Ask just about anyone who has made the leap, and they’ll tell you that there’s a big difference between selling beer and making beer. Brothers Sunny and Perry Patel had experience running a well-liked and well-run beer store in the Chicago suburbs, but when they decided to open their own brewery, they sought out an experienced brewer with roots in the area who not only could make classic recipes, but also had a passion for experimentation.
It turns out, they didn’t have to look very far. Shaun Berns was working just up the road at the RAM Restaurant & Brewery, part of the regional chain. “There was an excitement to try a new thing, to oversee construction, jobs, and all the weird things that come with opening a brewery,” Berns says. “I carried with me a lot of the ideas developed at RAM. I knew what was working, what wasn’t ready, and what recipes I wanted to explore.”
While Berns was at RAM, there was a mandate to make six regular beers: a blonde, an amber, a porter, a hefeweizen, an IPA, and a seasonal. In between, he could make the beers that struck his fancy. Now at MORE, which opened in July 2017, he can expand into the current styles, such as New England–style IPAs and pastry stouts, and “focus on what’s popular in brewing right now.”
Still, those years at RAM of turning out pretty basic recipes that needed to be technically perfect each and every time taught Berns the importance of fundamentals, and he credits that repetition and exacting nature with helping MORE’s current popularity.
“There are beers that the locals want to drink, that I want to drink myself,” he says. “And then there are the experimental beers that get new people through the door.” Each new accolade (such as winning best-in-show at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer last year), brings new customers, and Berns is keeping up with demand. And, of course, the drumbeat demand is for IPA.
“Everything that we’ve done to this point has been hazy. Once a month, I say we’re going to do a classic East Coast or West Coast IPA with classic hops, such as Centennial or Simcoe, but we haven’t done it. I guess every time I talk about doing it, I’m almost out of the current hazy IPA, and I need to get brewing another one, so it keeps getting pushed to a back burner. These are styles that I respect, but we, like others, have painted ourselves into a corner to produce hazy IPA, and we’ won’t change that.”
He does like the challenge of the hazy IPA, however. There’s so much out there that he tries to pay attention to what’s good, not necessarily what’s different. The brewers who he looks up to, who dominate the style, and who have a good handle on processes and ingredients and flavors, he’ll study to follow their path and not just brew for the sake of brewing.
In the first few months of MORE, while keeping up with the Joneses, Berns tried his hand at quick kettle sours, putting his 10-barrel direct-fire ABS brewhouse through the paces. Of course, he fruited them. And they were a hit, well-liked by customers who asked for more fruit but maybe a different base style.
Berns looked to the American wheat ale, a style that has long been popular in the Midwest, as a canvas for fruit. Where a kettle sour focuses on the acidity and the balance from the fruits could be lost, a wheat ale gives the finished beer an almost smoothie-like character and became an immediate hit with customers.
“I try to make it interesting and add fruits that I don’t usually see together, such as blackberry and mango,” he says, “or things that sound like a match made in heaven, such as raspberry and plum. I’ll look for fruits that complement each other in different ways.” Earlier this summer, he added blueberry and cocoa nibs, along with honey and some cinnamon, to a wheat ale in an attempt to mimic a granola bar.
He’s not shy about using fruit purees from a farm in Oregon, saying, “They honestly have the best-tasting, ripest fruit ever, and they do add citric acid to preserve it, and they puree it and filter it, and it just works.” He says he’s found the best success adding the purees post fermentation.
“It goes against a lot of the things I learned at Siebel because there’s literally pulp in the beer, but people love it. We can now do a flavor-of-the-week, and because of our size, we can keep up with that.”
At the brewery, the beer is served directly from the bright tanks, but there’s also the Codi canning system that sends fresh beer out into the world. The versatile system, Berns says, gives him freedom on what he wants to release and when.
Spend even just a little time with Berns, and you’ll find a brewer who has one foot planted firmly in the past and one pointed toward the future.
“I won’t forget that the only reason I’m brewing hazy is because I had the privilege of brewing a blonde ale over and over again, getting it dialed in,” he says. “If you can’t brew a basic beer, to be honest, it’s hard to maintain a career long-term. You need to be aware of recipe development, water chemistry, and all the other basics. It’s more complicated than a lot of people realize. The New England–style IPA is particularly tricky and not as straightforward as some people think, and it’s figuring out the complexity that is such a lot of fun.”
He applies the same thought to his barrel aging, noting that each barrel is different, even when they are sourced from the same brands. He’s been aging stouts in Heaven Hill barrels of late and says that the team has been enjoying finding different flavors, from a deep tannic, almost red-wine, flavor in one to vanilla in another.
“There’s a lot that can happen with flavors, but over and over again it keeps coming down to making sure that the base beer is dialed in, doing what we want flavor-wise, and then that can be a canvas for anything else we add, from hops to fruit to barrels.”