Craig Sindelar was drinking beer with his father when the lightning bolt struck.
Sindelar, a sommelier with some 20 years in the industry, most recently at three-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, had impulsively ordered a nice malt whiskey to sip with his beer. He was taken aback by how well the two went together.
“My job is remembering flavors and profiles and putting them together,” Sindelar says. “When you hit certain flavors that light up your palate, it’s hard to forget those.”
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Could boilermakers, generally viewed as a means to an end, provide nuanced pairings? Was it time to rethink the classic beer-and-a-shot special?
Sindelar thought so. And so he hatched the idea of serving elevated boilermakers, or, as they say in Sindelar’s home state, Wisconsin, “a beer and a bump.” He knew just where to do it, too.
In 2015, Sindelar had left Alinea to open Band of Bohemia, a brewery and restaurant in a former Oreo cookie factory in Ravenswood, a Chicago neighborhood about 20 minutes north of downtown. In the beginning, the location worked against Band of Bohemia. But, as word got out about its menu, uniquely designed around its beers, it became a destination.
Band of Bohemia co-founder Michael Carroll also came from Alinea, where he had been the only baker in the tony restaurant’s 13-year history. Carroll brews all the beers at Band of Bohemia, and the beers inspire what comes out of the kitchen — not the other way around.
In October 2016, Band of Bohemia (or BoB, as insiders say) received a Michelin star. “That did change our trajectory a bit,” Sindelar says. “Our clientele started changing.”
Diners from near and far began flocking to BoB, some even flying in from New York. Sindelar was nonetheless determined to retain its neighborhood feel. “We’re a brewery first and foremost,” he says. “Yes, you can make a reservation and have a special date night, but if you want to walk in and have a beer, that’s also what it’s meant to be.”
BoB felt like the perfect place to experiment with that beer-and-spirits pairing concept Sindelar had been ruminating on since that fateful night with his father. He and Carroll officially launched BoB’s beer-and-spirit menu in spring 2018.
“We were dumbfounded why no one has focused on this in the past,” Sindelar says. “We have no copycats in Chicago that we know of, but we hope so — it should be a thing.”
Sindelar and Carroll work closely on the menu with bar manager Stephan Jurgovan, who honed his palate at Chicago mainstays like Duck Duck Goat and Blackbird. They create fine spirits pairings with each of Carroll’s five beers on tap, which change frequently and seasonally. Beer-and-spirit combinations start at $13.
Jurgovan’s ability to articulate flavor profiles makes him the right man for the job.
Take BoB’s jasmine rice ale, “a light, bright, refreshing beer that’s always on the menu,” Jurgovan says. It’s currently paired with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac.
“To me, when I taste them together, it’s like lemonade and caramel candy,” he says. “Some [beers and spirits] pair because they have similar flavors, while some of them contrast. This is the latter — refreshing and citrusy with something caramel.”
A more unusual pairing is BoB’s Indian Pale Ale. Not to be confused with an IPA, this beer is brewed with Indian spices like clove and cardamom. It “smells crazy,” says Jurgovan, who serves it with — wait for it —cold Plymouth gin. “It’s a botanical beer that tastes bright and citrusy, with notes of roasted green grapes, so it helps you appreciate the botanicals in the gin and takes off a touch of heat.”
The presentation of the boilermaker list is similarly thoughtful. Each beer has its own designated vessel, and the spirits are elegantly served in antique-looking cordial or Glencairn glasses.
“It doesn’t scream ‘shoot me,’” Sindelar says of the glassware. “The idea is to sip and enjoy, and to go back and forth and make it your own.”
Jurgovan says the concept can be a little difficult to explain, with many guests thinking it is just a shot and a beer. While he won’t tell patrons how to drink a beer with a spirit (“It’s a very personal experience,” he says), he will coach them through it, encouraging them to taste one after the other and notice how the flavors complement each other.
While it all makes perfect sense to the BoB team, even some industry insiders have been slow to warm up to the idea of drinking beer and spirits together. Once they experience it for themselves, though, most are sold.
“Tasting spirits alongside other alcohols is something that’s interesting, and I’ve never seen it before. But it actually works extremely well,” Carlos Matias says. Matias was the opening bartender at Band of Bohemia in 2015, and now works as a spirit importer for CNI Brands in Chicago. He still frequents BoB at least once a month.
Creating flavor combinations that take people outside their comfort zones is nothing new for BoB, Matias says, going back to the beginning with Carroll’s beers.
“When I first started working there, there was a lot of backlash of people saying the beer had no flavor,” he says. “But really, [Carroll] was taking these flavors and making them extremely subtle and enjoyable, as opposed to bombing your palate with overwhelming flavor, like IPAs and stouts.”
Whether or not you’re into the idea of sipping a German malt ale with Balvenie Doublewood 17 year (at $40, this is Band of Bohemia’s priciest pairing), BoB is a pioneer. Fortunately, unlike many revolutionary bars and restaurants, Band of Bohemia prioritizes hospitality over concept. This is still a neighborhood place filled with regulars, and the owners want to keep it that way.
“We just want people to taste good things and be happy about it,” Jurgovan says. No argument there.