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One on one with Craft Beer Guru John Bittermann of Joliet, Illinois

One on one with Craft Beer Guru John Bittermann of Joliet, Illinois
By:  Coren E. McLeod

            I am one that is not shy about meeting new people especially in the craft beer industry.  Back in June of 2012, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever craft beer festival in Mundelein, Illinois at Tighthead Brewery.  At that particular time, I was working part time at Chain O’Lakes Brewing Company in McHenry.  COL was not officially open yet.  However, I attended the Mundelein Craft Beer Fest to get the word out about the new brewery opening up in August. 
            I met a ton of people that day and one person stood out to me.  His name was John Bittermann.  He wowed me with his vast knowledge of all things craft beer and I was highly impressed.  As I drove deeper into the industry, I kept seeing John’s name around a lot.  So, after becoming friends on Facebook, I wanted to learn more about John. 
            Since Chicago Craft Beer Week was just last week (May 19-29, 2016), I wanted to catch up with John and what exactly he does within this wonderful community.  Well, he does a lot!  And here is what John had to say:

1) First off, what is your background with craft beer?  

My background with craft beer really began at its beginning in high school. I was the one at the parties who brought Signature Lowenbrau Augsburger and other American Premium beers.  I was fortunate to work at a liquor store and be able to get these beers.  Once I entered college, my interest expanded. I remember the first time I tried Anchor Steam and the reinvigorated Christian Moerlein.  Of course, after pre partying in my room I would go out and drink the cheaper swill of the day like Budweiser or Old Style. I came to realize that I couldn't even drink those beers in much quantity anymore.
When I graduated, I would find myself going to bars and ordering anything unusual that I had never had or heard of before. It was here that I first discovered Sam Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale and some of the other early craft brewers. This is when I begin to wonder more about what was available and if there was anything local. Along Came Siebens River North Goose Island Tap and Growler and Chicago Brewing none of those except survived.
I began to pay attention to what was happening in the industry and as new brewers came along, I was sure to be there to check them out.  (Early brewers in that first wave like Founders Hill Flossmoor Station, Two Brothers, Emmett's, Wild Onion, Prairie Rock and Weinkeller).
I got to know the owners, the brewers and the bartenders.  With each new brewery, my interest expanded and they came to know me.  That's not to say that I still don't enjoy a Genuine Draft once in a while but that is where I came to be in my beer consumption.

2)  I know you have a pretty stellar craft beer collection?  What are some of your favorite pieces?  How big is the collection?

The fact is that my collection does not just contain craft brewery items. I collect all brewery advertising from throughout the state’s history. My Joliet collection is probably the best one there is. I'm interested as much in the beer is I am in the advertising. I think of myself as preserving the history for future generations. I really don't know how many pieces are in the craft collection.  There are literally thousands and thousands between the business cards, the labels, bottles and the cans.
If it's been used to advertise beer, I probably have it laying around the house somewhere.  I’m especially fond of the things from breweries that are no longer there.  I also like things that are from the openings for example the first Goose Island glasses and coasters.  They are extremely hard to find in today's secondary market. When I say I save everything I mean everything. I have the beer menu sheet from when Bourbon County Stout was first released at the Clybourn Pub.
 I also like things that were short-lived in production or for special events like the River West Glass from the 1997 Real Ale Festival.   The brewery was extremely short-lived and it is the only glass they made. With the growth of the craft beer industry in Illinois and the amount of things they produce, it is getting harder to keep up.  I'm fortunate that a lot of the brewers save things for me.  Plus, I have people scattered across the state we can get things for me.

3 3)  I believe you teach a beer class at your local community college.  Tell me about that and what can people expect from the class?

I don't so much teach a class as give a series of lectures on the History of Brewing in the Joliet area. I also do this at the Joliet area historical Museum and for civic organizations.  However, the one the junior college is much more extensive and in-depth.
Very few people have a keen understanding of how closely tied the beer industry's history is to that of America economically, politically and socially. Beer flows through our veins and the progress and changes in the industry coincide with major events in America's history this is the type of information I cover in my lectures.

4  4)  OK, Chicago Craft Beer Week is May 19-29th.  What events have you attended?

Sadly, I cut back on events this year due to personal reasons.  However, after taking some time off, I made it a point to visit as many breweries as possible and get my passport stamped. I think that in and of itself is one of the best ideas the Illinois Craft Beer Guild has brought to CCBW. I've been amazed at the number of people I have encountered getting their passport stamped this year. I will be at the Baderbrau Brewery Grand Opening on Sunday (May 29th, 2016). There are so many excellent events it's hard to choose.  Your only mistake is in not going to something whenever time permits.

