Bob Egan may be the funniest guy in Chicago beer. I probably spent more time during our interview laughing than asking any meaningful questions. He also loves Vander Mill. Before the recorder was even switched on, we were talking about the cider making process, the future of the category and whether or not the cider scene will ever look like the beer scene does now. We got to our five questions over Vander Mill ciders at one of Bob's favorite spots, Skylark.
What are you drinking
I’m drinking Vander Mill hard apple Cider. All Michigan apples. Semi-sweet dry cider. It’s definitely not that sweet cider that will give you a stomach ache and make your teeth hurt. It’s very lightly back-sweetened. We’ve got a press that I’m pretty sure has German U-boat parts in it… it doesn’t break.
As far as apples go, this is primarily Jonathan, Golden delicious apples and kind of dealers choice after that, like Gala, Ida, Macintosh and Northern Spy. At the end of the day, cider is just fermented juice so what we’re doing is very close to wine making.
What’s something we can’t Google about you?
For six years, I performed at Improv Olympics. I went to Columbia for Theater and started performing at IO when I was 19… no one really started carding me until I was 21. It was a great opportunity to have fun on stage, and when you have to make 50 people staring at you laugh, walking into the Hopleaf to sell cider isn’t so intimidating. It's about knowing how to think on your feet when someone gives you A, B, and C on why they can’t take you in. The biggest thing about improv is listening, it's that way in sales too. You need to listen to what they need -- right product, right place, right time. Listening to what the buyer’s telling you.
Life’s a series of tangents. It’s what I always tell my little brother when he tells me he doesn’t know what he wants to be. I just tell him, “Go. Just go. Do something. Find something that makes you happy and want to get out of the bed every morning. And stop living at Mom’s.”
I put “retired improviser” on my Tinder.
How do you describe your job to your mother?
My Mom is all too well aware of what I do and is probably harder on me than my boss is… She’s like, “Yeah, I’m hanging out at so-and-sos and they don’t have you on draft. No cans here, Bob. Guy’s name is Steve, he’s here on Wednesdays, maybe you should bring him some samples.” I think when I got into Lou Malnati’s my Mom was like, “This is awesome. I like those bars you bring me to with no TVs but this is LOU MALNATI’S. We can bring the family here now.”
My Mom gets it but for other people, I usually say, “I sell depressants” and they change the subject. For a lot of people I don’t think it’s too tangible you know, the early morning sending out emails, reaching out to Walgreen's, stuff like that is kind of in the background. It can be a grind. Saturday afternoon at a beer festival, Saturday night at Binny’s pouring samples, Sunday morning I get a call ‘our draft system's down, you’re the only one that answered.’
I love my brother and sister but sometimes they’ll tell me all this is a bubble. I think it was around Christmas sometime and we were having a couple drinks and arguing about it and I said, “What’s more American than working at a local brewery or cidery? We employee people in Michigan. When we expand our new Grand Rapids facility will employee over 50 people; assistant cider makers, cellermen, servers, bartenders, tour guides and others” and my uncle looked and me and said, “You fucked up, you should’ve been a lawyer.”
What makes the beer industry so special?
I think for me it’s the camaraderie between the reps. At the end of the day, all of us kind of live on an island out here in Chicago. A lot of these guys are representing brands from out of state - we don’t really have the camaraderie by getting back to the facility as much as we'd like to. We’re all trying to make sure that good beer and good cider wins. There’s mild competition between people but being able to reach out to somebody and say, “I can’t get a hold of the buyer at X bar, what day is he in?” or going to each other's events. A lot of times when you do events you’re like, “I hope people show up, this thing’s been on Facebook for three weeks.” And then when your friends from other breweries come out and fill the seats it makes you feel good. You think, “That guy didn't need to come out. It’s a Thursday night and I know he had events Tuesday night and Wednesday night too.”
Being able to have that camaraderie with other breweries is one of my favorite things about the industry. That and the free product.
What is it that makes the beer industry so frustrating?
I think for me what makes it frustrating is the lack of transparency from some companies. When they say it’s based in one place but it’s made somewhere else. I was at a sampling the other day with another cidery and I was talking about what kind of apples go into each product and they were talking about how theirs was a “manly cider.” I don’t want to say I’m frustrated, I just think we’re ambassadors for brands. We’re supposed to walk up to a table and say, “Hey, I saw you ordered a Vander Mill” and engage people. It takes 10-15 minutes. It’s important to be honest about your brand, have transparency and let people know what you're about.
I just heard it twice this week, where accounts were like, “I had this brewery in and they did an event but they didn’t talk to anyone.” They came here, spent a $100… but who’d they talk to? That doesn’t have a lasting impact. That’s why when people say, “Let’s do a giant beer dinner and fill this place out!” I say, “No, let’s do something tight where we’ve got 20 people and do some small pairings so people hang out after the dinner and talk.”
I started off drinking Honey Brown. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. I just want to see true craft cider do well
*Bob's brother has moved out of his mothers house.