Drink

Moody Tongue Brewer Jared Rouben Explains Where Beer and Cooking Collide

Jacqueline Raposo

Jared Rouben spearheads “culinary brewing” at Chicago’s Moody Tongue Brewing Company, where Meyer lemon peels ferment with saison yeast and Sorachi Ace hops in a double-steep process, and dark Oaxacan chocolate enhances a Baltic porter light enough in body that you can’t help but order a second round.

A graduate of the CIA and a former expeditor at Per Se and cook at Napa’s Martini House, Rouben recognized that impeccable ingredients and technique transfer seamlessly into beer brewing, a field he saw as ripe for innovation. Now a faculty member at the Siebel Institute and an examiner for the Master Cicerone program, his brewery and tasting room are testaments to exploration.

Where’s the most comforting cross-section between cooking and brewing?

It’s actually not so different: Everyone’s trying to inspire someone’s palate. When you walk into a brewery, all you’re seeing are giant pots manipulating raw ingredients with time and temperature in the same way. 

 

What’s the most exciting difference, then?

With brewing, there’s an opportunity to ruin your beer throughout the entire process: There are so many ways for beer to be contaminated since yeast is airborne, and if you let the temperature rise too high during fermentation, you start to pull off fruit flavors and esters that you may not want. You’re putting something away for three to six weeks in your inventory, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to come out right. But that’s exciting. There’s certainly no instant gratification, which I sometimes miss. It’s absolute patience. 

How do you define your palate with regard to beer?

I have a really delicate palate. As a result, I try to be really light-handed with our ingredients. I think the best thing we do is actually pulling back, which I’ve learned in kitchens: You can always add more, but you can’t take away. You’ll always see me developing very delicate beers with layers of flavor.

Where does the spark of inspiration for a new beer come from?

The majority of the time, I’ve tasted or smelled an incredible ingredient and think it would be great with a specific beer style. So working backward a bit, take for example Asian pears. We went out to Oriana’s Orchard; Oriana is a perfectionist: She’s been growing for 20 years, she has varietals no one else has, and if they’re not to her liking, she’ll chop the tree and graft it with something else. Asian pears are incredibly difficult to grow, but if they don’t meet her expectations, she has no interest in sharing them.

Their really complex-yet-subtle aromatics remind me that you have to find the perfect base of beer to showcase them in, otherwise they’ll be lost. And what a shame that would be, to lose the aromatics of something that takes so long to create and is so delicious on its own. That’s the fun of culinary brewing. We have an obligation to share the ingredients in a form that you cannot only appreciate, but also that’s not hidden behind malt, hops and yeast. That’s where I get a lot of the fun and inspiration, and the challenge. It’s not easy, but when you come up with the perfect pairing, it’s magical. 

How do you decide how you’ll initially treat that ingredient? 

I talk to the farmer, and then if I have my own ideas I’ll add onto it. But with a great ingredient, you don’t have to do much. They just need you to open it up and let them shine in the way they’re supposed to be. Let fermentation do what it’s been doing for hundreds of years.

Think outside the box. People get into beer because there are no rules. That’s what makes beer so much fun, and that’s how you should approach beer and food pairings. Please feel free to explore. But explore responsibly.

What ingredient are you working with that’s really jazzing you up right now? 

Grapes! Right now I’m trying to create a grape ale with Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy of The Little Nell in Aspen. My job is creating the base beer and making sure we incorporate the grape musk to get the aromatics we want. If we can bring wine and beer together in an appropriate way, I think sommeliers and cicerones can have a lot of fun together. 

How do you reconcile the cost of high-end ingredients, like those in your shaved black truffle pilsner?

I’ve been fortunate to have my business partner, whose background is in finance. And because he allows me to do what I do best, I can focus, and it makes this business fun. Beyond that, Moody Tongue means someone with a discerning palate. I can’t imagine using anything less. Selfishly, I love it. It’s a blessing and a curse. Once you’ve experienced great ingredients, you can’t go back. It’s like opening up Pandora’s box—you can’t close it. And why would you? It takes six to eight weeks to create what we do. You want to put something into it that’s not fantastic? Nah. 

Where do you feel chefs can improve when it comes to pairing beer and food?

I haven’t met a cook who doesn’t like to drink beer, but rarely do we think about beers on our menu when we’re creating dishes. That kind of thought will certainly enhance the overall experience.

So what’s a way to improve the game?

I think how one feels is very important, and will continue to be important as health and wellness continue to be a part of our conversation. So we serve oysters in our tasting room. Oysters are salty, but they’re light in body! So you can consume oysters and be satiated by beer, but you don’t feel as heavy as you would if you were eating salty pretzels and consuming liquid bread (beer). On the opposite end of the spectrum, we suggest our Applewood Gold—a hint of applewood smoke on the nose but in a super light, refreshing lager—paired with German chocolate cake, which is sweet with a little salt on there. So you get a sweet-and-smoky combination, like barbecue.

My point: Think outside the box. People get into beer because there are no rules. That’s what makes beer so much fun, and that’s how you should approach beer and food pairings. Please feel free to explore. But explore responsibly. 

How have you grown most as a brewer? What’s one big learning curve you’re glad to be past?

I had the opportunity to make Rick Bayless’ beer after he won Top Chef Masters. It was a huge honor: I love his food and philosophy, and his palate is phenomenal. I introduced a couple of different options, and the one he really enjoyed used ugli fruit. I thought I was being clever, incorporating something that was rare and sexy! But I just made my life more difficult, as it’s not an ingredient available year-round. I remember going to Chef Bayless, and he said, “Well, ugli fruit provides acidity, so why don’t you just use grapefruit?” I substituted grapefruit, and it worked even better! 

What I learned there, besides humility, is that you’re better off not sourcing some rare ingredient, because it’s not going to allow you to create consistency. Consistency is truly beautiful. I think it’s very hard for creative people to create the same product with the same flavor over and over again. It’s certainly my biggest challenge, and one that I strive for each time we make our beer.

How is beer is made from cook's point of view?

Brewers are minimalists. They usually use only four ingredients: water, yeast, malt and hops. Instead of looking into their spice cabinet for coriander or cumin, they look into their hops cabinet for cascade or citra. We break down our malt deliveries into recipes so that the brewer has the mise en place ready. They put the malt in a big pot of water and essentially make oatmeal for an hour. Then give it a hot shower, steeping the grains and making malt “tea” to pick up the sugar, flavor and color. That transfers into another pot and boils for 90 minutes, which is just another form of reduction, evaporating the water out to focus the flavors. And we season at the beginning of the 90-minute boil and add the aromatic hops at the end. That malt tea goes into the fermentation tank and, three to six weeks later, what started out very sweet becomes very dry, and we have beer.

Jacqueline Raposo’s favorite beer is a good stout.