When Phil Stubstad started brewing five-gallon batches his garage, he never imagined it would one day lead to a crucial turning point in his career. As a veteran of the restaurant industry and an ambitious home cook, he figured that homebrewing was a logical extension of his existing hobby—following a recipe for beer couldn’t be much harder than one for a steak or stir-fry. For his birthday, he decided to buy himself a beginner-level starter kit.
“I started with the basics, then got more into partial mash and all-grain. I got hooked on it early as soon as I realized I could make stuff that tasted pretty good,” Stubstad says. Before long, he found himself deep down the rabbit hole. “After I’d been brewing for three years or so, I started thinking I knew what I was doing.”
He wasn’t the only one who thought so. After more than 40 test batches, Stubstad worked up the nerve to bring in a few samples to his colleagues at Wildfire Schaumburg, a Chicago steakhouse where he worked as a restaurant manager. Adam Rochman, one of the partners in Lettuce Entertain You Inc., the restaurant group that runs Wildfire and 130 other establishments, was impressed. He began setting up tastings with some of the other chefs and partners, all of whom said they could imagine pairing Stubstad’s beer with their food.
“That was around the same time craft beer was really taking off,” Stubstad says. “Our beer list used to be your standard domestics like Miller Lite. All of a sudden it was all craft beer and it was changing all the time.”
As popular as his creations were, it simply wasn’t practical for Stubstad to scale up to commercial production levels in his garage. All of it might have gone nowhere were it not for the fact that a sales representative from Church Street Brewing Company swung by the restaurant around the same time. Seeing an opportunity, Stubstad asked if they would consider producing larger custom batches. Both the quality of his homebrews and the critical mass of the restaurant group convinced the brewery to go along, and soon his recipes were being brewed in 1,000-gallon batches—enough to fill 55 kegs.
Stubstad served his first beer, an English brown ale, five years ago this November. It was a relatively safe choice that paired well with the Wildfire’s carnivore-friendly menu and the cool autumn weather. Nowadays, staff at the five Wildfire branches serve more than 140,000 pints of his beer annually. He’s gone on to brew beer for 11 different restaurants within the group, including Lemongrass Wit, a Belgian-style wheat beer for the pan-Asian eatery Big Bowl, and an OB Tripel with a touch of citrus to balance the seafood at Shaw’s Crab House. Workshopping new test batches is an ongoing—and highly coveted—task among staff.
“If it’s stuff that I like, I’ll bring it into work and we’ll do a tasting with managers, servers, chefs—everybody who wants to come. We go in a circle and talk about what we like and what we’d change,” he says. “It’s good to get everybody involved and we’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback. It’s just drinking beer, talking about beer, and hanging out.”
Working at a relatively small scale means that Stubstad can rotate his beers at Wildfire seasonally. As the temperature plummets and orders of steaks soar, he starts pouring Scotch ales. Warm summer months mean surf overpowers turf and the brewery turns out blonde ales and hefeweizens to go with seafood dishes like macadamia-crusted halibut. A few staples, however, are sacred.
“Our best-selling beer that I’ll never mess with is an Oktoberfest-style beer,” Stubstad says. “It’s such a food-friendly beer. With the leaves changing and the weather getting cool, that’s exactly what you want.”
I didn’t know what I was doing when I started brewing—I just knew that I liked doing it.”
Little by little, Stubstad’s reputation as a brewer has grown, especially since his staff are more than happy to spread the word. Nevertheless, he still has a full-time job as a restaurant manager, one he has no intention of giving up. When asked how he finds time to tinker with recipes on top of working 50 to 60 hours a week and spending time with his family, he admits that it’s a precarious balancing act.
“My wife puts up with a lot,” he admits with a rueful laugh. “I brewed last Sunday and I got a text on Monday saying, ‘I think it’s about to overflow.’ So we figured it out together.”
It’s not just his wife that’s involved.
“My son just turned 5 and it’s frightening how much he knows about it all. I’m waiting for the call from the preschool when he starts talking about beer too much,” Stubstad says. “He helps out almost every step of the way. He’s got his own paddle for stirring the grain. He knows how to make a yeast starter. Once my wife saw him grab an auto siphon and was just like, ‘A 2-year-old should not know how to do that.’”
His son may be much too young to try samples, but Stubstad says he loves the trips to the brewing supply store and the bonding time with his dad. As family activities go, it’s not quite conventional, but it works—much like Stubstad’s professional pivot.
To other homebrewers who dream of stepping out of the garage, he says, “I think it’s kind of about getting to know the brewers whenever you can. The more people you get to know, the more opportunities that might come up in the future.”
Whenever possible, he still goes to Church Street Brewing Company to observe how his beers are made. The process continues to fascinate him and there’s always something new to learn.
“For me, I didn’t know what I was doing when I started brewing—I just knew that I liked doing it. I never had any thoughts that it would end up in a restaurant someday,” he says. “I just thought I would have good beer to drink with my friends.”