This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Jack Muldowney.
THE LOOP, CHICAGO
For Chicagoans familiar with the somewhat limited offering of solid beer-centric Loop haunts, a few bars always come to mind. You’re likely to think of Miller’s Pub, The Berghoff, The Gage, and no doubt – Monk’s Pub. Monk’s. That cozy, wood-y little spot under the L.
These bars are hearty, stoic, storied Chicago staples. And Monk’s is undoubtedly the leader of the pack when it comes to – not just great beer, but beer variety. Plus, it’s stood the test of time, having existed in it’s current location since 1971 (it was previously located just beneath Wells, and had opened in 1969). The woman responsible for that great, and often rare, beer list – Melissa Shary. We had the pleasure of being judges alongside her at a beer festival earlier this year. And, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with her about the ins and outs of running our favorite Loop watering hole. From curating a beer list, juggling distributors and brewers, to playing beverage tour guide for out-of-towners – it’s clear that she keeps busy.
We know you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades here, but what is your actual title?
General Manager. But that includes everything: daily operations to beer buying, which is probably my favorite part…the most interesting part anyway. I’m pretty much responsible for everything.
How long have you been in this role?
It will be five years in March .
And you’re from Chicago?
Glen Ellyn, the western suburbs. I went to college and got a job working at a bar there when I was 17…though that technically wasn’t legal. They just assumed I was 18 because I was in college. Then I was a bar manager, during school too, and came back to Chicago after that. I was waitressing here as I finished up school. I got a more typical nine-to-five for a little bit, and then Monk’s asked me back to manage here.
This is more my speed.
We know of Monk’s as a go-to hangout for a lot of folks downtown…
Yea, that’s a really fun part. Be it either during lunch or after work, different groups will walk in and be like, “Hey, I know you!” They might know four or five different people sitting around the bar.
That must be a unique aspect to being a bar in the Loop.
That’s the heart of our business. The Loop nine-to-fiver.
I’m guessing the interest in craft beer exists outside of work for you as well?
Oh yea, definitely. It’s part of my life. I started to manage here just a little bit after the economy had crashed. And I felt like this place kind of needed to ‘reinvent’ itself in order to stay relevant. And it just happened to be right around the time that craft beer started to boom here in Chicago. So it’s been engrained.
Monk’s has that ‘neighborhood’ bar feel and beer destination at the same time…
I think we kind of evolved into that. I still feel like people come in and are surprised a bit. Or maybe they’d been in here years ago, come back, and now are like “Oh! This is different – and really cool now!” Not that it wasn’t cool back then, of course!
And, every neighborhood bar has its regulars, too…
Yes, absolutely. We get a lot of people who work down here of course. It’s fun, we actually have terminology for them. We call them the “boomerangs.” We’ll see people for lunch, and when they leave we ask ’em, “Boomerang?” And they say, “Yep, we’ll probably be back,” meaning we’ll see them for after-work drinks, too. It slows down through the afternoon but then it ramps back up. And with the holidays, right now it’s crazy. We open at 9:00 in the morning.
Who’s here at 9 am?
People having drinks before work, too! We do have some third shift folks also. When they did the Wacker Drive project we got a lot of construction people that were working all different times.
You must hear plenty of interesting stories with the mix of people you get here.
I think that’s the coolest part. You’ll see the guy right off his construction job – all dirty, in jeans; and the lawyer, in his suit and tie. And no one cares.
So what was this place like before you came along?
Schlitz! A lot of the bar’s history I’ve learned from the owner (Mike Shaker) – he’s been here since the 70’s. I know that as soon as Schlitz was available on draft, he was buying it. That was the first beer ever poured here on draft. We still carry it in cans. It’s kind of a nostalgic thing for us.
But yea, before I started, it was a lot of domestic beers; as well as Stella, Guinness. And the other European imports were the “fancy” beers. One of the first things I did – because we only had six beers on draft at the time – was split the draft line to make 12. That gave us a really good opportunity for more variety; I like rotating drafts. People will come in, and without looking at the draft list ask, “What’s new today?” They want something different and that’s kind of where the beer industry is right now. However, there are a certain number of beers I’d like to have on all the time; because they’re awesome and they deserve it. That keeps us happy because we’re always pouring new beer, but a certain level of consistency also keeps our customers happy.
