with people here regarding Quenchers. People wanted 'sure' beers all the time, but sometimes you have to roll the dice. That's part of the fun of it. That's what I like about beer. Beer should be fun, we're not fucking wine. Yet you have a bunch of people who are fart sniffing beer now. It terrifies me. Quit doing that. Don't suck the fun out of beer.
What are some local breweries you're excited about? Maybe someone on the cusp of breaking out.
I love Maplewood and Dovetail with their European styles. Right now we have an embarrassment of riches in Chicago. I really can't think–besides maybe San Diego, Portland, Denver/Boulder area–of a better beer city. Chicago, right now, has one of the best beer scenes. Breweries are popping up left and right and they're, for the most part, all good. It's rare we get a stinker. Things are getting hyper-local now. We'll get people in here that don't want a beer from Chicago, they want a beer from Logan Square.
What is something that you feel Quenchers does better than other bars out there?
Adapt. We have been around nearly 40 years.
Photography by Nick Costa.
Thank you to Josh for sharing the bar and a few stouts on a sunny Sunday morning. Be sure to swing by Quenchers and say "hey" to Josh, or Uncle Ray. Look for more of Josh's beer musings on Thirsty Bastards, a craft beer website started with friend Craig Gunderson.