Chris Rafferty — Brewing Between Rock Bottom and a Hard Place

Paul Schneider from Chitownontap.com plays a Colbert-style devil’s advocate in the service of dispelling some craft beer snobbishness around Rock Bottom Brewery in the Chicagoist this week. In helping Paul with his latest mission, I spent a Saturday morning with fellow-Pennsylvanian Chris Rafferty, Rock Bottom’s head brewer in the River North Chicago location. We chatted about the state of craft beer in Chicago, what it means to be part of a “chain,” and most importantly, how he’s going to work in the shadow of Rock Bottom’s former golden boy, Pete Crowley (now of Haymarket). You can read all about this, and more, in Paul’s clever interview.

A few side-notes from my own experience worth mentioning include Chris’ sense of humility, collaborative spirit, and his appreciation of Rock Bottom’s customer base. Rock Bottom’s bar is lined with Crowley’s achievements, but downstairs where Chris spends most of his time hang two of his own proud, but understated medals from 2011 The Wood and Barrel Aged Beer Event. “I’ll probably never get around to framing these.” claims Chris. But I wonder how long that’ll hold true if he keeps collecting medals like  this and giving Rock Bottom another name to go by.

Chris also loves the share and share alike quality of the craft brew scene. While acknowledging the competitiveness of brewing, Chicago’s scene is refreshingly collaborative. We’re still enjoying a rising-tide-raises-all-ships scenario for the time-being. Chris even appreciates the little guys’ brewing needs — he sent me home with some yeast that’s firing away in order to wake up my sleepy, under-attenuated porter.

And lastly, Chris isn’t naive about what it means to be a brewer with ties to a larger business like Rock Bottom. He brews sessionable beers that the casual drinker, Chicago tourist and general ”better beer” drinker is after — and he respects his role in providing a craft beer for the mainstream. But he also loves having that foundation, especially the volumes he can move in the summers, to offer a strong point of view come winter and festival season.

While I was there, Chris offered up the double IPA known as the Jimmy Hoppa — a big, well-balanced IPA with a perfectly creamy head and bright aroma. It’s part of a series named after some of Chicago’s most infamous namesakes. Do yourself a favor, and stop in for a pint or two the next time you’re leading a happy hour crowd — and ask for Chris, your local workaday brewer that’s as comfortable with the Chicago tourist crowd as he is with the beer geeks.