And of course there’s the whole Belgian aspect…
The owner traveled Europe when he was younger, so it’s not necessarily Beligian-specific – although we do carry a lot of Belgian beers. We’re actually in process of adding a couple separate draft towers. It’s probably going to be two different Belgian beers – our core beers – that people ask for regularly. But overall, we like to think we’re a ‘European-style tavern’. We do carry a lot of other European brands, too.
How do you determine what beer rotates and what stays consistent?
There’s no real formula to it. It’s more of me trying to do it by styles. We try to have a cider on all the time, too. We like to have a little bit of something for everybody.
Do you target local breweries for your tap lines?
I like to give everybody a chance. Feedback from staff and customers: I rely on heavily. There are a couple of local Chicago breweries that I know are really consistent with their beer. We kind of lean toward them.
Do you have a Chicago favorite?
We really like Begyle Brewing right now (up in Northcenter). Their beer is really good. No matter what they put out, I feel like it’s always great. And those guys are awesome too. I feel like there’s not a bad person in the beer business – everyone is just laid back and fun – but those guys are just good guys. And their beer is just really solid.
You also have an extensive bottle list. How do you promote that and make sure turnover is balanced?
We actually do sell quite a few bottles. I think the fact that we do only have 12 draft lines helps. If someone came in today and couldn’t find something they liked on draft, we’d give them our huge bottle list. If you don’t like what’s on draft, there are 150 other things that you could go to instead. We’re good at rotating our beers to make sure everything is fresh. Over the summer, we’re a little bit slower there; this is obviously a little more of a winter place. It’s cozy, we don’t have a patio, ya know. Right? – you guys don’t wanna leave right now!
We’ve seen you do a lot of events here at Monk’s lately.
We are pretty much doing an event almost every week now. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s awesome. It gives a lot of breweries the chance to showcase themselves. We don’t do too many tap takeovers. We did just do a “winter tap takeover” where we poured all winter seasonal beers on draft. But if we’re doing a specific brewery, we like to call it a “feature.” We usually do two to three of their core brands and then try to get something that’s a one-off/specialty beer. I think that’s important too. To support our brands.
What’s in Monk’s’ future? More variety, more events?
Absolutely. I like to use the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” idea. That’s for now, but everything is always evolving. When I first started, we’d keep a lot of the same things on draft. And now it’s unusual to not have at least one new beer everyday. I think distributors and breweries realize that now; they don’t expect to see their specific beer on draft every day. It’s always changing.
Moving forward though…I came back into management because I eventually wanted to own my own place someday…
Given your location, you definitely have a bit of a stronghold on the Loop ‘craft’ offering.
I mean Monk’s is not this cookie-cutter-kind-of-place. Some people call it divey, but I like to say ‘seasoned.’ It has a warm cozy feel. I feel like even though there’s a lot of good beer, our staff is knowledgeable – but not pretentious about it either. Legitimately I feel like you have to have good beer at this point to compete. You can’t just pour the ‘regular’ stuff. The Schlitz is almost like a novelty now. I mean this is sort of like a ‘budget bar’ and that’s the cheapest beer, but there’s nothing wrong with that. At least there’s a history behind the beer, and there is a story to tell.
By January, everyone on our staff will be beer Cicerone ‘Beer Server’ certified. For most of them, this isn’t their first gig – they’ve been working in the industry for a while and they know what they’re doing. We rely on the staff to talk about their beer in an educated way. That’s the standard here.
Any go-to beers at the moment?
That is such a tough question. It really does depend on the season for me – I know that’s the cheesiest answer, but it’s so true. I’m really ‘porter and stout’ right now…and quads. Probably tonight I’m going to have some La Trappe Quad. For porters – I’m digging the Ten Ninety Imperial Porter. It’s the one with cayenne pepper and pomegranate. Hmm, what else – the Oatmeal Stout from Saugatuck. We’ve got that one on tap right now and it’s only like 5.5%, so you can have a couple.
