The term ‘Mexican beer’ doesn’t exactly conjure up thoughts of flavorful, conversation-worthy beverages. Despite their longstanding history, and traditional European influence, beers created south of the border are regarded more as ‘situational’–a thirst quencher, beach day option, or a poolside bottle suggested best with a slice of citrus accoutrement. It’s these exact misconceptions that have led Chicago’s top Top Chef and Mexican culinary master, Rick Bayless, to explore better ways to present the country’s beer styles.

With a half dozen restaurants under his belt, along with an Emmy, several cookbooks, a food line (Frontera), Top Chef judge, Top Chef Master winner and several other prominent accolades, this Chicagoan can now add ‘Brewery Owner’ to the list of accomplishments. Bayless recently delved into the world of craft beer with the launch of the production ale, Tocayo–a white ale brewed with hominy.

Now, he has added West Loop brewpub, Cruz Blanca to the resume. It’s here, where Bayless, along with Head Brewer Jacob Sembrano (Formerly of Goose Island Clybourn), concoct plenty of overlooked and unexpected Mexican recipes. And where they’ve each hurdled a few false starts, in order to present one of the best executed food and beer concepts in Chicago, if not the country. All thanks to some very specific influences.

I have to start by mentioning a funny connection – my first job as a designer here in Chicago, was working for Carrmichael Design in West Town, and specifically on your Frontera brand…

Rick Bayless: Hah, is that right? When was that?

That was back in 2008. My last project there was for Frontera Express. And I have to say, that space looked great. And, unsurprisingly, your space here at Cruz Blanca looks fantastic as well. Did Carrmichael help with the branding here, too?

RB: They did, yes. They helped with a lot of the identity here. It was inspired by the ’66 Olympiad logo for Mexico City. There’s also a bit of Rorschach test effect within the Aztec linework. I owned three of the original Mexico City Olympics posters in my apartment in Mexico, and I’ve always been drawn to the designs. Also, they are mid-century and mark roughly 100 years from when the original ‘Cruz Blanca’ namesake brewery opened in Mexico City.

Tell us a bit more about how this space came to be–it was four years in the making, correct?

RB: That number seems to grow, I dunno. At least two, let’s put it that way. Sometimes you kick around ideas, but they don’t actually settle. So, a couple years of ideas, then a couple more after the idea had settled.

And what was the process of acquiring this actual space? This used to be a produce grocery.

RB: Yep. And actually part of the building had been kind of abandoned for a long time. We’d worked with a real estate group, and had first settled on taking over three of these bays–each bay is denoted by these separate columns. It originally was going to be a small project, and then it grew [gasps]… and it grew, and it grew. So, we took another bay, and we have the brew space here. 

The project grew, right from the start.

RB: This was going to be basically a complete gut-rehab, here. All of the buildings where I’ve opened restaurants have been older buildings, so I knew somewhat what to expect. You look at it, but you really don’t know what’s gonna happen until you do your demolition. And with this building, all of the worst nightmares came to fruition. 

Oh wow, what were those?

RB: We had a wall collapse into the basement. Another wall had collapsed before, and nobody had really repaired it well, they just boarded it up. That made the whole building unstable, and the whole thing could’ve come down. We had less than 24 hours to shore the whole building up because it was starting to sag… Then a section of the roof started to collapse. So, I mean it was just one thing after another.

So, a very successful start, then?

RB: Yea, exactly.

That’s how two years turns into four years.

RB: But listen to the worst, and craziest thing! Because we were putting brewing equipment in here that weighs a lot, we had to make sure that the building could support it all. The did some digging to plant these extra footings to maintain everything…and then they did a soil test. And the soil was bad. I didn’t even know that was a thing, that the soil was bad. It wasn’t dense enough–it had no structure to it. So, they then had to re-pour the basement footings to 5x the size they were before, to spread the weight evenly.

We’re in the hospitality business–we don’t want anybody to think about that stuff. We want them to come in and have a seamless time. We need to create the ‘magic.’ That’s all we’re about.

— Rick Bayless

Jacob, as the brewer, you must’ve just been sitting to the side saying, “Actually, I’m going to need more support over in this area, too…”

Jacob Sembrano: I felt like the thorn in everybody’s side. Because–just this second floor up here alone–the weight capacity that this room needed eventually needed to hold… I’m talking about putting like oak casks up here that need to hold a lot of weight. Especially these serving vessels behind the bar, too. So, having the weight capacity per square foot constantly increase, it was push, push, push. That seemed to ruffle some feathers at some points. Because it was, again, “Oh, we didn’t know that you wanted to put casks up here that would need to hold 20,000 pounds.” 

All the stuff that nobody, as a patron, would ever think about, right?

