Turning 25: Hopleaf and Map Room owners on building their iconic beer bars
Michael Roper of Hopleaf and Laura Blasingame of Map Room discuss the past and present of their bars, two of the most iconic in Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
You used to think of thin, sticky Newcastle Brown Ale as "good beer." That’s OK. So did Michael Roper and Laura Blasingame.
Back when those Chicago beer luminaries opened two of the city’s most iconic bars exactly nine months apart in 1992 — Hopleaf and Map Room, respectively — quality beer was tough to find. Then came America’s craft beer revolution.
As the American beer industry became more sophisticated, so did Hopleaf and Map Room, which along the way helped shape countless beer palates.
On the 25th anniversaries of both bars, we asked Roper and Blasingame to sit down for a conversation about how beer has changed in Chicago, how their businesses have grown and the challenges they’ve faced. (And, yes, what a better world we live in now that Newcastle Brown Ale is no longer considered "good beer.")
We met up at Map Room on a Monday afternoon and talked for more than two hours. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Roper: I took over an existing business on Feb. 15, 1992, that was nothing like what I had envisioned. It was recognizable as Hopleaf by November, but awful at first. We put in the booths in October. There were no windows; we put in the glass in November. The beer list didn’t represent what we wanted to do until late in 1992. Was Map Room already an existing tavern?
Blasingame: It was an existing tavern — we bought the building and the business. When my husband, Mark, walked me up here to show me the building, there was this little window on a door facing Armitage, and I saw somebody’s bloody hand going down it. Literally. There was a fight going on in the back over the pool table. I was appalled. Fighting, smoky, a drop ceiling — just disgusting. All men. No women.
Roper: Clark Foster Liquors, which became Hopleaf, was like that. We were a liquor store-taproom. We bought the place stocked with all the stuff we would never want to sell. There were cases of Boone’s Farm, Ripple and Everclear. One of their most popular things was Everclear in plastic half pints. We ran it like that for a while, opening at 7 in the morning. I didn’t even tell my friends we bought the place because I didn’t want anyone to see it. It was so horrible.
Blasingame: Did you sell booze at 7 a.m.?
Roper: Oh, yeah. There was a line every morning. It wasn’t people that wanted to drink. It was people that needed to drink. There were a lot of panhandlers in the neighborhood, and the bar sold those little airplane minis for a buck. So anyone who could come up with a buck on the street would come in, down one and go back out.
The kind of people that came in were fairly nasty. Every day at noon — they had a TV and VCR built into the wall — a guy from a video store dropped off a porno movie and picked up yesterday’s. So the old guys would sit there and watch a porno. There were several traditions that ended when I took over. I took the poker machines out — the main revenue source of the place. Some lowlifes came in to sell stuff they’d stolen — like steaks from Jewel.
One by one, all those things had to go. I talked to every customer and said that eventually everyone would be welcome here, and there’s some language that isn’t acceptable. It was a white ethnic bar. These people hated everybody. I knew I could never have a welcoming place if they were using this horrible language so freely. A few of them ultimately said, "I love what you’ve done with this place. I hated that talk."
Blasingame: We had a different kind of problem. We had a part-time gang in the neighborhood, which apparently had one gun among them. They insisted that we "pay rent" — they wanted a case of Miller High Life or something every time they came in. We didn’t want them to feel like they had a piece of the place and intimidating people. So we said, "No, we’re not paying rent." One day these guys pulled up in a car and got out with baseball bats and banged out all our windows. We got our punishment, but then it was over.
Roper: I remember coming to Map Room in the early days and thinking that it represented physically what I’d always dreamed about. I wanted a corner bar in an older building. I just love the aesthetic of the corner. You’re more connected to the street and the sidewalk. I was always jealous of that. I’d looked at some corner bars, and nothing worked out.
Blasingame: That’s funny. I remember visiting Hopleaf during that first couple of years that you were open and being so jealous of your hardwood floors. To me, Hopleaf looked so nice. I thought it was so pretty. What made you choose to serve good beer?
Roper: Well, that was the original concept of the place. We don’t have any mass-market beers and haven’t in 20 years. I’d wanted to focus on Belgian beers. There were a few in bottles but none on draft. Then there was a small importer in Wheaton who brought in Grimbergen.
Blasingame: I remember that! And Timmermans.
Roper: Grimbergen dubbel and tripel were probably the first Belgian beers to be poured on tap in Chicago. We were very excited to have them. It sort of set us apart.
The one brewery that was make-or-break for us was Bell’s. It was a cult beer then, and there weren’t that many people carrying it. And there are so many Michigan expats here. I asked (Bell’s founder) Larry Bell if I could make a Bell’s neon and put it in the window. We made it in 1993, and the reaction was amazing. People were on the bus on their way to Rogers Park and they’d see this Bell’s neon and pull the cord to get off the bus. Bell’s Amber was this flagship beer for us; we were selling five or six kegs a week in a bar that only seated 60 people. It was an era that Bell’s wasn’t always dependable — the sanitation at the brewery wasn’t great. But when the beer was good, it was very good. That beer bought so many people to our door. We sold it for $2.75 a pint.
