5 Rabbit beers are part of a changing beer world
The world is changing.
It used to be, you could create a craft brewery, and as long as what came out under your label was even slightly better than anything from BudMilCoors, you could be successful (assuming you could navigate the murky waters of distribution and retail or on-premise sales). Other than offering good beer, you didn’t need to differentiate yourself from anyone else out there.
In Chicagoland, we’re lucky now to have a surfeit of breweries. Some of the older guys, like Goose Island and Two Brothers, are still working off the old model – “We’re guys who are gonna make a bunch of different, interesting beers …. whatever we feel like.” And they do make outstanding beers. But do they stand for anything beyond than good beers?
I asked the brewmaster of another well-respected area brewery what his joint stood for. “That’s a good question … I don’t know.” You could see the puzzlement in his face. “Um, maybe classic beer styles well made?” He was asking me, not telling me. He didn’t know what made the brewery (again, a well-regarded one) special.
The new model, which I’m hoping will be more successful, is a brewery that stands for something identifiable. A brewery with a distinct personality. A niche. A brewery that, when someone asks about it, you can confidently say “Oh, yeah, they make great [easy descriptor here] beers.”
In the Chicagoland area, Three Floyds might have been the first brewery to assert a true personality. The slogan “It’s not normal” aptly describes Three Floyds’ generally over-the-top beers.
Since then, on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, we’ve had Metropolitan introduce us to locally-made lagers — crisp, clean, and if anything, subtle in their complexity. Pipeworks is coming soon, to answer the burning question “how Belgian can Chicago brewers possibly get?
And that’s why it’s so great to see the emergence of 5 Rabbit Cerveceria. It’s all about a Latino approach to beer … and I’m not talking about that forever skunky Corona in the clear bottles.
Founders Isaac Showaki and Andrés Araya had no real background in actual brewing, although as management consultants based in Mexico City, they worked with a number of big breweries in Central and South America. And they’re smart management consultants. They recognized that craft beer is a fast-growing category. They wanted to be part of it. And they approached it in a very analytical manner — typical for guys with a background in management consulting.
The first question was where to set up shop. “In our countries, there are monopolies or oligopolies that control the distribution channels,” explained Isaac. “Small craft breweries can have a tough time. So we said, okay, let’s try to do it in the US.”
They set up criteria for the location of their cerveceria. “We had to find a city with a decent Latin population. We looked at Los Angeles, Austin TX, Chicago, Miami and New York.” They chose Chicago for its large Hispanic population, with a significant Latino middle class. “Chicago has a big craft beer scene, but it’s not as saturated as some of the cities on the West Coast. It’s also a city with a lot of beer knowledge,” said Isaac, citing Chicago’s internationally respected Siebel Institute of Technology, possibly the world’s leading institution for teaching the art and craft of brewing. “And Chicago has a great culinary scene.”
But there was still that sticking point – they really didn’t have much actual brewing experience. A serendipitous chance encounter changed things.
“We were at the Map Room (corner of Hoyne and Armitage in Chicago), researching Chicago, talking to people,” recalled Isaac, “and the wife of one of our partners started talking to [friend of The Local Beet] Randy Mosher.” Apparently, it was a revelatory discussion. “We had lunch the next day, and right away started on beer designs.”
Randy has long been known for his creativity in beer design, perhaps best embodied in his book Radical Brewing, in which he discusses obscure, orphaned beer styles, as well as beers made with unusual ingredients, like jaggery, quassia, bog myrtle, and sorghum, among many others. (I’m making a “Kentucky Common” beer now, based on his description in the book.)
It was Randy’s idea to make a Latin version of a Belgian witbier, using a bit of passionfruit instead of the common sour orange in the cerveceria’s 5 Lizard beer. And that idea, plus some other recipe tweaking, won a gold medal for 5 Rabbit at the Great American Beer Festival — an almost-unheard-of accomplishment for a brewery that had barely been open for six months. It’s one of the most fascinating beers I’ve had in a long time.
5 Rabbit production is still rather limited — currently, it’s made under contract at Argus Brewery, on the South Side of Chicago. But Isaac and Andrés have plans to build their own brewery within the next year or two. It’s distributed by Glunz, which is known for its impressive collection of specialty beer. So if your local store doesn’t carry any 5 Rabbit products, tell them to have a little, serious talk with their Glunz reps. You’ll be glad you did. And you don’t even need a Hispanic heritage to appreciate their 5 Rabbit, 5 Lizard and 5 Vulture beers. (More special edition beers are coming.)
If you’ve been able to try any of the 5 Rabbit beers, leave a comment and let us know what you thought.