Baderbräu: The Return of Chicago’s Original Craft Pilsener

Baderbrau Chicago Style Pilsener making its return during Chicago Craft Beer Week May '12

 

As a native Chicagoan, I have a deep appreciation for the history of our city. A couple weeks ago over bottles of King Henry, I had one of the coolest nights in recent memory.

This is the story of a highly acclaimed Pilsener once brewed in Chicagoland. At its peak (‘89-‘97) Baderbräu Pilsener was served in over 200 bars in the city, and 14,000 barrels were produced annually. The adventure reads something like a movie script. A Chicago police officer, after being shot at and stabbed, decided to become an oil salesman. On a business trip to Europe, he falls in love with Eastern European beers and decides a world-class beer needs to be produced in Chicago. Ken Pavichevich wanted to make a true old world Pilsener, one brewed in accordance with the German Purity Law–no additives or preservatives (only hops, barley, water and yeast).

The beer was a runaway success. This was a craft lager before craft beers were popular. It was the only American beer then served by the German Consulate in Chicago. Author Michael Jackson, the writer of several influential books about beer, once regarded it as the “best pilsener I’ve ever tasted in America.”

Part of the appeal was distinctive glassware used to showcase the beer. If poured properly, Baderbräu produced a big, soft creamy head. It was beautiful beer, and the Chicago interpretation of the style was darker and had more hop flavor than you would expect from a traditional pilsener from Pilsen.

Due to less than optimal cost control practices, the state-of-the-art Pavichevich Brewing Company closed for good, but not before leaving quite the impression on many local beer fans near the end of the millennium. This beer enjoyed a brief comeback when Goose Island brewed Baderbräu Pilsner briefly in ’98, even winning a silver medal at The Great American Beer Festival. Goose ultimately scrapped it to focus on Goose Island-branded beers.

Two successful businessmen Rob Sama and Joe Berwanger have decided take their passion for craft beer to the next level and bring Baderbräu back to Chicago. Rob Sama was a U of C undergrad and homebrewer during Baderbräu’s heyday. “I remember going to the Taste of Chicago and seeing the Miller tent, and the Budweiser tent… and then there was the Baderbräu tent,” says Sama. “It was heroic. They were the little engine that could, taking on the majors. I have to pinch myself to believe this is real it’s so exciting, bringing this beer back to market.”

 

 

 

Rob Sama & Joseph Berwanger -Co Founders of the Baderbrau Brewing Co.

 

Over the last 2 years, Rob and Joe have been putting all the pieces together to resurrect a brand that was all but extinct. I consider these guys cultural preservationists, no different from Chicagoans that fought to save architectural gems from destruction in the 70s.

The beauty of this latest chapter of Baderbräu is seeing how excited the Chicago beer community is when hearing about its return. There is a new generation who isn’t as familiar, but for those who were into craft beer around the year 2000, you can look forward to its launch during Chicago Craft Beer Week in May.

This is the genuine article; the current owners are taking no short cuts. They even went so far as to source the original private yeast strain used in 1989 that is believed to have been brought here from Germany in the 1830’s. Also, the original Brewmaster who created the recipe, Douglas Babcock, has joined the team to ensure accuracy. During a recent conversation, Co-Founder Rob Sama explained it like this: “We’re kind of like those guys trying to clone the woolly mammoth and bring it back to life, except we’ve done it and we’re going to march it straight down Michigan Avenue.”

 

1985 'Taste The Difference' Ad. At its peak Baderbrau produced 14,000 barrels annually. That's nearly as many as 3 Floyds produces today.

 

It’s one thing to own naming rights, and have a great business plan. It’s something completely different to take detailed steps needed to resurrect a classic beverage.

The Baderbrau Brewing team will be creating this beer with the contract brewery of choice in Chicago, Argus Brewery, in the city’s historic Pullman neighborhood. The connection makes total sense. The last time Argus took on a project of this nature, it produced a beer that won a GABF gold medal for 5 Rabbit Cerveceria (5 Lizard Witbier). What’s more, Argus Brewmaster Grant Johnston, a huge fan of the original Baderbräu Pilsener, was eager to work with recipe creator Douglas Babcock to get the taste right. Team Baderbrau has spent countless hours on the phone and in the brewery perfecting the finer points of the beer. The Argus Brewery resides in what were once the Schlitz Brewing distribution stables, a Chicago Landmark. I can’t think of a better backdrop for the next chapter of epic beer history in this town.

Rob Sama and Joe Berwanger were like two star-struck Chicago kids who, like many of us, wondered aloud: “What the hell happened to Baderbräu?” That inspiration kicked off this journey and the underlying appreciation of the historical importance of doing this project the right way … and they nailed it.

 

–Nkosi

nkosio

Beverage Consultant, Host of the Chicago Brew Bus, Co-Host of the Chicago Beer Pass Podcast, Co-Founder and heartbeat of the Chicago Beer Geeks..@nkosio on twitter

15 Comments:

  1. This comes as great news for Chicago area beer fans -especially those of us familiar with Baderbrau.

    I have to take exception to your comment that Baderbrau was a “runaway success”, though. It was a beer before its time; it never fully caught on and that’s why it faded into oblivion.