There wasn’t a great selection of beer in 1992 and 1993. We carried Chicago Brewing Co., Baderbrau, Pilsner Urquell, Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Guinness. We had Leinenkugel and a smattering of other things, many of which we would never carry today. I wanted to carry better beer, but also to be a place that exclusively carried better beer. Over that first year and a half or so, one by one, we got rid of Bud, Miller, Old Style, Pabst and all those things and came to the point where we only had what we thought of as better beer. Some of those beers now, like Newcastle, were not great beer. But that’s what was around then.
Blasingame: Luckily, we met guys from the Chicago Beer Society, and they opened our eyes: "Wow, this tastes great! Chimay! Compare that to Bud Light!" Once we learned what a good beer was — and to be honest, it took time — we began to seek it out.
In the first year we were open, a salesman for Glunz (beer distributor) came in here with a bottle of Aventinus for us to try, and he comes back and says, "How was it?" I said, "None of us liked it." He goes, "If you want to be a good beer bar, you have to carry this beer." So we took his word for it, and he was right.
Now I’m embarrassed that happened, but we had to learn. As we learned, we focused mostly on Belgian, German and English beers. And then more American beers too. I remember when we took Newcastle off tap to try an American brown ale, there was sort of a revolt. People had grown accustomed to it. These were the same people we had to beg not to drink Bud Light at first. We had to give away a ton of samples to get people to drink new things in the early days.
Blasingame: That was the only way. Eventually people got into it and would come in and say, "What have you got for me Laura? What can I try today?" We had nine taps and then 13 and eventually I said, "Let’s do 26!" And Mark said, "You better sell these!" It was a new thing to have so many taps at that time.
Roper: We started with eight taps. No bars had eight taps at that time. In the early days, people walked in and said, "Two cans of Old Style," and I’d say, "We don’t have Old Style." They’d say, "OK, MGD, then." "Well, we don’t have that either." I’d offer them something like Great Lakes’ Dortmunder Gold or Anchor Steam. Maybe Bell’s Pale Ale. And either they said, "Oh that’s good, I’ll have one!" or they were like "Bleh," and I’d say there was a bar next door that sold the kind of beer they wanted.
But we kept more customers than we lost. We’ve kept a $4 tap handle that has changed over the years that we try to keep as a compromise beer. Right now it’s locked into Surly Brewing’s Helles Lager. It’s an easy style for most people to drink that aren’t craft beer people. The nice thing is that Surly — and other breweries should look at this — charges less for that keg. So I charge less. I’m making my same margin selling that keg for $4 a glass that I make selling Alpha King for $6. I like to reward Surly for that by keeping that beer on tap all the time, and I like to have a more affordable beer on draft.
We have a lot of diversity in economic backgrounds with our customers. Everyone can’t afford to go out that much. I think $4 is an affordable luxury; you can have three of them for $12 and you might leave a couple bucks tip and you’re able to sit at the bar and chat with some friends and break a $20 and still have money for coffee and eggs tomorrow morning.
I think it’s important you don’t get too hoity-toity. We don’t carry Bud, Miller, Heineken and Beck’s, so maybe we seem a little hoity-toity already. But if we can have a good beer for $4 — and the Surly Helles is fantastic — we need to do that. It’s important.
Blasingame: Our beer of the month is usually $4. Do you pour a lot of Allagash?
Roper: Oh yeah.
Blasingame: Because (Allagash founder) Rob Tod — he’s great, I just sent him an email the other day thanking him for keeping his prices so fair. Because Allagash White, we always have on tap and it’s five bucks a pint. And I’m really happy to have that. The prices for beer are out of control right now. Beer is supposed to be a democratic beverage. And shame on the bars that charge $8 for an Alpha King when I can sell it for $5 and still make a profit. It’s not good for beer and it’s not what beer is meant to be.
Roper: I try not to have two draft lines for any one brewery. We have 68 draft lines. I like to represent 68 different breweries. But there are a few breweries I’m willing to have a second line for, and Allagash is one of them. I can’t take Allagash White off. We will always carry Allagash White. But they have such great specialty and seasonal beers, and I want to carry those, too, so I have to break my own rule. But I don’t feel bad about it. Rob visits Chicago three or four times a year, and he always stops by. I love carrying beer made by people I like. Maybe that’s the difference between a brewery I carry and I don’t carry. There are a few people in town I don’t get along with, and I won’t carry their beer no matter what.
Blasingame: Things have changed so much. Now there is more local beer than we can handle. A lot of it is great, but sometimes we’ll take on a new brewery, and our customers say, "This just isn’t right." I tell Jay, our beer buyer, "They’ll get it right, but they’re just too new. They need time to mature." The greatest brewers in the city need time to get used to their equipment or their space, and early on, they sometimes put out beers that are too green. We try to make sure they’re up to snuff when we put it on tap, but you get a stinker every now and then.
