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 Tom White.
There was once a time when Baderbräu (now, that’s pronounced ‘bay-der-brau’) gave the Miller and Budweisers of the world a run for their money on Midwestern store shelves. Since that time, the brand and original brewery has completely fallen into obscurity and, until recently, was just a memory for many a Chicago old-timer.
Rob Sama aims to change all that and bring the city’s “Original Craft Beer” back to prominence. We sat down with Rob at Logan Square’s Radler to discuss his history with a brand he loves and the tall task of resurrecting a historic label in a market exploding with options.
Thanks for taking the time today Rob. Let’s start by hearing a little more about the background of the Baderbräu beer itself.
We make beers that are inspired by the traditional beers east of the Rhine River. You’re not likely to see an IPA or a Stout from us. The original Baderbräu made a point of being Reinheitsgebot compliant. If you’re not familiar with that its the ancient German purity law which states that you must use only barley, hops, water, and yeast in your beer. There are some nuances to it as well. You can use wheat but only in a top fermenting ale and a lager must use only barley. What we’re really saying is that we don’t use adjuncts. There’s no corn or rice in our beer watering it down. At the same time, we try to be reasonably traditional but update our beers for modern tastes, while leaving room for innovation.
In Red Velvet, it’s a modern take on a German Bock. It’s a little more hoppy than usual and it also technically violates Reinheitsgebot because it has carawheat in the beer. To me, it makes the beer and it’s a wonderful addition but it may not have met with the original founder’s approval. The beers we want to make are modern american updates on classic styles.
Do you feel like you have to do that with all the breweries opening? Are you aiming for a middle ground between tradition and craft modern?
I think so. As a brewery, we ought to try to cut our chops in some traditional styles to show you know how to do it. Our pilsener does that for sure. Our Oktoberfest certainly did that.
What was your experience with the original Baderbräu?
When I was in college and first learning how to homebrew, we would buy every beer on the shelf. We learned our beer styles that way. I fell in love with Bock beers. Baderbräu was the beer that we always drank when we wanted something local that we really enjoyed. We have a tremendous amount of admiration for Ken Pavichevich (original founder). We felt that he was really taking down the giants. Everything about his beer; the way he named it to the packaging he had on it. It was meant to cut into the majors. And the majors took him seriously. I remember distinctly being at the Taste of Chicago back when it was a gourmet event. There was the Budweiser tent, the Miller tent, and the Baderbräu tent.
You obviously jumped on the craft beer wagon at an early age. Whats your background and what led you to Baderbräu?
I was a homebrewer in college and have been on and off since. I was chatting with an old college roommate and homebrew buddy online and wondered whatever happened to Baderbräu. For kicks I went and looked up Baderbrau.com and it turned out it was available. I picked up the domain name and, at the time, figured I’d just put up a website about the good-ol-days of Baderbräu. I wasn’t really thinking anymore than that. Two weeks later I’m reading a newspaper article about a guy who had restarted a business by registering a lapsed trademark. It was only because it was fresh in my mind that it dawned on me that the old Baderbräu trademark could actually have lapsed. So I went onto USPTO.gov and sure enough it had lapsed just two weeks earlier. I called my lawyer and registered it.
So you have a trademark and a website. Where did you head next?
I Googled everything I could find out about the original Baderbräu and came across Doug Babcook’s name. He is the original brewmaster and is now in his mid 80’s. He was the head of worldwide brewing for Stroh’s in Detroit. When Stroh’s merged with Schlitz he took his leave and went on to become a sort of Johnny Appleseed of craft breweries helping to found about seven or eight of them across America.
Baderbräu was founded by Ken Pavichevich in ’86 which is when he IPO’d on an idea. He IPO’d with no company and nothing going on. He raised $3 million to build his brewery out in Elmhurst. He hired Babcook with that money. I knew Pavichevich wasn’t a brewer. He was a former city cop turned salesman. So I wasn’t sure he or Babcook would have the recipe. But I researched Babcook’s name until I came across a condolence page for the late Michael Jackson, the beer critic, and there was one left by him. Jackson had once said that Baderbräu in it’s heyday was the best Pilsener he’d ever tasted in America. I wrote him a one line email asking him if he was the same guy who founded Baderbräu in the early 1990’s. He writes me back “Yes.”
So we get to talking. He tells me his story and he had an interest in seeing Baderbräu revived and pointed me to where I could get the recipe and yeast strain.
We heard the original strain ended up in Canada?
I asked Babcook where we could get it and his first reaction was “That’s long gone!” But then he calls me back one day and says “I know someone who has a copy of it.” He points to a guy in Canada who was himself a craft brewer. Babcook had helped him start a brewery which had eventually failed. He gave him the original yeast strain which was from Stroh’s. He left Stroh’s and took a copy of the yeast strain with him to every brewery he started. This guy had stored a copy of it at a University of Toronto laboratory. He sold us a copy of it and we were off to the races.
