Jared Rouben is always thinking about food and beer. More specifically he’s always thinking about how to bring them together.
Moody Tongue Brewery’s brewmaster attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York City. During the first week of school, he looked into joining the campus wine club. “You had to have a minimum GPA to be involved,” he says, “and pay $25 per event. That didn’t make sense to me. I had been there for only three days.”
So after his seventh day in culinary school, Rouben launched the CIA’s first brew club instead. “Everyone was welcome regardless of GPA, and we charged $1 per event. A dollar seemed like a good price to me.”
Rouben brought in brewers and chefs to pair, cook, and bake with beer at these $1 events for the next two years, during which time he discovered what a labor it was to find craft beer on fine-dining menus. “There was all this white-tablecloth food, with no beer options to pair with it,” he says. “Pairings were focused on Barolos and Napa [cabernet sauvignons]. Beer was in the corner.”
After culinary school, Rouben went on to cook at The Martini House in Napa Valley. “I discovered Northern California beers then,” he says romantically. “Like Russian River and Anderson Valley. When we weren’t working, we [chefs] weren’t drinking wine, not because we didn’t have access but because we thought beer paired so much better with the food we were making on our days off.”
Soon Rouben began homebrewing on his days off, and something clicked. “I was cooking every day and homebrewing on the side. I was always thinking about aromatics and balance in the kitchen and I thought, why don’t I take the same approach to the beers I’m making?”
So he brewed a pale ale with pale malts and Cascade hops, and then he added pluots, a cross between plums and apricots. “That was when the beer became layered, complex. The pluots brought in aromatics and new flavors. I had a pairing beer here. I had a culinary beer. That was the aha moment. Since then I’ve applied the same kitchen techniques to my brewing.”
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Rouben had developed a passion for brewing and his own culinary vision for how he wanted to do so. The next step was brewing school. He attended the Siebel Institute of Technology’s diploma course, worked at Rock Bottom Brewing Company in both Warrenville and Lombard, Illinois, for a year, and returned to Chicago where he would eventually become the brewmaster at Goose Island Beer Company. “Once I got that position, I jumped in head first,” he says. “I started bringing in chefs to brew with me. I’d never had the opportunity to bring in a chef to speak about a beer in culinary language.”
One way to speak about beer in chef’s terms is to liken malt to bread varieties. “So think about Munich malt,” Rouben says. “Then think about toasted wheat bread. ‘Toasted’ explains its caramelization of sugars which thus brings a nutty character to the beer.”
Rouben says that these chef collaborations made him a better brewer, not just because they created a language with which to describe his beers, but also because they got him “sourcing like a chef.” He applied this chef mentality to his beers at Goose Island and eventually applied it to his own concept, Moody Tongue Brewery in Chicago that opened in June of this year.
“If I want to brew a beer using raspberries, no way will I use extract,” he says. Instead, he connects with a farmer who grows exceptional raspberries, a farmer such as Peter Klein of Seedling Farms in South Haven, Michigan.
“I came across these purple raspberries and thought, oooh, it sounds like Willy Wonka. They’re tart; they don’t have a lot of sugar. I thought, wouldn’t these be absolutely lovely in a Belgian Dubbel that wasn’t cloyingly sweet. I like beer dry. It pairs better with food, and a lot of sugar exhausts the palate.”
Rouben didn’t stop at a Belgian Dubbel with purple raspberries. “The temperatures drop, you put on your sweater, and you deserve more,” says Rouben, “so we took those purple raspberries and aged them on brandy for four weeks. In the third week, we thought to ourselves, why not add something else? The goal is always to create layers of flavors.”
So Rouben and the Moody Tongue crew added burnt orange peel to the bourbon-soaked raspberries. “Now we have a beer with multiple flavor layers,” says Rouben. “It pairs well with seared duck and also with sweet items such as black cherry bourbon bread pudding or tiramisu.”
Much as he did with the burning of orange peels for Moody Tongue’s Brandied Purple Raspberry Belgian Dubbel, Rouben often uses culinary processes in his beer-crafting process. He’s steeped tea, baked chocolate, shaved truffles, and brewed coffee to be added to the mash or fermentation tank. He describes his beer as “culinary beer,” which he defines as a genre of beer that forges a connection between brewing and cooking.
“I draw inspiration from the ingredient itself,” says Rouben. If his purple raspberry dubbel isn’t proof enough, he’s also brewed a Sliced Nectarine IPA, a Green Coriander Wit, and a Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian citrus pilsner. If it’s in season and interesting, there’s a good chance it will end up in one of Moody Tongue’s beers.
For Rouben, beer begins with the sourcing of ingredients, takes shape with the layering of flavors, and evolves with a food pairing. “I’m still cooking,” he says, “I just have a new medium.”