RB: And that’s the magic of it. We’re in the hospitality business–we don’t want anybody to think about that stuff. We want them to come in and have a seamless time. We need to create the ‘magic.’ That’s all we’re about.

I imagine part of the benefit though, Jacob, of coming in at an earlier buildout stage is being able to point out some of those things that will optimize the brewery. Getting to start with a clean slate.

JS: Yea, there were a lot of things that I was able to catch when I came on board. Some things with the brewery, that had they not changed at that point in time, we’d potentially have learned of the issues later on. But, I think I got on at just the right time to kind of alleviate that, and make some last minute changes. And I mean last minute, as in there is no more time, hah. There may be a couple of issues still, but no building or buildout is perfect.

Rick, can you talk a little about how you came across Jacob and decided to select him as your brewer, from Goose Island Clybourn?

RB: Well, my partner, Manny [Valdes]–who probably should be in this interview, too–he found Jacob. He was the one who had the real passion for the brewery to begin with. And he went to brewing school, so that’s what really began his interest in beer. So, when Jacob joined our staff, we talked about a few things, including what was going to be the ‘signature’ of our beers.

The thing about Mexican beer is, that up until just a few years ago, all of that small batch craft stuff had almost all but gone away, much like in the United States. So, when you said, “Mexican beer,” it just wasn’t very interesting. You could say, “Well, ya know Bohemia is this, and Negro Modelo is that. And Modelo Especial is something else…” You could kind of wrap your head around the kind of flavors there. But, they don’t sustain a long conversation, let’s just put it that way, hah.

Nope. It’s Vienna lagers, mostly. 

RB: They are what they are, and I have to say, when you’re sitting on the beach and you’re on vacation, and it’s really hot…they’re really delicious, and thirst quenching, and they tend to go in that direction. Ok, so that’s all cool–but, obviously that’s not what we wanted to do, to sort of make some innocuous beer. 

And if you look back to the very beginnings of beer production in Mexico–there was hardly any production before the 1860s. And the only reason that they all came about in the 1860s, was this weird quirk in history: Mexico became part of the Habsburg Empire. 1821, Mexico had separated from Spain, but they were bankrupt and had owed all this money to France. So, France came in and took them over. And for five years, it was part of the Habsburg Empire.

The king of Spain at the time was from Austria, and he wanted three things in Mexico. He wanted his folk music from Austria, which is now called Mariachi music. He brought that, there was none of that there before the king brought it. He wanted bread and pastries, made from wheat flour. And, he wanted beer. So, he brought in all of these musicians, bakers, and then he brought all of these brewers

…When you said, ‘Mexican beer,’ it just wasn’t very interesting… They don’t sustain a long conversation, let’s just put it that way.

— Rick Bayless

Can you describe some more of the historical inspiration you had for the Cruz Blanca concept?

RB: Well, most of these brewers setup shop in Mexico City. And there was a fella [Emil Dercher] that came from the north of France, from Strasburg. And he setup a brewery in Mexico City–one of the first ones–called ‘Cruz Blanca.’ So, we brew our signature beers in his style. They’re the bière de garde style that was popular in that area at that time. Those brewers were known for being experimental, and ‘small batch innovative,’ if you will.

I imagine it was unique then, to be brewing bières de garde in Mexico City.

RB: I think so, yeah. The whole idea was being experimental and trying lots of different things. That style is one that I particularly like, because it has a lot of complexity to it, and my food tends to have a lot of complexity to it, too. 

When [Jacob’s] beers were in the glass to try, I was blown away. It was one of the most exciting days I’ve had in a long time. I couldn’t believe how incredibly delicious and distinctive each one was.

— Rick Bayless

Was there anything else that helped inspire your beers?

RB: Our taqueria here was inspired by Oaxaco, Mexico. Our team all went down to Mexico City, in Oaxaca, and just spent our time eating, drinking and talking–just getting to know each other better. And we wanted to introduce Jacob to flavors that best resonated with us, too. And he came back and made these three signature beers.

And, they are…phenomenal.

We can’t disagree with that statement.

RB: I work with sous-chefs constantly to develop dishes, and rarely do I not have something to contribute, haha. Let’s just put it that way. When the beers were in the glass to try, I was blown away. It was one of the most exciting days I’ve had in a long time. I couldn’t believe how incredibly delicious and distinctive each one was. 

That’s some high praise, coming from someone with such a culinary reputation.

JS: There’s something to be said for instilling a bit of focus and restraint on an idea, on a concept. It really helped me come out with a better product. For Rick to really push me to focus, through that, it’s really helped define the soul and the identity of this project.

Let’s talk about some of this beer. This Smoke Alley [Wheat Ale] is amazing.

