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.
FULTON MARKET, CHICAGO
Ever since acclaimed chef Paul Kahan opened what is now arguably the anchor of the West Loop, in 2008, The Publican has received nothing short of rave reviews. Just ask anyone in Chicago who fancies themselves a fan of pork. Or is looking for some of ‘America’s best brunch.‘ Or is conscious of local, sustainable fare. Or, well, the James Beard Foundation.
Add to the aforementioned list: fanatics of great wine, beer and cider. And ever since their original beverage list was composed, it’s needed tending to in order to stay atop the ever-changing trends. Enter: Rebekah Graham; extensive traveler, industry veteran and all-around fan of the adult beverage. She’s been with The Publican since day one. And we’ve been excited to sit down and talk with her since we met while judging a beer fest last year. And our excitement was warranted, we can say with certainty, because Rebekah has one of the most unique perspectives of anyone we’ve spoken to thus far. That’s in part due to the fact she is both a Certified Sommelier as well as a Cicerone CBS. We caught up to learn how it is possible to balance such an extensive beer, wine and cider knowledge – all the while managing at one of the Midwest’s best restaurants.
Can you give us a little back story? We know you’ve been at Publican since the very beginning, but explain how you got into the ‘beer and wine life’ prior to this.
So my story is actually pretty straightforward. I’m somewhat of a chaser of things. When something piques my interest, I go after it. I’m from Salt Lake City originally but when I was in my early twenties, I moved to New York on a whim. I got a job at Tribeca Grill as a hostess. It’s a very big restaurant in Manhattan. I worked with this gentleman named David Gordon, who is the Wine Director. At that time, I wasn’t really “into” wine and I was only there for a short time, about a year. But there was this one moment there that I knew my life was going to go in a different direction; thanks to this one table of guests. These patrons had come in and had ordered a really nice bottle of wine. It was a 1991 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. It’s a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is very hard to find…and very very expensive. One of the bartenders had called me over to taste this wine; the guests had been really great and left about a third of the bottle for us to try. And I can’t really explain it, other than to say I remember the experience being like this kaleidoscope of flavor. I had no idea wine could do that. I was overwhelmed.
So, it clearly had an affect on you…
Yea! So after that, whenever I would be working the same shifts as David, I would pick his brain. He is a rather well-known sommelier in the industry, and I’d be asking all these questions, “What’s this one? Why does this cost so much? Where is this region?” And one night he’d asked me why I was so interested, and I didn’t know exactly. I just knew I really liked to drink it. I think he was delighted by this, so he ended up putting me in touch with another sommelier, Kevin Zraly. He was teaching these wine classes and I ended up being a pourer for his classes. So that sort of was my introduction into the wine world.
And after leaving Tribeca Grill you moved to Chicago?
Not immediately after, but yes. After leaving there, there wasn’t a ton of structure; I worked at a few different restaurants. I thought I was into wine, but as you meet different people in the industry you sometimes think, “Wow, they are way more into wine than I am.” It was kinda like, alright I’m a novice again! But whenever you study something for a long time, you get introduced to things that surround that. And that was my introduction to beer.
After moving to Chicago, I was working at a French restaurant nearby, Marché and I was introduced to Affligem, the Belgian blonde. We had the 750ml on the menu for like $19 and everyone was blown away by that. It was all knew to me, but I remember tasting it and thinking, “This doesn’t taste like beer, what is this!?”
It was your beer “aha moment.”
Yes. I remember after that just going to Binny’s and buying anything in large format bottles. And that then got me into Saisons, which I am still fond of today. This all got me more curious and interested in beer. After moving around a bit more, I ended up back in Chicago and fell into homebrewing. I’m not sure how even, but I recall brewing that first batch – an IPA – and I was hooked. It was such an exhilarating feeling to create this thing, from the raw ingredients. It makes you really appreciate the process.
Moving here when you did, you must have really been witness to the boom of the Chicago beer scene.
When I moved here, I wasn’t as keyed into the beer scene as I am now. But I’ve definitely seen a lot happen, especially in the last six years. I’ve seen the rise of 3 Floyds which has been amazing. A real juggernaut. We have so many incredible breweries that have just opened in the last three years, it’s unreal. With Solemn Oath, with Penrose, with Off Color… all of these projects that are coming up and all of these guys coming out of the Goose Island brew system. They’re opening up fantastic breweries and making really mature decisions. It’s amazing.
So after all of that, how did you end up here at The Publican?
I actually got hired by One Off Hospitality to work at avec and Blackbird. After we opened here in October ’08, I started. I then had my love of beer lead me to take classes at Siebel, as well as work a little at both Goose Island brewpubs. I was the lucky one who got to dig out the mash, so that was awesome.
