When it comes to culinary treats, Chicago brings up a lot of associations: deep dish pizza…Italian beef…giardiniera…Chicago-style hot dogs. Beer? Not so much…unless you’re a local. Or pay attention to beer competitions.
If you did, you’d know that Chicago breweries have racked up an impressive number of medals and awards over the past few years. In fact, during the 2017 Great American Beer Festival—arguably the most important beer competition in the U.S.—eight Chicago area breweries won an impressive 11 awards. On Tour Brewing won the Best Very Small Brewing Company and Brewmaster of 2017, and Best IPA, the most competitive category with 408 entries, got snatched up by Hailstorm Brewing of Tinley Park, just south of the Chicago city limits. Add in the nine awards Chicago-area breweries won during the last World Beer Cup, and it’s worth taking notice of the ever-growing beer scene in Chicago.
Though the craft beer movement, typically associated with Denver or the Pacific Northwest, has been growing all across the country, it really seems to have blown up in the Windy City. Fun fact: In 2015 (the most recent date for which data was available from Colliers International) Chicago had more craft brewery-occupied real estate than any other metro area in the country: 1.6 million square feet of it. And during the same period, with 144 craft breweries, Chicago had the second-most in the country, only behind Portland’s 196. And it’s only growing. According to The Hop Review, Chicago and its suburbs currently boast 193 breweries, brewpubs, and taprooms open or in process. “By the time this article is written, two more breweries will have opened,” predicted Josh Gilbert, founder of Temperance Beer Company in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, only half-jokingly.
Chicago can trace its roots in the modern craft beer movement all the way back to Goose Island Brewery, which opened its brewpub in the Lincoln Park neighborhood way back in 1988. Though Goose Island is now owned by AB InBev and distributes all over the country, talk to any local about their first big hit, Honker’s Ale, and you’ll hear sighs of wistfulness. Gilbert points out that a lot of the current crop of quality beer comes from Goose Island’s roots, as many of the original brewers made the leap to open their own operations. “You’re starting with really talented brewers,” as they ventured out on their own, he explained.
So where in the world did this surge in popularity and quality beer come from? Many agree that Chicago has traditionally lagged other cities and is playing a game of catch-up. “As a crossroads city, we’ve always prided ourselves on our ability to get anything,” opined Hagen Dost, owner and brewmaster at Dovetail Brewery in Chicago’s north side Ravenswood Corridor, now dubbed Malt Row for the six breweries and one distillery in an approximately 1.5 mile stretch. “We could easily get the best beers from all across the country. So that may have initially tamped down growth, but also fueled a passion among a subset of people who went on to open breweries.”
Shawn Decker, co-owner at Evanston’s Sketchbook Brewing, agrees, describing Chicago’s beer boon as a “delayed fuse.” He points out, “The beer scene hit Chicago about five years ago in a big way…there’s a lot of new people and breweries, a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. There’s a different phase…going on in the West, where it’s much more mature. You’ve got consolidation and much bigger breweries now. But in Chicago there’s a lot of small breweries doing crazy, exciting things.”
Sure, newer enthusiasm counts for a lot. But does it count for everything? While there are a lot of other factors that go into Chicago’s current boom, there are a couple of unique elements at work worth paying attention to, such as…
There’s something to be said about the diversity of beer options and how it reflects the character of the city. “The diversity of who we are as a people is reflected in the diversity of styles of beer,” said Neil Byers, owner of Horse Thief Hollow Brewing Company in the Beverly neighborhood on the city’s South Side, which has won three awards for three different beers: A dunkel, a brown ale, and a Zwickelbier. In addition, Byers is hyper-focused on his clientele in Beverly. “The interesting thing about the South Side, and Beverly in particular, is that we’re very diverse palate-wise.” This translates into multiple favored brews amongst the clientele who frequent his brewpub. Horse Thief Hollow’s kolsch is very popular, though he does have one subset of folks who love New England IPAs, like his Northeast by Southwest and another subset who sticks with pale ales.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods,” Dovetail’s Dost agrees. “Each has its own feel and character” and each tasting room and brewpub has its own unique style as well. That feeling of uniqueness and diversity is part of the reason why Dost opened Dovetail with his co-brewer and business partner, Bill Wesselink. As certified Master Brewers, they brew old world beers using ultra-traditional methods. “We felt there was a market. We don’t make IPAs…the beer world is big and we wanted to make beers we wanted to drink.” Indeed, in Chicago you won’t have to worry about stumbling on brewpubs and taprooms that only serve a billion different versions of IPAs, arguably the most popular style of beer in the US right now. “[Our customers] demand we have a variety,” says Cesar Marron, Decker’s co-owner at Sketchbook. “When our [menu] board is three [beers] short, they’re like, ‘what’s going on?’” In fact, four-beer tasting trays are one of their biggest items, selling between 60 and 70 of them on the weekends alone.