JS: Yea, and that was something that, when we were in Oaxaca doing our research, something that I would’ve wanted to drink there. That was meant to reflect that.

RB: The place in Oaxaco that serves tacos like we have here at Cruz Blanca isn’t a ‘taqueria’ per say, it’s this corridor in the market there. You go and buy your meat–your half cured beef, your chili marinated pork, the chorizo–and say you want half a kilo of this, half a kilo of that. Then they grill your meat for you and put it on a tray for you. They always ask you when they’re grilling your meat, “Do you want us to grill some chiles along side?” And, you always say “yes.” Then you go sit down, and the people bring you all the complements that go with it. Then someone brings over the tortillas, and somebody else brings salsas, someone else brings salad, someone else brings drinks. 

You’re just sitting there, and there’s no silverware, nothing. You just tear into it all with your hands. It’s one of the most glorious experiences anyone could ever have. The people are really nice, but it’s very rustic and rudimentary. We’ve tried to capture the essence of that–plus silverware–that’s what we’re offering, the opportunity for everyone to make their own tacos.

And with better beer.

RB: With better beer…[whispering] way better beer.

JS: That’s what we were going after with Smoke Alley.

RB: Because when you walk into this market place, it is ‘smoke alley.’ When it’s busy, and all the grills are going, you can hardly see to the other end, it’s that smokey. 

Rick, you lived in Mexico for a little while. What was that original interest for you, in the culture and cuisine there?

RB: Yep, five years. But, I had gone to Mexico for the first time when I was 14, and all I can say is that it really felt a little like I was coming home. It felt like I had found the right place for me. I ended up going back, then went to school there, and then living there for five years. After all that, I decided I wanted to bring a little of that back to the US. So, I came back here to Chicago. 

What’s your go-to taco spot in town?

RB: You know what? I’m the worst person to ask that to, because I eat 10 meals a week in my own restaurants. On the weekends I don’t ever go out for Mexican food. I like to cook at home.

When you’re not eating Mexican food, what are you eating?

RB: Well, I love Asian food. Thai food is complex, like Mexican food is. And I can relate to that very well. Japanese food, I love, because it’s 180 degrees from everything I work with. It’s so fun to go to something else like that. Momotaro over here on Green Street is amazing. That’s one of my favorite places to go for Japanese. Ya know, I like everything. But because I’m in the business and I love this industry, I’ll go out to the new spots that open, but it’s still me just going out maybe one night a week.

I eat out less than most people, really. People think that just because I’m in the restaurant industry that I’m eating out all the time. But no, I’m working most of the time. So, I don’t really have the opportunity to eat out very much.

It’s been said that when you walk into Cruz Blanca, that you can expect to see one of the most unique beer menus in Chicago. That’s certainly true just with your bières de garde, but does that also hint that you might not see some of the more expected styles? The IPAs, etcetera?

JS: Well, there are a couple different ways to look at this. I just feel that we didn’t have to do that–have a ‘safe’ option–an IPA or pale ale. With a project as unique as this, I didn’t think that we needed to, and we could get away with it. Also–and I tell people this all the time, and firmly believe it–if you’re in the West Loop on Randolph Street and want something hoppy, Pete [Crowley] at Haymarket is making some great beers. So, why is that something I would want to try and do myself? I love to brew an IPA, but I don’t see how it fits into this place.

There’s a lot to be said about sticking so diligently to a concept. You’ve seen other places start out with a specific approach, but down the road begin to think, “Okay, maybe we can brew this, or will brew that…”

RB: I’m not opposed to making your place successful. But, I don’t ever want to make it successful by just copying what everybody else is doing. We’ve done this over on Clark Street [at Topolobampo, Frontera, XOCO], forever where we say, “No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.” Well, after two or three years of saying “no, no, no,” well then, nobody expects you to do it. Then you can do it and it doesn’t look like you’re copying somebody else. 

I really think that it’s most important, when you’re starting out, to do what you do best and what people really love. I think that we can offer that. First off, I think Jacob is an amazing brewer and so he can make stuff that tastes really good. And then people might realize that the only reason they haven’t been drinking these kinds of beers…is because nobody was offering them to ’em! And they can fall in love with these styles the same way they fell in love with their IPAs. 

Can you speak a little bit about the relationship of your Tocayo Brewing project, and how, if at all, it relates to Cruz Blanca?

RB: In a perfect world, we would have done all the testing for Tocayo here at Cruz Blanca. It’s a commercial beer–still made by a craft brewery, but intended to be for a much wider audience. In a perfect world we would have done all the testing here, then gone to Two Brothers to show them what we’d been doing. And then, we would’ve put it into production with our Constellation brand friends. But, Cruz Blanca took a lot longer than anticipated, so we did all the testing stuff with Phil Wymore down at Perennial. Then he worked with Two Brothers. 