The lucky role of any new brewery employee, right?
Pretty much. For anyone who isn’t aware: 90% of beer making is housekeeping. It’s all cleaning, sanitizing, brewing…then cleaning again for the next day.
So, you’ve gone to Siebel, you’ve taken the Cicerone exam and you’re a sommelier…
Well, I am a Certified Beer Server. I still need to retake the Certified Cicerone exam; apparently I am only good for half of the exam at the moment – the theory portion. I just need to take it again. And yes, I am a Certified Sommelier. And I’ll be taking the Advanced Sommelier exam this July – so, the third of four levels in that certification.
Will you ever be going after that ‘fourth level of doom?’
Haha, I like it when you put it that way. I will, in years coming, go after the Master level. Until then, I’ll just charge up the third level, the ‘hills of doom,’ I guess! But yes, the exam takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and dedication. Mensa has even rated the Master Sommelier exam harder than their own exam. But, the organization is great – there’s no mystery as to what’s on the exam. “If you’re going to be a professional in this field, these are the things you’re expected know: x,y,z.” I think that’s a lot of what the Cicerone program is doing similarly well; giving employers that baseline of what they expect their employees to know.
But for me, it’s not an ego thing – to become a Master Sommelier. It’s a very personal journey, because I want to be the absolute best at this that I can possibly be. I love wine so much in every aspect, that I want to prove it to myself.
So, back to beer. What do you say to clientele at The Publican who tell you there just isn’t a beer style for them? Or are “wine-only?”
Yea, I find it really interesting. I actually like to challenge my guests at the restaurant on that a little bit. I mean, if you look back historically, it’s not like there were ever groups rallying with a “we make beer” flag or a “we make wine” flag; “All of you are terrible if you’re not under our flag!” This is sort of a modern mindset in the beer and wine culture. It’s a little more divisive than I’d like. I enjoy a variety of things. For example, what if I put this crazy Lambic; a weird, natural Chardonnay; and some totally fucked up cider in front of you? So, you’ve got those three glasses, now which is which? That get’s me excited.
Speaking of cider, we noticed you have a house cider.
We do, the Publican Cider, made by Virtue.
And you have a house Lambic, also?
Yes, we’re very lucky to have that. The previous Beer Director went to Belgium and met with Lindemans and was able to get them to work with us on a straight unblended Lambic. It’s really awesome to be pouring a beer like that. It’s super rare and we’re the only people in the country that get it. We’re actually one of three in the world; they serve it at Lindemans, they serve it at one more café in Belgium, and we have it here.
Logistically, how do you play into working with these third parties?
You know that’s actually one of the most fun parts of my job. That is the least difficult thing to manage. With collaborations, the house that brews it kind of ‘owns’ it. We go out, we say, “We have this idea and these are the things we’re interested in highlighting in this product.” Then we work together to blend it. It’s really kinda showing off the versatility and the quality of the producer. With Lindemans, we asked them if they could do this and they said yes. And we asked if we could call it the Publican Lambic, and they said yes.
With the cider, that was really fun. I actually had the pleasure of going out to Virtue in Fennville, MI with Paul Kahan [executive chef/owner]. We tasted through 30 tanks of cider that Virtue was fermenting, all from the 2013 harvest. Paul gave his opinion but he was very much up for doing what I wanted. I wanted to do an Extra Brut cider, because Normandy cider is a very popular style. We tasted and we pulled some samples. We blended with Ryan [Burk], their cidermaker, who’s also fantastically talented. At the end of the day, it was his approval that really mattered. It’s all of our input but it’s really Ryan’s product. They let us call it the Publican Cider.
How is it working with someone like Paul Kahan, with his reputation?
Oh it’s great! Every moment of his time is really special. He’s so busy and he’s so supportive. There’s no bullshit; there’s no massaging of your ego and there’s no working around a problem. He’s great to work with because there’s never any kind of anger. He just says “I don’t like the way this is working” or “defend this to me on the beer list.” He’s always really excited about what you’re excited by. If I come to him and I say, “You have to taste this, it’s crazy!” he just says, “Oh wow, that’s cool!” He’s been incredibly supportive in every respect.
When you’re coming up with the beer menu, how much are you taking into account what the kitchen is doing?
When we have a specific menu, there are definitely beers brought in for it. For New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, we have a set menu. I’m conscious of preparing things like that. The Publican menu actually changes every day, all based on what shows up in the truck in the morning. We source from places that have limited availability of products. We go through everything that we serve on a daily basis. The kitchen has a big meeting every day at noon where they talk about changes to the menu. Changes are then presented to the staff at 4:45pm for a 5:30pm service. It’s all very much in motion.