Roper: What these breweries have to realize is the best they can hope for is to be in the rotation at Map Room or Hopleaf. A lot of the breweries that we are solicited on make perfectly good beer that represents styles that are over-represented. I don’t really care about your IPA when I already have hundreds to choose from. You have to do something unique and different.
There are some local breweries we’ve never carried their beer. I know it breaks their heart, and it breaks my heart to turn them down; I know these people invested their last dime, and they want to be represented at the four or five most important beer bars in town because it helps them sell to other bars.
Blasingame: You want to sell their beer. But you don’t want it to sit in your lines. You want to represent them well, but you can’t if the beer doesn’t stand up. You have to be careful because if we buy something that’s not a standout and it doesn’t sell, it’s bad for everybody.
Roper: We’ve had to tell some breweries that their beer isn’t dialed in and they probably need to dump some of it. But they’ve figured it out, and now they’re in the rotation. Some are ironclad — Half Acre, I can sell anything of theirs I put on. We do well with Revolution. Spiteful is not on all the time, but a lot. Begyle, we do pretty well with them.
Our customers trust us to vet the beers, and if we sell a beer we’re not proud of, they won’t trust us anymore. There are beer bars in town that will take anything that comes with a free keg attached. I don’t play that game. I don’t want your free beer. I want a beer I like, and you should charge me what you need to in order to make money. I don’t want to owe anybody anything.
Blasingame: I used to keep beers on for a month at a time; there was a monthly beer menu. That spoke to the availability at the time. You just didn’t have that much to choose from. Breweries were always really excited to make our beer list. Now we change what’s on tap all the time.
Roper: How often do you change your beer list now?
Blasingame: I made two menus on Saturday. I came in at 2 p.m. and made three changes and at 5 p.m. made two more changes. How do you do yours?
Roper: Saturday we had 14 changes.
Blasingame: Holy crap!
Roper: I hate to do this, but for a Saturday night, I go in early and shake all the kegs, and for anything that has one pint left, I pour through and go to the next beer because I understand what it’s like to be a bartender on the floor and have a beer list that is not accurate. We print a new draft menu almost every day. At least six times a week.
Map Room, Hopleaf — we owned the category for a while. Now you can’t go to a bowling alley or VFW hall that doesn’t have a nice selection of craft beer. It’s everywhere now. What we have to do is differentiate ourselves some way. Just having good beer isn’t enough. You have to be a better bar. In both of our cases, we have bars that are good bars even if we didn’t carry this product — comfortable, friendly, nice places that are right for their neighborhoods. It’s more important to be a good bar first and then to have interesting beer.
We’re dinosaurs in some ways. We’re independent, one-location owner-operators. Almost every new place that opens now is by a hospitality group or a chain. We’re old school. We’re intimately involved with our places. You probably know a lot of your customers; I know a lot of my customers. I get invited to their weddings. We’re part of their lives in a way that a general manager at World of Beer is not. We’re true publicans, operating the way taverns existed in the 17th century. And we need to make that obvious. Because everybody’s got good beer.
Blasingame: I don’t want to slam the chains, but they don’t feel unique. Things really started to change around 2010 — at least in terms of how we were received by beer drinkers. We’ve lost some business.
Roper: Us too. We expanded in 2012 and then had a couple years of growth. Our peak year was 2014. Now we’ve gone down two years in a row. I don’t know that we can do much about it. There are so many places now.
We used to be a destination. Someone who lived in Evanston or Oak Park or Naperville or Hyde Park — there was no place to go for great beer and food and all the things we do. Now where is a place that’s underserved? There’s no place that’s underserved. So we don’t see people from those places anymore. You don’t want to drive 20 miles. I don’t think we can really get those people back.
Blasingame: I think you’re still a destination place. For us, I’ve noticed the kids are coming back. I think they’re figuring out we have fair prices and good service, and we strive to — we want to be a welcoming place. I’ve noticed a slight growth. I think people are becoming more discerning at this point in this whole upheaval of the craft world that started in 2010 when things became, as I say, more greedy and elitist.
I think it’s starting to calm down. People are thinking, "Well, that place is OK, but I’d rather go to Map Room or Hopleaf because it’s old school." It’s starting to mean something good again. And the younger customer, I don’t have to twist their arm to try a beer. They come in and say, "Do you have a white IPA?" Sometimes they know too much for their own good. They want to try stuff and drink stuff. Some other people just want to be in a bar. I try to be a welcoming kind place for everybody. That’s our goal. Along with that comes fair prices and a good product.
Roper: Building an empire was never part of the plan.
Blasingame: I just want the great good place.
Roper: It’s about having the one place that’s really yours. We get offers all the time. People say, "Why don’t you open a Hopleaf in Logan Square?" Or, "I’ve got this building in Naperville. It would be perfect for another Hopleaf." The people at O’Hare want a Hopleaf really bad. I say no. I’m not interested. It was never part of my plan. They say, "Why don’t you want to build your brand?" Build your brand. No. I don’t think of it as my brand. I think of it as my bar.
Blasingame: Yeah — it’s my language.
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