5)  How many breweries did you go to during this time? 
      I have tried to get to as many as possible before Chicago Craft Beer Week is over. I hope to have visited 20-25 breweries. I'm currently at 16. It's been a challenge, but it's been fun too. There are so many great breweries making so much great beer out there.

6   6)  Out of all the breweries, what would you say your Top 3 breweries are?  

There will always be a fondness in my heart for Goose Island. In part because it was among the first I ever went to.  It is also because of the number of friends I have introduced to craft beer there. Before, there were many to choose from as there are now. It may sound politically correct but I truly do not have favorites. There are some I may visit more often than others. I generally try to make it a point to visit every brewery in the Chicago area at least once every two to three months.
            I also make it a point to hit the Rockford area, Quad Cities and the central Illinois breweries at least twice a year if not more.  Often sadly the area south of Springfield only has to put up with me once a year. Every brewery offers something different in its beer and ambiance. Some do a better job at one thing over the other but in general they are all doing an excellent job.

7)  Do you happen to homebrew?    What happens to be your favorite style of beer?
 I have home brewed with friends and even helped out in a couple of breweries a long time ago.  Now my focus is in collecting memorabilia and drinking beer that's more than enough to keep one person busy.  As for styles, I am all over the place.   I used to be a big hophead but not so much anymore. I prefer balance now. I have no problem with an IPA or a double as long as it is well-balanced with the malt bill, hops and bitterness for the sake of hops.  Bitterness is not something I enjoy.
Generally when I go to a brewery I get a sample tray and then select a pint based on what I'm in the mood for lately.   I have been leaning towards porters, British mild ESB’s (Extra Special Bitter) and any number of beers in the lager Style.  Of course, I'm very seasonal and you will find me drinking kolsch, shandies and lighter styles in the summer. Who doesn't love a good Oktoberfest in the fall? Nothing beats stouts/porters in the winter and a good doppelbock in the spring. The idea of seasonality in beers is nothing new.

    8)  Craft Beer is very popular now, what do you see happening with the future of craft beer?  

truly believe the future is so bright you have to wear shades.  There is no bubble at least not like the one we saw in the nineties when people we're not making good beer and we're in it for the money.  Today's brewers and breweries know the challenges they face when they start their business and do it for the love.  There is no doubt that not everyone will survive craft breweries if they continue to gain market share.  There seems to be no slowing down in that pace of growth.  And let's face it, the big boys are starting to get frightened.  Just look at the volume loss that Busch, Miller and Coors have experienced in the past decade those turning 21 and in their early to mid-twenties that have never known a time when craft beer didn't exist.
You really don't have to win them over to craft beer. You just have to get them to your tap room or to buy your beer in a package form because they have always had craft beer. They seem to be more willing than previous generations to pay the premium that comes from drinking craft beer as well as try new beers and styles.   From an historical standpoint, we are still way below the number of breweries per capita that we had in the eighteen eighties. Sure, there was no Anheuser-Busch producing 40 million barrels a year but the 10 million barrel loss they've experienced has gone someplace and that is craft beer.

9   9)    Any last words you would like to share about craft beer?

There is no better time than now to be a beer drinker there are more breweries and beer styles being produced in America than at any point in our history. Every place you go, you find it be it in your corner tavern or your mom and pop liquor store. They have all come to recognize that craft beer is here to stay.  You either adapt or perish. That liquor store I spoke of previously, I told them right before I left in 1994 they needed to focus more on craft beer. It took them awhile but they finally came around. I think I heard something like 80% of the population lives within 10 miles of a brewery.
How can you not find a brewery to call home and a beer that you love with that kind of choice?  On top of that, when was the last time you looked at the selection at Binny's? There are so many choices it could make your brain melt.  Granted, there is not much brand loyalty in the craft beer industry but if you accept that as part of your business model you will succeed. I can't say it enough, the craft beer industry and those in it are some of the nicest, most welcoming friendliest people you could ever want to meet because it's all about the love of beer.... #craftbeer

If you are in the Chicagoland area and happen to see John out and about, make sure you pick his brain.  He is one hell of a guy that knows #craftbeer.  #Cheers to you John and your passion for the industry.  Keep up the good work and collecting!!!!


- Read the full story at UnRatedMagazine.com

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