I recently got a press release from Old Chicago about doings at the Eden Prairie store. I frequently get press releases from Old Chicago. Some are more interesting to me than others. This one got my attention. While the release didn’t give the whole scope of what was happening, it suggested that the Eden Prairie location was the beta for a nationwide re-do of the chain; new food, new design, and most importantly to me a new beer list. There was also something about Cicerone Certified bartenders. My curiosity was piqued.
You’ve been to Old Chicago, right? It’s that pizza joint with the 1980s decor and the World Beer Tour. They have a big beer list – 30-some taps and a bunch of bottles – but fully a third of the list is standard American lagers. There’s little chance the staff will be able to tell you much about the beer they are pouring. Hopefully the draft lines are clean. You go there because you know you’ll find a decent beer, but the experience is always somewhat underwhelming.
This press release suggested all of that was about to change. To get to the bottom of things I talked to Mark Newman, the person in charge of beer and spirits for the chain. “When Old Chicago opened in 1976,” he told me, “we had 110 beers. People thought we were crazy. It wasn’t easy to get 110 beers back then, so we brought in all of these imports. Old Chicago introduced the whole idea of the beer-centric restaurant.” Over the years helped launch some of today’s top craft brands. Old Chicago was one of the first to pour New Belgium. According to Newman Odell’s first account was at Old Chicago. But somewhere in the 1990s he says, the chain lost its way. Now they’re trying to get that old vibe back.
Newman gets audibly excited when talking about the changes. You can tell he’s genuinely passionate about what they’re doing, which is just short of a total re-do. The cluttered-casual 1980s design has been scrapped in favor of a sleek, modern look; minimalist almost. The menu was gone over from the bottom up. They worked with chefs from the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You group on the culinary redesign. Old items were dropped, new ones were added, and everything is made in-house, from scratch.
But it was the beer aspect that interested me. The changes on the beer side encompass both selection and service. In terms of selection, Newman says they considered a couple of options; the Flying Saucer model with hundreds of taps and bottles or a more-focused model with a smaller selection. They opted for the latter, choosing in his words “quality over quantity.” The new restaurant has 36 taps and maybe twice that number of bottles. Of those taps 24 are craft rotators and only three to four taps are given over to what they are calling “US Classics.” As Newman explained, “There is a market for those beers and we will always sell them, but we don’t need eight of them.” One of the most exciting changes to the beer selection is a focus on local. Newman says they want every Old Chicago store to reflect its location, and that means always having several beers available from local brewers.
Changes on the service side include both the way beer is served and the knowledge of the staff that serves it. As part of the Eden Prairie re-make they tore out the old draft equipment and replaced it with a brand new state-of-the-art system. With the exception of branded specialty glasses, they have replaced all the glassware so that beer is served in an appropriate style, non-frozen glass; no more icy shaker pints. Beer-clean glassware is especially important to Newman. Proper cleaning methods have been put in place and all glasses are rinsed before filling. As well, glassware is checked twice a day to make sure it is beer clean.
Server knowledge is important. It’s frustrating to go someplace and not be able to get information about the beers that are being poured. At the new Old Chicago everyone goes through some basic beer education. It is mandatory for bartenders to pass the Certified Beer Server level of the Cicerone Certification Program. It is encouraged for servers. Newman says the company will support any staff that wants to advance to higher levels of the program, paying for exams and education. Additionally, they have instituted a policy encouraging staff to offer samples to guests; kind of an “if you like that you might also like this” idea.
After talking to Newman I had to see for myself, so I trekked out to Eden Prairie for dinner. I was impressed. The food was good, the décor was a big improvement, but this being a beer blog I’m going to focus my review on the beer experience.
Selection: Of the 36 beers on tap I counted eleven from Minnesota. The local selection was even bigger in bottles. The rest of the beers were a high-quality mix of national crafts and imports. Of the three American lagers available on tap, one of them was Grain Belt Premium. In the printed menu each beer is accompanied by a set of icons that describe its basic flavor profile. The list seemed to me a little heavy on hops, but there was a range available from Victory Prima Pils to Brooklyn Brown and Stone Smoked Porter.
Service: My two beers came out in proper Nonic pint glasses with a perfect half-inch of foam on top. They left circles of lace all the way down the glass as I drank. Glancing around the bar it seemed like proper glassware was the norm, and I saw that beer-clean lacing everywhere I looked. I even witnessed the bartender explaining the concept of beer-clean glassware to some patrons sitting at the bar.
My server Jen was great. She is a Certified Beer Server and seemed to know her stuff. I asked about local beers and she pointed me directly to them, even telling me the thumbnail sketch of Fulton’s history. She was able to describe the flavors of beers reasonably well and guide me toward the profile I wanted. As I sat enjoying my Sweet Child of Vine, she brought me an unsolicited sample of Lucid Camo, another hoppy beer from a local brewery. I saw others being offered samples as well. When I asked Jen about a beer to accompany desert, she suggested Brau Brothers Moo Joos.
To head off any suspicion, I am not being paid to shill for Old Chicago. In the interest of full disclosure, they did buy my dinner.
What interested me about this story was the fact of a national chain committing itself to quality beer and beer service. When TGI Friday starts serving craft beer, it’s significant. When Old Chicago reasserts an emphasis on proper service, staff knowledge, and quality selection, including a number of locals, it says something about the state of craft beer. Are they just cashing in on the craft beer boom? Perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? The thing is, these places attract a broad clientele. It’s great to have dedicated beer bars like Happy Gnome or Muddy Pig, but they primarily preach to the converted. These national chain restaurants have the potential to introduce a huge swath of people to better beer. If they do it right, like I believe Old Chicago’s Eden Prairie rollout suggests they will, then that’s all the better.