Smile Politely

Tom Sheehan Pours From His Fount of Beer Knowledge, Part Two

Yesterday, I posted the first half of my conversation with Tom Sheehan, bartender extraordinaire at the Esquire Lounge, and residing Champaign-Urbana beer expert. Today, part two of that interview, where Sheehan expounds on Illinois alcohol laws and the local beer culture, among other topics.

Smile Politely: That consistency isn’t as important on the craft level. It’s not necessarily a goal at that level. Speaking of Flossmoor, what’s been your career with beer?

(Photo by Tracy Popp)

Tom Sheehan: I started out at the Blind Pig being the buyer there. Because of a difference of opinion in which way we wanted the business to go, I was let go there. I ended up working at Radio Maria. It was more of a restaurant and I’m more of a bar kind of fellow so I really didn’t enjoy that. So I went up to Flossmoor and did a little help in the brew house. I got to understand the dynamics (of brewing) there. Mostly bartended. I was briefly at Three Floyds until I decided to move back down here.

But, you know, all that experience helped me understand that aspect of the brewing industry. I’m really hoping some of the laws in Illinois change to be more hospitable to craft brewing. I haven’t really researched why a state like Michigan can have more than 80 micro breweries and brewpubs and a state like Illinois is lacking and we have twice the population.

SP: Right… It seems like Champaign-Urbana is a very unique spot with the amount of quality beer one can find in the bars and one can find in places like the Corkscrew or Piccadilly or Friar Tuck’s but there’s not a brew pub or any sort of brewery in town.

TS: Most of that’s in the licensing and laws. I don’t think in Urbana there’s a license for brew pub. In Michigan, if you want to start a brew pub you can. It’s regulated in the brew pub license that you can only sell what you ferment or brew and you can get that readily. If you want to sell other people’s beer or liquor, then you have to go through the more strict Class A licenses like in Illinois. But I don’t think in Illinois you have that option. Especially in Champaign and Urbana every municipality has its own issue with it.

There’s a lot of different things about beer that’s set apart from the other segments of the alcohol industry. Like you can pay for liquor and wine on account so you can get delivery and pay it off in 30 days but beer is C.O.D. (cash on delivery) Don’t know why buy I’m sure somebody knows and can explain it perfectly clear. There’s all these different little things about it. The licensing and taxing of beer is really staged to help the big guys. Um, labeling, you have to get every label approved and that’s costly.

SP: Really?

TS: Every change and variation on the label has to be approved by the (state) government. Sometimes you can have a label returned simply because they don’t like the wording of something or an image. In New York a beer label that was accepted in other states and in Europe was turned down because it had a picture of Santa on it. They said that would appeal to children. (laughter) Yeah, just crazy stuff. I think Maine had issues with another label for similar reason. But every single time you have a beer with a new label, it’s got to get approved. When was the last time Budweiser had a new label? I guess they’ve got Bud Lime now. (laughter)

SP: Do you think some of the issues in Illinois have to do still with reverberations of the post-prohibition era shakedown (by the state)?

TS: Partly. I mean I’m not really an expert in this but the basic consensus is that after prohibition the main issue wasn’t alcohol but how do we get the tax dollars so they have the three-tier system. Once you set that into place, now you have producers, distributors and retail. Distributors tend to have more political clout in Illinois, therefore the laws tend to be more biased towards them. Like Bells, for instance, having to pull out of Illinois because of a dispute over who was going to sell their beer (two years ago). A distributor, once they get the right to sell somebody’s beer, then that somehow becomes their commodity rather than the brewery’s, for life. If your product represents a small segment, and I don’t know what the percentage is, of a distributor’s revenues then you have to sit out for a year (from being distributed in the state after a brewery pulls their product from that distributor) but if it’s a larger percentage then it’s indefinite until you come up with a solution. Bells is just now back selling beer in the Chicago area and he may get sued and shut down. Nobody knows at this point

SP: So Bells was able to find a distributor to pick them up despite dome of the repercussions of doing that even though it was two years they couldn’t technically be back in the state?