Ben Ustick from Off Color Brewing in Lincoln Park doubles down on Chicago’s preference for diversity. “Chicago beer drinkers are fiercely local, but there’s a lot of diversity in style preference, and ultimately, it’s about quality.” He continues, “Chicago isn’t an IPA town. It’s an everything town.”
Sketchbook’s tap room in Evanston, a town just north of the border of the city, knows a little something about how community brews success (pun intended). Between Sketchbook and its three thriving Evanstonian brewing brethren, Temperance, Peckish Pig, and Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., they’ve won at least five awards in the past four years. Not bad for a city of 75,000 people that’s also the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the primary champion of Prohibition.
Sketchbook first began brewing in a tiny alley space where they only sold beer in growlers and howlers. From there they began offering Community Supported Brewery (CSB) memberships, similar to CSA farm shares, where customers pay up front for two growlers of their choice per month. The Evanston community rallied and the CSB program took off, and now boasts over 400 members. “People took a chance on us. For us, it was not ‘if you build it, they will come’ but the other way around,” explained Decker. Marron added, “People… kept asking us, ‘When are you going to open a taproom so I can sit down and have a pint of your beer?” Now approximately half of their taproom business is from members.
Ustick from Off Color echoes that sentiment. “We had to open a taproom because we got tired of everyone coming to the Dickens [avenue] brewery and asking where our taproom was.”
Community fuels Byers’ business and commitment to Beverly. As a Beverly native, he clearly feels a deep attachment to the neighborhood. “When we first opened, we were the only brewpub on the South Side. I wanted to fill a void on the restaurant and beer side in the community.” He uses local suppliers whenever possible, and features local artists on the walls of the brewpub, throws fundraisers for the Beverly Arts Center, makes special brews for other local organizations, and donates proceeds to local charities such as the Beverly Breast Cancer Walk.
Community support also comes from other local brewers themselves. Decker and Marron give a lot of credit to Temperance, Evanston’s first brewery, for supporting their efforts. Dovetail is like a best brewing bud to Begyle Brewing Company, located just down the street. Dost pointed out that if his forklift ever broke down, Begyle would lend theirs and vice versa. They also co-host two beer street fests in the spring and fall celebrating each of their opening anniversaries.
New York City can boast all it wants about how New York water makes the best pizza and bagels, but Chicago water really does make a big difference when it comes to brewing. Chicago’s municipal water supply comes straight from Lake Michigan, a part of the largest body of freshwater in the world, originating from melted glaciers. “It’s fantastic water for making beer, which is why a lot of breweries like to come to Chicago,” Decker points out. “And there’s a gigantic supply of it, so it’s relatively inexpensive for brewers like us to get that water.”
Interestingly, though Dovetail actually customizes its own water for each brew via a custom reverse osmosis machine, Dost agrees that Chicago water can’t be beat. “Chicago water is some of the best water for beer, and specifically for ales.” In fact, they ditch the machine and use straight up Chicago water for their Hefeweizen, one of their most popular brews.
So with over 150 different breweries and so many different styles to pick from, what and where should you drink? Whether you’re a local looking for a Saturday afternoon hang or a visitor in town for the weekend, check out the below shortlist of exceptional beers from each of these featured brewers and some other local brews that you’ll only find in the Chicago area, whether at the brewery itself, on shelves of local stores, or on tap in neighborhood bars.
