Chicago's culinary past, present, and future

We're always interested in the next generation of chefs at The Spice House, and not just because they'll hopefully be our customers.  We're proud to sponsor a variety of events and fundraisers for local culinary schools.  Friday, we had the opportunity to attend an event to which we'd contributed: the annual culinary symposium at Robert Morris College.

The theme for this year's event was Culinary Chicago: Past Present and Future, and it included lectures on topics from beer to candy to politics.  Speakers included an impressive array of Chicago culinary and industry professionals – keynote speaker Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, Hopleaf owner Mike Roper, Two Brothers Brewery founder Jim Ebel, author Marilyn Pocius, Chef Magazine editor Lacey Griebeler, and many others.


The most interesting of the sessions I attended was the one given by Mike Roper, owner of the Andersonville bar Hopleaf, on Chicago's history with beer.  Chicago's got a reputation as a beer-drinking town, and as the central transportation hub and one of the earliest major cities in the Midwest, Chicago should have been the brewing capitol of America's expanding west.  Early breweries like Haas&Sulzer and Lill&Diversey started a promising trend toward Chicago beer, followed by the establishment of a slew of local neighborhood brewers.  But the Chicago Fire wiped out many breweries, opening the door to competition from Milwaukee and St. Louis.  During Prohibition, large-scale brewers used organized crime to mark their sales territories, violently oppressing smaller competitors.  By the time Prohibition ended, a few national brewers had so firmly cornered the beer market the the re-emerging Chicago neighborhood brewers couldn't compete, and Chicagoans were stuck drinking beer brewed elsewhere.

Incidentally, while this is true of most of the nation, Chicago is the only city where Miller is the biggest selling beer.  This is due in part to a labor strike at Coors in 1977, which kept competing beers out of the market long enough for Miller to get a strong foothold.

These days, after a slow start, craft brewers and brewpubs are taking off in Chicago with a vast range of locally made beers in the city and suburbs.  Goose Island, Three Floyds, Two Brothers, and other small breweries are giving Chicago beer a national reputation, while brewpubs like Flossmoor Station and Piece Brewery and Pizzeria are bringing back neighborhood style beer.

I'm a fan of Hopleaf, so I know from experience with his menu that Mike Roper knows his beers.  It was fascinating to get a history of beer in Chicago and an explanation of current beer trends locally and nationally from someone so obviously passionate and knowledgeable on the topic.  Later, I learned about Chicago candy traditions and various local political issues that affect the culinary industry from equally involved professionals. 

While tickets to the symposium were available to the public, most of the attendees were white-coated students, jumping at the chance to meet and network with so many of Chicago's culinary luminaries.  With so many interested students starting careers here, and so many talented professionals willing to donate their time and expertise, it's a safe bet that Chicago's culinary scene will continue to be one of the most innovative and vibrant in the world.  We're proud to be involved with Chicago's cycle of gastronomic excellence.

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