TS: Especially in Illinois, every brewer has to consider the possibility that they’re selling away the rights to their own product. I know Arcadia stopped distributing in Illinois for a year because they didn’t like the way they were being handled by the distributor. It may have been with one distributor in the state, but they had to pull and came back in the state a year, year and a half later with a different distributor but they’re happy now.

SP: Let’s talk about beer culture in Champaign-Urbana.

TS: The beer culture in Champaign is a bit of an anomaly. Dave Engbers (founder Founders Brewing) was asked at a tasting, and this was two to three years ago, where is the most exciting place to try beer and he said Champaign. Not because we’re making it but because we have a group of people enthusiastic about beer.

Back then was when I ordered for the Blind Pig, me, Jim Creason (of Mike’n’Mollys) and John from Crane Alley at the time would actually periodically sit down and make sure that we were not getting the same beers. It worked out great because there is so much to go around and we had on particular distributor would try to get us the beers that we were looking for and often were successful. I remember when Dave Engbers came down and visited, he was just amazed at the selection we were getting.

SP: Yeah, a few weeks ago some friends from Michigan came down to Champaign to visit and they were floored with the selection here. And this is a crew of beer drinking mugs who live in the town Bells is from and regularly go to Arcadia, Dark Horse and Founders. They were really stoked on the selection down here. Do you have any idea where the culture stems from or why there happens to be a beer aficionado culture in Champaign?

TS: Availability I’d say. You know, Jim started this (at the old Blind Pig) ten years ago or even longer and there was only one place to get better beers at the time. And then other places said “that place is busy, we got to ease into this.” There’s still a ton of bars here where you can’t get a decent beer and they’re popular. But I think it’s a bit like the slow food movement around here where people are like “hey wait a minute, let’s have quality” and there are people who just want to put quality ahead. You never know what it is. There’s a really decent group of people here who support the wine industry.

SP: That’s a good analogy of the support of the slow food movement or natural food movement in this town fits with the interest and demand of unique and quality beer.

TS: It’s similar in that the micro brewers are like a fine dining restaurant in that they use better ingredients, they use better stuff. They are able to gauge things. When you got a brew master say like up at Founder’s where they have assistant brewers, but the brew master is the main guy. He can oversee quite a bit. You really can’t do that at a macro brew level. So to them it’s a whole different ball game.

The other thing, too, is that a lot of people that like micro breweries and you ask them what their favorite beer is you’re gonna get a lot of stuttering and stammering around. Their response is “Well wait a minute, what are we talking about? In the summer? In the winter?” Other people may say “You don’t have a favorite?” and it’s like “no”. Which is my favorite kid is an example, which is my favorite song. What? (laughter) So it’s a mentality more of wanting something enjoyable rather than the same thing.

SP: I think about the quite a bit. Not necessarily about what’s my favorite but what’s exciting, what is stimulating you right now.

TS: If you ask me what may favorite beer is and I can’t tell you but you ask me what my favorite beverage is, it’s water. That, I can successfully say “yup, it’s water.” Anywhere from 95%-85% of beer is water. Coffee…water, it’s just flavored differently. Or I just drink it straight, even on the rocks. (laughter)

SP: Going with that, what’s been exciting for you lately that’s been popping up in town at the bars or stores?

TS: Well, not any particular beer but the fact that certain breweries that haven’t been available in Champaign or Illinois have shown up like Dark Horse or Moylans. I know that’s going to increase. There are 2 distributors in downstate Illinois who are trying to get and focusing on unique beers. They don’t really care about the bigger places. We’re talking about beers that may be available in California that are in Illinois. So when you see jumps like that you know there is a distributor that is going the extra mile for you, for the retailer and for the consumer. I love that. Actually downstate has been getting offering from small breweries that don’t want to mess with Chicago. We’re kinda like a test market. I kinda like that. It’s exciting for us down here!

SP: Thanks for your insight, Tom. Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers of Smile Politely?

TS: For the people whose main focus is on macro brews as what beer is, you’re missing 99% of what beer really is. While that may be what beer is in volume, it certainly is not what beer is in flavor. You just got to get out there and start drinking more. Don’t shy away from anything, try something. There’s so many different styles. It’s just daring to try something different.

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