By Michael Nagrant
Libertyville is a beer-geek mecca. Aficionados from California, and occasionally Europe, belly up to Mickey Finn’s, a brewpub nestled between a collection of turn-of-the-century Georgian painted ladies with ornate hand-carved wooden crowned roofs. They come to this North Shore community, forty miles outside of Chicago, to taste the biscuity carmel-flavored Maibocks and the banana-perfumed Hefeweizen’s, the signature craft-brewed beers of Greg Browne.
Browne, a barrel-chested hulk of a man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, wears denim overalls, sturdy boots and a long-sleeve black T-shirt that bears the word “Toronado” on his right sleeve, a San Francisco brewpub he likens to Chicago’s The Map Room where he teaches a monthly beer school. Browne speaks with an Australian brogue that’s softened by fifteen years of living in Chicago, and he’s a still-waters sort—laidback, quiet and focused. It’s a demeanor that he acquired growing up in the Central Coast of Australia in New South Wales, a sleepy Pacific Ocean tourist community located just north of Sydney.
That’s also where his beer education began. Browne says, “My old man used to give me sips of Shandy when I was about six. It’s half beer, half lemonade, not a traditional one, more lemon-lime like a Sprite. It’s what old women drink in Australia and the U.K.”
It wasn’t only Shandy, but the powdered malt syrup he was fed as a baby that provided the subconscious linchpin that led him on his career path. Indeed, standing in the malt room of a brewery is like sitting in a box of Whopper’s malted-milk balls or swimming in a box of Grape Nuts. It’s familiar and soothing.
While Browne was growing up, regional breweries like Toohey’s or Cooper’s were ubiquitous in New South Wales. Their beers were more bitter than what the American palate is used to. For perspective, the bitterness in a beer, which comes from the herbal hop flower, is measured in International Bitter Units (IBUs). Budweiser is brewed in the 8-9 IBU range, while Toohey’s would rate around 23. As a result, Browne, who came to Chicago while he was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval base as an electrician in the Australian Navy, developed a palate that demanded a greater bitterness than what he could find in America.
“I didn’t really like the beer here. I didn’t know at the time there was anything better than Bud or Miller, so I’m like, ‘Screw it. I’ll start home-brewing.’”
His first batch was a familiar blend. “It was a Cooper’s stout malt extract,” Browne says. “I was pretty psyched that I could get Cooper’s malt extract here.”
He got hooked on the roasted smells, recalling his childhood in the sweet waft of stout malt syrup. He says he had a couple of exploding bottles in that first batch, “and it made a pretty good mess.”
Brown then attended Chicago’s Siebel Institute, one of the premier beer schools in the U.S., and began his career at the now-defunct Weinkeller, the same place that Nick Floyd, the brewmaster and owner of Three Floyd’s brewing in Munster, Indiana got his start.
Browne developed his focus on sanitation and quality control at Goose Island, but his creative identity was established as the founding brewmaster of Weeghman Park (the original name of Wrigley Field) where he took a bit of a gamble and brewed up an English Mild. It was a clean, drinkable, low-alcohol beer, which in beer-speak is often called a “session beer.” He dubbed it “Old Trafford” after the Manchester, England cricket grounds. Browne recalls that bar patrons didn’t know what it was and often mispronounced the name.
He said, “People would walk in and order a ‘milled.’ You know you’re ahead of your time when people think it’s something exotic.”
Today, Browne’s especially proud of his lagers, which he attributes to his extensive travel. He believes you have to sample the classics in Germany and Belgium to understand the soul of a beer. Like most brewers, he spends his vacation as busman’s holidays, always in search of the perfect beer. He’s drunk beer with monks at Orval in Belgium, and hoisted steins overlooking the Upper Bavarian Alps at the Andechs monastery.
A memorable trip to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy, a brewery that was rarely open to the outside world and, until that trip, closed entirely to women, ended with Browne eating chocolate cookies made by the local cloister of nuns and drinking steins of Rochefort beer, talking up the head of the abbey, Père Jacques. Greg Hall, the Goose Island brewmaster, was also on that trip, and concocted his Pere Jacques beer as a tribute to that encounter.
After far-flung beer trips, Browne is usually inspired to try new ideas. He’s been harboring a used Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel in the basement of Mickey Finn’s. He plans to age an Imperial Stout in the barrel, hoping to soak up its charred oak and vanilla flavors. Inspired by a coffee-flavored breakfast stout he recently drank, Browne’s contemplating brewing up a breakfast stout flavored with Earl Grey Tea.
While’s Browne’s always thinking about his next brew, he’s devoted to the craft. He likes Mickey Finn’s and the autonomy he has. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity. His vision for the future is to continue to build the reputation of Mickey Finn’s. He said, “I don’t want to be on the cover of brewing magazines. I just want to have a solid reputation around the country for good beer and good variety. I want to open up the American palate to better beer.”