Having said that, I have food in mind every time I taste beer with a rep. Not only does everything have to be pretty food-friendly, but I’m also working on versatility. If I taste an IPA, I’m thinking about all the other IPAs that I have on the list. How’s this one different or more salable than the other beers on the menu? We try to be balanced.
How much of the ever-changing food menu comes from your location in the meatpacking district?
We’re incredibly careful about sourcing everything we get. Most of the meatpackers and fishmongers in the Fulton Market District work with more commercial customers. Our chefs work really hard to source everything. When we get a container of scallops, it actually says the name of the guy that dove for the scallops on the side. It’s incredibly specific. We know exactly who we’re buying from and exactly what quality of product we’re getting. On the menu, next to all of the fish dishes, it says “f/v.” It stands for “fishing vessel.” We actually put the name of the boat next to the product that we’re selling. That happens with meat, too. We work with regional producers that are treating their animals fairly; raising them and slaughtering them in a very sensitive way. We work with only the top available ingredients.
Is everything locally sourced?
I’d say that 90% of what we get is within a day’s drive away. We do bring in some stuff from further away if it meets the chef’s standards. But as far as day-in/day-out, yes – the steaks, the farm chicken. We’ve built very strong relationships with our farmers. Every year, we take the staff on a farm trip. We rent a bus for a day and visit a couple farms. We let the farmers tell the cooks and the front of house what’s going on there. At the end of the night, there’s a big party. There’s typically a bonfire, there might be some brewing happening, we sleep over; it get’s pretty crazy.
The neighborhood is growing really fast. What do you think that means for you guys?
Anything that brings people into the neighborhood only works to our benefit – anything that brings attention to the restaurant industry in Chicago. Anything that’s happening and making people excited is to the betterment of all of us together. We’re very very happy to have other places opening. Fulton Market is becoming more of a popular destination.
The beer menu here is pretty impressive, but what’s your go-to at home?
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’d like to give secret credit to Sam Adams Winter Lager. That beer is so good. Everybody rags on Jim Koch, and I’m like. “Fuck you! None of you would be here if Sam Adams didn’t come together on the term ‘craft,’ start getting people out of the mud, and start fighting for tax appropriateness for small brewers.” Winter Lager is delicious.
What else is in your fridge?
My husband is a huge supporter of Boulevard. He went to college at Mizzou. It’s either Boulevard or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I probably drink that everyday. And then it’s kind of a combination. Honestly, it depends on what I need to try. Drinking at home for me has lost a bit of its luster. If I drink at home, I’m working. However, I have recently delved in whiskey. I’ve always been a huge fan and we have a great program within our company. I’ve had the pleasure of going on a couple trips to pick out barrels of bourbon, which has always been really cool. We have a single-barrel of Blanton’s that is un-friggin-believable.
Recently, too, I’m really into Calvados. I keep a bottle of it with a glass next to it in my dining room. Whenever I’m walking by that way, I’ll pour a Calvados. It’s always a very happy thing.
How do you decide which breweries to feature at the restaurant?
It’s honestly just a rotation. I definitely have breweries that I have more of an allegiance to… Not allegiance necessarily, but people I’ve respected for a long time and I really want to showcase.
And who’s that in Chicago?
In Chicago, I love Off Color. I think those guys are doing an amazing job. I love the beers – they’re totally approachable. I think that Perennial, in St. Louis, is doing an incredible job with their beer. They’re fantastic and they’re almost always scalable. As far as drafts go, we try to keep it pretty versatile. We keep at least one or two local breweries available at all times. That includes Pipeworks, it includes Penrose, it includes Solemn Oath – it includes everybody that’s “doing things.” Also, Marz Community Brewing on the South Side. They’re fantastic, I love their beers. Everybody needs to run to Maria’s Packaged Goods to drink their stuff.
The idea has always been that we’d offer amazing beer from around the world; so we try to very much keep that in mind. It’s been a little bit more of a challenge because the U.S. beers have gotten so good. The quality is just higher, they’re always fresher, and the prices are always better than imports. We try to keep a balance of styles. But things come and go regularly, it just depends on what’s available.
What’s next for Rebekah Graham?
I do want to take the next step in the Cicerone and Sommelier programs. I’m sitting in on the advanced exam for the [Sommelier] Court of Masters in July. That is a tremendous amount of commitment. I’m excited to have that opportunity to take the exam because everybody wants to. It’s incredibly difficult and I’m very lucky to have gotten a seat. I’m going to focus a lot on that for now.
I also want to keep focusing on collaborations. My joy is in the process, and that’s true with wine and beer. It makes me so happy to be a maker of something. We’ll see what happens in the future. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have my own project outside of the restaurant. I can’t really say if there’s something in the works! I am interested in having my own ‘Rebekah Graham’ project.
Photography by Melinda Jane Myers