Rob Sama, AB’93, led the rebirth of Baderbrau, the locally brewed Czech pilsner he loved as a College student. (Photo courtesy Baderbräu)

Hopping back

A piece of Chicago beer history returns.

It was a staple of the virtually nonexistent Chicago craft beer scene when it first appeared in 1989. The beer became so popular that George H. W. Bush ordered cases to the White House. In a period when options were mostly limited to American adjunct lagers, the more European-style Baderbräu provided an alternative to please the palates of beer drinkers in Chicagoland. But then, at the height of its popularity, it disappeared.

Now it’s back, resurrected by Rob Sama, AB’93. The brewery that made Baderbräu closed in 1997, after which Goose Island began producing a beer under the Baderbräu name. But it wasn’t the same beer, according to Sama, and production of it ceased in the early 2000s when Goose Island shifted its focus to ales. Sama had been a fan of the original beer during his college days.

A discussion with a friend about the old beer several years ago prompted Sama to begin a search to learn its fate. Discovering that both the domain name and the Baderbräu trademark were available, Sama immediately purchased both. “It was at that point that I began to ask myself, what am I going to do with all this?” he says. “So I decided to bring it back.” Partnering with an old colleague, Joe Berwanger, the two polled Chicagoland beer drinkers to see how well remembered Baderbräu was in order to determine the viability of a comeback. The results were promising: 40 percent of the beer drinkers they polled said they remembered the beer well.

More research turned up the e-mail address of Baderbräu’s old brewmaster, Douglas Babcook. Sama sent a one-line e-mail to Babcook asking if he was, indeed, the brewmaster for the old brewery. He received a one-word response: “Yes.” Babcook gave Sama the recipe, and work on the beer began. Fortunately a key component, the specific yeast strain used in fermentation, had been preserved by Babcook in a University of Toronto laboratory freezer. Soon the beer was reborn and Sama and Berwanger formed Baderbräu Brewing Company. After the product had been refined to a point where it replicated the original, it was reintroduced to the public.

In response to its rising popularity, earlier this spring Baderbräu increased production by ten times its initial output. Although it is still made through other breweries on a contract basis, a plan to build a Baderbräu brewery is in the works. After that, Sama says he’ll start to add more beers to the lineup, including perhaps the other beer originally brewed by Baderbräu, a bock style.

The phoenix on the label is a nod to both the story of the beer and its connection to the University of Chicago. Baderbräu has been served at alumni events, appearing most recently during Alumni Weekend in June. It can also be found in the University Pub, where it is part of the rotating tap list.