Can you talk a little about what caused the original Baderbräu to fall on tough times and where it went after?
Pevichevich ran out of money. He was talking to a number of people trying to get them to buy the company. He just couldn’t find one and the banks foreclosed on him. A private equity firm bought a lot of the assets and auctioned them off. That was at the same time that Goose Island was starting to bottle. They bought the rights to the name but, to my understanding, they never got the original recipe. I’ve heard conflicting stories as to whether or not they got the yeast strain. I spoke to John Hall who’s now with 5 Rabbit who told me they did get it. They went down to the brewery which was locked up and had beer sitting in tanks. They begged the court to let them in and get a sample of the strain. I’ve heard from others who are convinced that story is crap. Regardless, Goose went on to make their own version of Czech Pils which was different to the Baderbräu Pils. For one thing, they dry hopped it which the original was never dry hopped and we don’t dry hop it now.
By 2002 however, they had yanked the beer. They decided to start over again with a new conversion beer and dropped the Baderbräu and Goose Island Pils name.
What beer replaced it?
It was 312.
So now you’re charged with stamping your own identify onto an established brand. How has that experience been?
It’s hard. We had our first original recipe called Oktoberfest. Second one was our Red Velvet. I have old lab results from the original Baderbräu and I believe I am very close to that. It brings me great satisfaction when I bring the beer to people who know beer and they say “Yeah, this tastes like a great Czech Pils.” Or people who come from the Czech Republic and they say this tastes like a beer you can get in Prague.
However, to some extent, creating a new beer is an easier project because people just judge it for what it is.
Where are you making beer these days?
How difficult is it managing a product when you are that far away?
It’s a four hour drive so occasionally I need to make a day trip up there. We homebrew samples of the beers we are developing, ship them up, give them the recipe, and talk them through it. Ultimately they know their equipment best and they have come pretty darn close to the beers we made at home. The problem isn’t the distance, it’s the lack of ownership. There are times when beer arrives late, or your brew date moves. In the long term that control is critical. They brew at 100 bbls a run so I can’t do one offs. I have to do things that appeal to the masses. Having our own brewery will allow us to be nimble and brew one offs that we can put in bombers.
So are you close to getting to that point of having your own space?
We’ve had three spaces fall through on us already. We are working on our fourth place right now. I can’t tell you where it is but we are very hopeful for it.
Do you plan to have a taproom?
Yes, Yes, Yes. If you can create that experience and that good time, it’s an enormous boost. People want their breweries to be a part of their community and that’s what I want to do.
Do you think you have tapped into a craft niche in Chicago? Many brewers are going heavy with hops. You have a different focus.
When I talk to people on the coasts they say a backlash is already forming against big, hoppy beers and that Chicago is 1-2 years behind the trends on the coast. What I’m hearing on the East Coast in particular is that Pilsener is one of the hottest styles out there. I think people will begin to appreciate what it takes to make a lighter, clearer beer.
How have you managed reviving the brand itself, from an aesthetic standpoint? The old Baderbräu obviously looked a lot different.
The old brand I would call a “generic bundle of barley and hops,” the likes of which you see on tons of beer, craft and otherwise. When we first acquired the name, we were advised to develop a new logo. Primarily, because there was no way of tracking who had developed the original logo, and they likely still held the rights to it. There was no way for us to track him/her down. That, coupled with the fact that we thought it was rather generic looking. The idea that we went with was incorporating the Phoenix. When I first encountered Baderbräu, I was at the University of Chicago – their logo was the Phoenix, which was symbolic of the Great Fire destroying the city and it coming back to life. Now, we have a great beer here that had “died” and we brought back to life too. And it’s worked out well, I think.
So if it’s not a pint of Baderbräu, what’s in your glass?
I do love Half Acre, I live in the neighborhood there and I love what they’re making. I also love Metropolitan’s beers; particularly their seasonal offerings. Their Generator Doppelbock is phenomenal. I drink a lot of German imports too, but stay away from anything in a green bottle. And I’ll sometimes try and grab a bottle of EKU 28, which is a really strong doppelbock (from Kulmbacher Brauerei AG). That’s my kinda beer.
If I want a Baderbräu on tap right now, where should I go?
The Radler of course, and the Grafton in Lincoln Square. The National, in Wrigleyville, is always a safe bet, too. They’ve been a loyal supporter of us. And we’re in bottles at all Binny’s, most Jewel-Oscos and working on Mariano’s and some other spots. We’re slowing planting that seed…
Thank you to Rob for sitting down with the three of us and for sharing his fascinating love story with Baderbräu. Best of luck to him and his team and they continue their work to raise the Phoenix from the ashes and back to Chicago prominence.