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Whenever the topic of beer comes up at local watering holes, the name Tom Sheehan is frequently mentioned as the man you really need to talk to if you want to talk about beer. Tom, age 46, was one of the prime players in helping Champaign-Urbana becoming the oasis of quality beer that it is today. His encyclopedic knowledge of beer is ever impressive. Currently, Tom can be found bartending at the Esquire Lounge in downtown Champaign.

Tom sat down with Smile Politely on a pleasant, early Fall afternoon to discuss topics ranging from the origins of his own interest in the beverage, the unique beer culture in C-U, the state of American craft brewers to the alcohol industry in Illinois. This is part one of the interview; part two will post tomorrow at the same time.

Smile Politely: Tom, when did you first start getting serious about beer?

(Photo by Tracy Popp)

Tom Sheehan: Well, serious about drinking beer and serious about good beer was probably mid ‘90s, maybe early ‘90s when Jim Creason (current beer buyer for Mike ‘N Mollys) was doing all the buying at the old Blind Pig. Me and some friends would come in, it was either Mondays or Tuesdays, when he would have the new beer board. We’d buy one bottle of beer and split it, rate it and work through all the new beers to see what we liked. It didn’t matter what the style was, we wanted to try everything.

Now Jim is really the guy to talk to about beer industry. Some people may say that I’m the father of the beer scene in Champaign, he’s the grandfather, he’s my dad. Which is weird because he’s younger than me but we’ll have to work that out. (laughter)

SP: Was there any style that grabbed you at first? Was it micro, was it European, was it…?

TS: Well, back then it was mostly imports just because the microbrew industry was just budding at the time.

SP: Right, no real distribution at that time.

TS: Right. So then every once in a while you’d find something that was made in the USA that was pretty good. Just in the last five years microbrews have just gone haywire. They’re just extreme beers. Now Europe is trying to catch up. It’s kinda funny there’s a lot of Belgian brewers now that are trying to brew Belgian style beers that that have been bastardized by Americans and now they’re trying to do what the Americans have done.

SP: No shit?

TS: Yeah, it’s kinda fun.

SP: What breweries are doing that?

TS: La Chouffe, Urthel. La Chouffe just got bought out by Duvel. So what they’re doing is they are dry hopping. A lot of Belgian beers used oxidized hops because they don’t want that flavor (i.e. American style hop) but they use the hops as a preservative. Also certain flavors will balance the beer out from the malty, sugary flavors. Now they’re using un-oxidized hops. Now they want more of that flavor.

It’s kinda fun now to see American beers. Not only are they winning awards in traditional styles but they’re also creating completely new styles that now Europeans are trying to master.

SP: In regards to hops, where do your taste buds lie with what you like in hops?

TS: The Northwestern style hops, the piney flavors, the citrusy flavors. There’s so many different varietals of hops right now. What I’d like to see a microbrewery do right now is basically come in with the same malt recipe and do a 100% simcoe or 100% centennial (simcoe and centennial are types of hops) and all of a sudden you can see how difference in flavor that makes for the beer.

Three Floyds did one called Romulus and Remus. It was basically the same recipe but just 2 different hops. It’s completely 2 different beers. Right now hops is the big trend in the United States. That and barrel aging beers.

SP: Talk a little more about barrel aging.

TS: Well, you can age in wine barrels, bourbon barrels, that’s the real hot one right now, or oak barrels. When you get a bourbon barrel it adds a lot of vanilla type flavors or maybe tones down a little bit some of the malt or it accents the malt a little better. You tend to get heavier beers like barley wines, Scottish ales that do well in bourbon aged barrels. Stouts, Russian imperial stouts especially. So it just adds a whole new dynamic. And I really don’t like bourbon that much but putting the 2 together really works.

There are some just straight oak aged beers that are pretty good too. That almost lends a coconutty flavor to the beer.

SP: I think I’ve noticed that. I can’t think of what specifically but I’ve had that sensation before.

TS: I was up at New Holland about 6 months ago and they had stacks of bourbon barrels. So they’re ready to really start pumping out some different ones. They’ve actually started distilling. So in 7 years they are going to have their own bourbon barrels they they’ll recycle.

SP: Wow!

TS: Traditionally bourbon barrels are shipped to Scotland in order to make single malt scotches to age whiskey there.

SP: No kidding?

TS: Yeah, you can’t age a scotch in a virgin oak barrel. It’s gotta already have whiskey in it.

SP: I see…..

TS: I think also because of the bourbon aged beers boutique bourbons are starting to become popular. I don’t know if it’s the chicken before the egg kind of thing but I’m pleased that bourbon is becoming more popular because that means more bourbon barrels. It’s neat to see this stuff working out together.

SP: There seems to be a trend of craft breweries getting into distilling.

TS: Once again, any time someone takes it to the level of craft, it’s just going to make the quality better. I think America’s palette is evolving. I’m hoping it will get away from the McDonalds and Budweisers. Well, craft beer, and I don’t know the numbers today, but I’m pretty sure it’s still the only segment in the alcohol industry that has grown in double digits for the last decade. That’s why we have the hop shortages now. They basically don’t have the surplus that they used to in hops.

SP: That makes sense. I guess I hadn’t thought of that as an angle too even if there wasn’t inclement weather situations that affected the hops crops there would still be a shortage of some sort.

TS: I farmed corn for 10 years and we had a huge drought in ’89 and that didn’t impact the availability of corn whatsoever because there was always a surplus. With hops now the supply is barely meeting the demand so any shortage in supply is really going to slow down the industry. Flossmoor, case in point, they had to use a different style hops than what they were used to in the boil, that’s what adds the bittering flavors to the beer, and it had a higher alpha acid percentage, almost double, so they cut it in half and you could still taste the difference. It wasn’t just simply the alpha acids that made that flavor and across the board people could tell the difference in the beer from the second that we put that batch on. So if you’re not getting what is exactly called for in the recipe, you’re gonna get quite a bit of a variation, a very noticeable variation.

But also, that’s what makes craft beer interesting because every batch is going to be different. Subtle, slight changes whereas a macro brewery is all about blending and making sure there is no difference from your first can of the year to the last can.