Mike Roper's a sucker for a good story. One afternoon, while sampling beers at his Uptown bar Hopleaf, he relayed how archaeologists in Turkey unearthed pottery buried for thousands of years, drinking vessels once containing beer. The liquids inside had long evaporated, but crusted residuals remained — enough for food chemists to extract and reconstruct recipes.
Roper told me how Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, whom he called a friend and among the most important figures in the craft beer world, took an interest in these ancient ales. Calagione has partnered with an archaeology professor from the University of Pennsylvania to re-create these historical libations for Dogfish, including a recipe based on dried deposits found in the 2,700-year-old tomb of King Midas. (Had no idea King Midas was real.)
Roper and I split a 12-ounce bottle of Midas Touch at Hopleaf's newly expanded bar. The beer is brewed from muscat grapes, saffron and honey — the color of golden straw, a lower carbonation, with the sweetness of a Sauternes or riesling. It's a bit like mead honey wine, though unmistakably beer, and the 9 percent alcohol makes the drink deceptively boozy. I could feel my skull throbbing after three sips.
This transaction of beverage from bartender to consumer is a passive act at most places. But it's Roper's telling of how the beer traveled from ancient Phrygia to Dogfish Head's brewery in Delaware to 5148 N. Clark St. that makes drinking this much more compelling.
And so goes Hopleaf, 20 this year, on the mind's forefront of every craft beer-loving Chicagoan, a place you're unsure whether to classify as a bar or restaurant. Call it busy, then — pouncing on an open seat on a Saturday night is part of the Hopleaf blood sport. It's a place where March 17, May 5 and Dec. 31 — by design — are no different from any other day.
For an establishment with no televisions or Bud Light Lime or Robert Palmer playing "Addicted to Love" overhead, it's remarkable how long patrons linger here. People sit and converse. And they read the stories and pithily worded descriptions written by Roper, cataloged in his 22-page beer menu (and that's only covering bottled beers). It's a fascinating-enough booklet for nondrinkers to peruse and learn trivia such as this, on Belgian brewers Hof Ten Dormaal:
"When accountant Andre Janssens suffered a serious stroke, he returned to his family farm stead to recover. New life plan: Create a 100 percent self-sustaining farm brewery. His family grows all the grain and hops, they cultivated their own yeast strain and power the brewery with rapeseed oil ... that comes from their own crop! Hyper traditional. First brew in May of 2009 and available at Hopleaf one year later. This is a return to the brewing of the 18th century and earlier."
More than just reading material for customers, the back stories help Roper curate his rotating list of 400-plus beers, wines and spirits. Every day, a brewmaster or distributor brings along sample bottles, hoping to crack the Hopleaf menu. Roper has 10,000 varieties of beer to choose from. And here's where the importance of narrative comes in play:
"Given the choice of two new breweries approaching me with the same style of beer, I like the best stories," Roper said. "If you have a boring story — 'I inherited $4 million, and now I own a brewery' — that's probably not a beer I'll carry. There's nothing that sets it apart."
When Hopleaf opened in 1992 (named for a popular ale in Malta, where his dad's family came from), Roper took inspiration from bars like Sheffield's, which embraced the first wave of American craft beers: Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Bell's — ubiquitous now, but hardly household names in the '90s.
He wanted neon signs for his windows, but the only ones commercially available were from mass distribution beers companies. So Roper took the logo of Kalamazoo-based Bell's Brewery to a neon signmaker, got one custom-made and hung it out front, with the hopes that folks taking the 22 Clark Street bus to Wrigleyville will pull the "Stop Requested" rope in front of his tavern. To this day, Hopleaf owns the only Bell's neon sign in the world.
Hopleaf's building dates back to 1896. At various iterations it was a barbershop, a German butchery, three apartment units and a combination liquor store/tap room owned by a Swede. The Hopleaf of 1992 was just a single square room. When the building was put up for sale in 2000, Roper snatched it up and converted the back to a dining space with additional seating upstairs.
Around this time Hopleaf's dining initiative took a step forward from peanuts to plated food. Steak frites, rabbit and smoked beef brisket — inspired by Schwartz's Deli in Montreal — came on the menu. Without a doubt, Hopleaf elevated Chicago's awareness of beer-steamed Belgian-style mussels.
The problem was the dining team's ambitions exceeded their physical capabilities — their tiny 12-by-17-foot kitchen backed up orders nightly. A big complaint was diners waited an hour for a table, and another hour for food to arrive.
So in 2008, Roper decided to expand once more. After protracted negotiations, he bought the building next door, at that point an Italian restaurant. Then the economy tanked, the bank went belly up and construction plans were halted indefinitely.
Let's recap: Here's a business serving craft beers, not the cheap stuff, so operating with a profit margin closer to a restaurant than a Wrigleyville bar (which is to say, scraping by). Eighteen coolers run continuously, so the monthly electric bill is in the many thousands. The water bill's $2,000 a month. There are 50 employees who need paychecks. And now there's a mortgage payment on an empty building, and no bank's willing to lend additional money to build out the business.
Hopleaf was never in danger of closing, but there came a point when Roper considered selling his share in the business to investors (he and his wife Louise are its owners). That never happened, because last year he enrolled in a new program from the Small Business Administration that granted him a low-interest, no-fee loan.
Hopleaf Version 3.0 opened in July: An additional two-story bar area, 32 more seats upstairs, a kitchen four times the original size, and (perhaps most importantly) 28 additional draft lines.
Will this ease the pressure? On a recent Tuesday night visit, the answer was yes. That feeling of claustrophobia was no more. With relaxed shoulders, people took their time scanning the beer menu line-by-line until some turn of phrase resonated.
For me, my eyes were drawn once again to Dogfish Head brewery, and its 120 Minute IPA which invoked words such as "monster," "extremely alcoholic" (20 percent!) and "hops, hops and more hops." Twelve ounces of liquid napalm for $20. And yet people don't think twice about dropping that much coin — further evidence that cult beer fans have become the rule, no longer the exception.
5148 N. Clark St.; 773-334-9851, Hopleaf.com
Known for: 400+ beer selection, Belgian mussels, Montreal-style beef brisket
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