Location:
Chicago, Illinois and Columbus, Ohio
Founded:
2015

Founder Robert Finkel’s botanical-based brewery is reaching a growing fanbase — one taste at a time.

For Finkel, an obsession with root beer ignited the spark that eventually blazed into an award-winning trio of brewery restaurants. “What did root beer taste like, what did it look like, when you went to Dodge City in the late 1800s and the barkeep slid that alcoholic sarsaparilla across the bar?” he ponders. “How foamy was it? How sweet? Those things intrigued me. I’m a flavor person.”

Photos Jonathan Castner

Finkel found a like-minded flavor lover in Randy Mosher, a best-selling author of books on craft beer, including the ever-popular Tasting Beer, now in its second edition. “He’s just an encyclopedia of beer knowledge,” Finkel says of the friend who became an equity partner in Forbidden Root. “We’ve developed these botanically inspired beers together. When I refer to botanically inspired, I’m talking about using elements of a plant, whether it’s a stem, flowers, leaves, or fruit — we’ve used all of them.”

Finkel isn’t exaggerating his brewery’s use of plants and plant parts, either. Forbidden Root has brewed beers using cherry bark and cherry stems, orris root, jasmine, chamomile, thyme, cucumber, shiso, juniper berries, grains of paradise, and grapefruit, watermelon, lime, and lemon juices, just to name a few. Two of its bestsellers — Strawberry Basil Hefeweizen and Sparkling Rosé Ale — are particularly notable in this regard.

“Our strawberry basil hefeweizen took us about 16 months to develop,” Finkel says. “Strawberry is hard to get into a beer properly, but we use all-natural ingredients and a lot of puree. It’s not sweet; It’s a beautiful beer. Our Sparkling Rosé Ale came from one of Randy Mosher’s ideas. The concept was to use a U.S.-native grape. We tested 14 varieties, and we settled on Niagara. It’s slightly floral, very fruity, and has a lovely bouquet.” A kiss of hibiscus gives the beer a delightful pink hue and a hint of bitterness.

The brewery isn’t only bringing Finkel and Mosher’s inspirations to life. Forbidden Root’s staff is encouraged to experiment when creating new recipes as well. “We love letting our staff have a lot of room to express their creativity,” says Finkel. “The GMs, the staff, and the brewers get to do things and not only express but implement their own ideas. That’s part of our culture.”

The result is an immersive brand experience that is cohesive yet also somewhat unique to each location. “We innovate with a lot of pub-only beers,” Finkel adds. “And we put two new beers out every week at each location. I think of us as flavor forward. We’re brewing flavors and ideas and concepts. Different styles both accentuate different flavors and the things we’re trying to achieve in different ways.”

In total, the Forbidden Root team brewed around 3,000 barrels in 2021 on the West Town location’s 15-barrel brewhouse and the Columbus, Ohio location’s 10-barrel brewhouse. The company opened its second Chicago location — this time in the Ravenswood neighborhood — in early 2022. It also has a 10-barrel brewhouse. Of 2022’s barrel totals, Finkel says “We’ve been growing every year.”

Forbidden Root distributes its beers to bars, restaurants, and retail in Illinois and Ohio. Though Finkel says the brewery is regularly approached about expanding that distribution, he notes that future extension of the company’s reach — which is likely but not certain — will be done very methodically.

Challenges: Finkel says that people dining out less frequently than before the pandemic has been a challenge. With room for 150 patrons in West Town, 150 in Ravenswood, and 300 in Columbus, empty seats have been common Sundays through Thursdays — though he notes that numbers have finally begun to trend upwards.

A limit on the opportunities for customers to taste the brewery’s beers during the pandemic has also been difficult. “We do well when people taste our beers,” Finkel explains. “We win when they find out on the third beer that it was not a coincidence that our beer was really well-balanced and architected. We’re typically a long line at beer fests. People taste it and then go tell their partner, spouse, or friend.”

Opportunities: Finkel says the brewery’s biggest opportunities are “for more people to taste our beer, experience our brand, and come on the ride with us for the new things that we do.”

The company’s win of Best Brewpub in the U.S. last November — as voted by USA Today readers — certainly won’t hurt their chances of reaching more taste buds. “It meant the world to us,” Finkel says of the honor. “It means that people are getting what we’re doing. They’re connecting to the experience we’re trying to create for them. They like the variety and the innovation, and it resonates with guests and customers. We’re grateful for that.”

Needs: “Business always has needs because it’s always evolving,” Finkel says. “But we have a great team. We have a culture that is caring and encourages passion and creativity. And we’re in a good place.”

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