How do you keep people informed on what’s available here?
It’s the ever-changing beer list dilemma. We do give people a heads up on what’s on draft. We update our BeerMenus page every day – for people to check out the most updated beer list.
We get people calling up and asking about what’s on draft each day as well. We had someone call us up at 9:30 in the morning the day Great Lakes released their Christmas Ale asking if we were tapping it that day. And our bartender gave the best response: “No. You know why? Because it’s not even Halloween yet!” But that’s kinda awesome, that people are calling to check in like that.
If we go to your house and we open your fridge, what do we find in there?
I actually drink so much beer at work, that I kind of drink wine at home a little bit. But I always have beer in my fridge because I do get a lot of samples.
I’ll try to drink lower ABV beers at home – I don’t keep heavy-hitter Belgian beers around there like there are here. I have a 6-pack of Metropolitan Krankshaft – that’s an easy drinker. Dale’s Pale Ale – another easy one. I have a bunch of bottles that I’ve been cellaring, like some Bourbon County and things like that. But you know, it’s winter so it’s time to open up a bottle of that stuff now!
I’ve always wondered – what is it like running a bar, with people bringing you samples all the time? I’d imagine it’s sometimes tough to manage the “selling” traffic of breweries and distributors.
Well, I set general guidelines – obviously don’t come in at lunch because I’m going to busy, etc. People surprise me, but I’m never disappointed to see somebody when they bring me a beer! They might have to wait a couple minutes, but usually I just tell people to avoid inventory day and delivery day which are the start of each week. I’ll bump into a lot of people at our weekly events as well, even if it’s not for their brewery or distributor.
Are there more distributors or breweries specifically trying to get their name in front of you?
It’s really a mix of both. Distributors have the crazy job of trying to represent however many breweries. But sometimes it’s both – I might get the distributor and they’re saying “Hey these barrels are coming out soon…”, then I’ll get the Lagunitas rep saying: “Hey just so you know…” I like getting the information though and everyone’s pretty good at communicating considering how many moving pieces there are for all of this.
Have you ever gotten anything here that’s been really rare or you’ve been especially proud to have?
Yea! I know we were the first to have the Anderson Valley [Highway 128 Series] Blood Orange Gose, and that was pretty delicious. We just did our Bourbon County event two weeks ago, where we blew the Vanilla Rye in around 15 minutes. We had five (Bourbon Counties) on draft and they were all gone within two hours.
Being downtown, do you feel a sense of responsibility to be a ‘beer tour guide’ for out-of-towners? When they’re asking you what beers to try or places in the city to visit…
If people haven’t had Daisy Cutter that’s always one of the first that we suggest. We always say go to ‘Half Acre,’ and we always say ‘Revolution.’
There is a sense of responsibility – and it’s cool, I feel like there are a lot more people coming purely for ‘beer tours’ now. And we even had a guy come up from Florida recently saying he had these bottles if we wanted to do a beer trade! It’s a cool comradery of anyone that likes good beer.
We know it’s a touchy subject, but that’s part of why it intrigues us, so we have to ask: We’ve read about the pay-to-play situation in Chicago – do you think that’s still a big issue?
I’m sure it still goes on. But I’m sure there are also certain distributors that won’t even discount a case if they need to move it. So there are certain people that are really good about it, and some people that do it. I feel like a lot of the stories are older though. I’ve heard stories about crazy requests from bars that wanted things, but I feel like that’s very old school thinking. I mean technically we can’t even accept a package of coasters for free – we acquire them as part of an invoice. Glassware is also always on invoices because at any time they could come in and ticket you.
There were a few articles a year or two ago where people were complaining about things like that. I just don’t think it would be good for the bar in general to promise to always pour a particular beer on tap. That’s not necessarily good – outside the fact that it’s not legal – to pour the same thing all year round.
We like our variety anyway.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.