By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jul 02, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Wisconsin’s newest brewing company harbors a secret weapon of sorts; it has a James Beard Award winning chef at its helm.

"I am a big beer fan," admits Justin Aprahamian, chef-owner of Sanford restaurant "And I think it deserves a place in fine dining, along with all the great wines."

His passion is reflected on Sanford’s beverage menu, which currently boasts 15 cellar aged brews, along with a new draught offering – a rhubarb saison called Serre – which Aprahamian had a hand in making.

The beer is the first release of Like Minds Brewing Co., a collaboration between Aprahamian and Beer Fridge founder, John Lavelle. And, it’s creating a buzz across the city as beer lovers scramble to get a taste of the new brew.

The two beer lovers met in 2012, when Lavelle pulled together the first in a series of Best of Milwaukee Beer Dinners, featuring five Milwaukee chefs, including Aprahamian, paired with five craft breweries.

"Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time together," says Lavelle of his relationship with Aprahamian. "We’d hang out and talk about beer. We discovered we liked a lot of the same music, and we share a lot of the same opinions about beer."

Around the same time, a friend was working on a beer for a home brewing competition, and the two put their heads together to help him brainstorm unique flavor combinations.  And the more time they spent together, the more they became interested in creating their own beer.

Lavelle says the two talked a great deal about beers they’d like to see on the market, and started to contemplate how a collaboration might work.

They discussed their brewing concept with Mike Matousek of Hinterland Brewing Co., who took the liberty of mentioning the idea to owner Bill Tressler. And from there, the concept began to grow legs.

"Bill got really excited about the idea of a chef being involved in the creation of a beer," says Lavelle. "And from there, everything started coming together."

Tressler offered up the Hinterland brewery for Lavelle and Aprahamian to use for brewing. And the two began collaborating on their first recipe.

"I don’t have any real brewing experience," Aprahamian confesses. "My brother home brews, but I’ve never made beer before. So, my approach to the ingredients is really kitchen based. I’m outside of the box when it comes to getting flavors into the beer."

Aprahamian equates his approach to that of Radiohead guitarist, Thom Yorke, who decided to write all the music for the band's fourth album, "Kid A," on the piano.

"He was a guitarist," Aprahamian says. "He didn’t know how to play a piano. So, he approached the whole album in a fresh new way. This feels very much like that. As a chef I’m always really excited to learn about just about anything."

They decided their first beer would be a seasonal saison made from malt, wheat, hops, rhubarb, orange rind and Belgian yeast.

"We wanted a clean, Belgian style that offered a platform for the rhubarb to really shine," Aprahamian says. "And we wanted it to be drinkable – something refreshing."

In March, Aprahamian sourced 900 pounds of greenhouse grown rhubarb from a farm in Michigan and spent a week juicing it in the Sanford kitchen. And then they took their ingredients up to Hinterland.

"We went up to brew with the guys, and it was insane what we learned," Lavelle says. "Our slot for brewing started at 1:30 a.m., and we were there until 11 a.m."

The first batch of Serre, which means "glass house" or "greenhouse" in French, produced 23 half barrels, most of which is currently on tap at Sanford and Goodkind.

But, Lavelle says they’ll be working in the coming weeks to determine how to distribute the beer a bit more widely.  He says there are a variety of Milwaukee venues interested in the product, including Burnheart’s, Roman’s Tap, Sugar Maple, and Ray’s Liquor, who plans to include it in their growler gallery.

"We’re also talking to a few Madison restaurants," he says, "Like Graze and Heritage Tavern. And a few other restaurants like Blue Jacket, Maxie’s and Comet have also shown an interest."

Moving forward, Like Minds plans to focus its efforts on creating unique beers with seasonal ingredients. Next up is a cucumber Pilsner, which should be ready in early August. And, in early fall, the two would like to try a dry-hopped American wheat beer with black currants.

"We’d also love to take on sour beers, which we both love," says Aprahamian. "But, that presents altogether different challenges, since we’d need a place where we could bring in a wild yeast."

Aprahamian says that, for now, they’ll be brewing their beer at Hinterland, but collaboration will be the name of the game moving forward.

"The thought really is to be gypsy brewers, in a way," he says. "We wanted to work with several brewers, and really capitalize on what they do well."

He says they’ll take their time, enjoy themselves, and keep an open mind with regard to where the project takes them.

"It’s cool to see the excitement that’s been generated already," Aprahamian notes. "It hasn’t been a hard sell at all. So, we hope that continues. Eventually, we’d like to collaborate with some of the other chefs. Maybe we can make a beer with Tory Miller or Dan Fox. It will be fun."

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.