The idea with that project was to do something that was adding something new and interesting to the craft beer world, but to do it in a way that could be more commercialized. Our relationship has been great with the Two Brothers guys, and they have a facility that can actually make that much beer. It’s good, we’re really happy with that relationship, and with Constellation to even be able to do that kind of thing. 

Well, it’s definitely an intriguing beer.

RB: You know, here, we’re just this little tiny thing. It’s funny, because people come in and they’ll be like, “When are you gonna do this, or are you gonna do that?” It’s like, just slow down! Let us just get this stuff that we have now as part of a routine, and get to know that better. 

Right now, it seems like, we’ll have enough beer coming from this brewery to supply our Clark Street locations, and in Wicker Park. And then, we have the beast–the airport. If we can just supply enough for here and there–and at the airport, there’s a lot of business out there–then we’ll be in a really good place. And, maybe that’s what this facility can do. We don’t know if it could ever do anything that would go into bottles or cans, be all over the city or state, or maybe all over the country. Obviously this facility can’t do that. 

We’re just taking it one step at a time. But we do have that other, that Tocayo expression, that’s really fun and great. It’s sorta similar in some ways to our beers here, but it’s also a very different beer. The Cruz Blanca beers should be more playful, where Tocayo is very, “this is what we’re brewing, and we won’t vary from that.”

On the Cruz Blanca website, you give thanks to a handful of other brewers out there. Can you talk more about that?

JS: There were a lot of Chicago and St. Louis breweries that really helped us get the ball rolling. We were concerned that this project was really a race against time early on. “Is the building gonna be ready? And is the brewery gonna be ready?” Both projects were sort of on their separate schedules and we weren’t sure how well they would each line up. That was a bit of concern that we had last year. So, in order to alleviate that a bit, we reached out to five different breweries, to basically take a recipe that I had already done pilot batches of, and brew it on their system. So, that way we could have those beers ready for the opening here.

We owe some thanks to those guys–Half Acre, Perennial, Penrose, Revolution and Goose Clybourn.

You were a bit of a vagabond brewer for this project.

RB: Yea, he kinda was. All of the beers we opened with were the beers Jacob brewed in other people’s breweries. It was a month until he tapped his own beers, brewed on-site. That got us open, really.

It’s a really cool piece of the story, too.

JS: Yea, it is. It shows the community aspect we have. I’m just eternally grateful–for them to squeeze us into their already busy production schedules.

RB: Yea, if it weren’t for them, we would’ve been buying 6-packs of Tocayo to fill the space, haha.

Tocayos all around! Well, we’re glad that it worked out, and you’re up and running with your own beers now.

JS: Yea, I probably hadn’t started my first brew here until the very first week we opened.

RB: See, I come from the kitchen world, and the kitchen is a place of intense activity, all the time. So, somehow in my mind, I just thought that when we opened here that there would be all this activity right away. And I’m thinking, “I haven’t seen him do a thing since when opened!” I had no idea, I was thinking maybe he comes in in the night or something like that, haha. I joked with Jacob saying the brewspace looks like a stage set, “Oh, we don’t use that stuff, it’s just to make it seem like a brewpub!”

Well, you have a beautiful setup here–brewery and dining space.

Ok, if we were to go look in Rick Bayless’ fridge, what beer would we find?

RB: You know, I only have one bottle of beer in there. It’s a 750, and it was sent to me by my friends down in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. They have a winery there, and they just started brewing beer. I am really looking forward to opening that bottle. That’s the only bottle that’ in my refrigerator right now.

Well, that sounds like a good “one-bottle” to have.

Lastly–Sox or Cubs?

RB: Well, I am not really a sports guy. Not really at all. So, I just say, “I like it all–you want me to come to a Sox game? Sure. To a Cubs game? Sure.” 

But, I lived on the North Side for a long time, so it’s hard not to say ‘Cubs.’ But the Cubs are like being an avid gardener–Sometime around the end of August you say, “Ah, next year I can see what this garden can be. It’ll be so wonderful. Everything went wrong this year, but I know how I’m gonna fix for next year.” Then you dream all winter long, plant next year’s garden and you’re saying the same thing the following August.

And that’s what it’s like being a North Sider, and a Cubs fan. 

Well, it seems like they planted a few extra things for 2016. Fingers crossed.





Be sure to check out Cruz Blanca and the other acclaimed restaurants of the Rick Bayless empire, here. And don’t forget to take a look at our previous interview with brewer Jacob Sembrano, during his time at the helm of Goose Island Clybourn–birthplace of Chicago craft beer.


Photography by Hilary Higgins.

Interviewed by Jack Muldowney, Patrick Burgess, collaborator for The Hop Review.