    And Goose Island’s iteration of this beer did not hold a candle to the original brewed by Pavichevich Brewing Co.

    • Marty! thank you for reading the article…and for your feedback. Success is a relative term. If a local independent brewery is featured at the Taste Of Chicago, alongside national macro brands..and sells 14,000 barrels a year, some would consider that success. A big reason why Pavichevich Brewing Co. folded was because of his lavish spending habits.

  2. Outstanding… i hope the other baderbrau brands are returning as well… Remembering of the indulgent days in elmhurst with tours that couldn’t continue without glassware filled.

    a toast to a triumphant return.

  3. Looking forward to what my friend Grant can do with the recipe, but we must remember that we’re over 20 years past Baderbräu’s heyday. What once seemed like a revolutionary beer in 1989 might seem rather pedestrian today, when Imperial IPAs and Imperial Stouts garner so much hype and attention. How will a creamy, malt-accented pilsner hold up?

    Baderbräu was a seminal beer in Chicago, but its story also provides a great lesson to the next generation of local craft brewers. Pavichevich expanded way too rapidly and couldn’t maintain quality standards. The optimal presentation of the draft product was dependent on the “pilsner pour.” Once their customer base expanded beyond a handful of highly motivated specialist bars and restaurants, this basically disappeared (along with their unique glassware, which proved an easy target for widespread theft).

    Of course, let’s also not forget another fundamental problem: its name. “Bader” was the surname of one of Ken’s close friends and certainly seemed German enough (a “Bader” was a barber; normally “Bad” connotes a Spa or bath) . On the other hand, if there’s ever a problem with your brand, you conveniently have “Bad” in the name.

    Let’s hope for nothing but Gut with this revival.

    • Steve, I may not be reading your intent correctly. Are you saying that a well-made pilsener in general would seem “pedestrian” in comparison to hop bombs and high gravity sippers? I would like to think that with the success of such brewers as Metropolitan and such beers as Victory Pils that the marketplace is mature enough to embrace a well-crafted pilsener as much as it does the extremes. I think Chicago, with its Germanic and Bohemian heritage, is the right place for such a beer. I’m looking forward to my first taste…

      • Kevin, there’s certainly room for another delicious, beautifully-served Bohemian-style Pils. My point was that this is no longer 1989, and that our collective palates have changed.

        Many of you are too young to have tasted Baderbräu, so you’ll never really be able to re-capture what the beer meant to the nascent craft beer community. For those of us who have, the question will be whether the revived recipe (made in a completely different facility with modern ingredients) can ever really capture the flavor of the original or – indeed – whether it even has to.

        I am not nostalgic by nature and long ago moved on from Baderbräu and other lost beers of its era. What Grant brews at Argus has to be judged anew, on its own terms, and not compared to a memory that can never fully be recaptured.

        Baderbräu is an old brand name, but even brewed to the original recipe, it will still be a modern beer and must appeal to contemporary palates. I look forward to drinking it, and when I do, I won’t let nostalgia determine whether I like it or not.

  4. I used to drink Baderbrau at a dinky local Southside bar(Turgeon Bay on 43rd St.).My memories were of a fine malty, Pilsner , unbelievably cheap, and surpassing any of the imports we were able to find in those days. Why Dona & Lynn Turgeon kept Baderbrau on tap was a mystery to me , because it seemed like I was the only one drinking it. Nevertheless, I appreciated it back then and I hope the new Baderbau is a success.

  5. What took so long? One of the best beers I ever had. Do it right like getting the original brewmaster who created the recipe and it can’t miss. This is a no brainer. I love Goose beers but they never came within a country mile on this one.

  6. What a fantastic story! The original recipe was very, very good. I have lived in Elmhurst for 27 years and remember fondly of the days when I heard the brewery was to to open and then the first visit over to see Ken off the Romans Road. He was such an enthusiastic sales guy and he knew he had a wonderful product. I bought countless 50 liter kegs over there. Mostly the pilsener, but also the bock. The Pils was a special beer but needed the right pour to present itself properly. One needs a cream faucet that when pushed back creates that rocky head on the final stage of the of the pour. True to the traditional Pils pour they still use in Germany and Czech, this was essential to allow the flavor and aroma to blossom. It was a visual and sensory treat to drink this beer when served properly. Can’t wait to try it again. Good luck Rob and Joseph!

  7. But what became of Ken Pavichevich?

  8. Great article, Nik. Definitely looking forward to tasting Baderbrau again. I love the big, powerful, bold beers of today, but it’ll be nice to have another local session beer.

    And yes, Steve Hamburg, I am nostalgic.

  9. Has there been mention of where we can find this wonderful brew?

  10. Does anyone know where Baderbrau can be found during craft beer week? I’m way out in the west burbs. and no, I cant find any info on it at the craft beer week site. Boo!

    When I find where to get this, I forsee Always having some in the fridge.

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