And in the end, no matter where you go, you’re bound to enjoy yourself. Sketchbook’s Decker emphasizes that so much of the enjoyment of drinking local Chicagoland beers comes from the community feel within the walls themselves. “There are no televisions in our taproom. We emphasize conversation. So if they come to Sketchbook, they’re going to end up talking to a bunch of locals and make some new friends.” Dost agrees. “It’s not all about the beer, it’s about having a great time, experiencing [and] enjoying time with others. Come in and enjoy a friendly environment, and hang out a while. The bonus is you get some great beer with it.”
Three Cheers for Beer
Sketchbook Brewing: Orange Door IPA, Pinky Sweater Pilsner, Snowy Owl Red Rye Ale
Founded in 2014, Sketchbook started out in a former taxi garage in an alley, handing out free tasters and selling howlers and growlers only to individual patrons or members of their Community Supported Brewery program. Less than two years later, they opened their eco-friendly tasting room with a rotation of approximately 15 beers on tap and now bottle and can many of them for local distribution. Though their Insufficient Clearance was rated a top IPA by DRAFT Magazine, this author’s favorite IPA is Orange Door, so named after the original door color in in the entrance of that alley. Double dry hopped, Orange Door has notes of citrus well-balanced by its malt. Not an IPA lover? You’ll have your choice of varieties ranging from lagers to Ripe Now, a porter made with elderberries. Some of the original recipes from their homebrew days are regular delicious staples, such as the Pinky Sweater pilsner brewed with red rice, and the complex yet balanced Snowy Owl Red Rye Ale.
Dovetail Brewing: Lager and Pilsner
If you’re more of a “traditional” beer drinker who likes classic European styles, Dovetail is for you. Owner/brewers Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink are certified Master Brewers who met while studying for their certification at the Doemens Institute in Munich. They focus on brewing in very traditional methods, designing their beers from the “outside in.” As Dost explains, “If we can’t be in Bavaria, what’s that one beer from that one brewery that we really miss?” and designs a beer from that memory. While at Dovetail, go for their creamy, malty, and complex lager. Hagen promises “you’ll taste a lager unlike any other lager you’ve ever had.” Though he doesn’t have a favorite—“I don’t choose among our children,” he joked—he recommended also trying the Pilsner, a Czech-style that balances notes of maltiness and bitterness throughout. If you’re in town during May or September, check out their Mayfestiversary and Octoberfestiversary, street fests they host with neighbor brewery Beguile to celebrate the anniversaries of Dovetail’s brewing operations and Beguile’s taproom opening.
Horse Thief Hollow Brewing: 18th Rebellion and Cheval Deux
Neil Byers, the owner of Horse Thief Hollow, has a fun philosophy when making new beers. He focuses half on producing very true to style, authentic European-style beers, and half on creative, off-the-wall flavors: “That’s where I have a lot of fun,” he admits. With a chef’s background, he’ll sit down and figures out how to incorporate an actual food ingredient—not just an extract—into a beer. You’ll find such an example in his Cheval Deux, a sweet potato-infused French brown ale that won the 2014 World Beer Cup Silver Medal in the Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer category. Crafting this beer involves a 30-hour process that reduces the whole sweet potato down. Note that you’ll find this beer on tap in November and December only. Any other time of year, try the popular Kolsch-style 18th Rebellion, an unfiltered brew with lemon and pepper notes. And while you’re at it, explore the Beverly neighborhood, which is experiencing a renaissance that Byers, a native, is keen to promote. “There’s a tremendous energy going through Beverly,” he explains. “There’s a growing art scene, and the growing confidence in the success of the food, beer, and arts community compounds and promotes itself.”
Temperance Beer Company: Gatecrasher IPA, Root Down Porter
Though Gatecrasher, the IPA that won Silver at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014 and gold in 2016, is a perpetual favorite, don’t think that you have to be an IPA junkie to enjoy their beers. With 16 beers on tap at their tasting room, there’s something for everyone. “It’s about the symphony, not the soloist,” explained Josh Gilbert, Temperance’s founder. Temperance, intentionally named after the Evanston-based movement that resulted in Prohibition, takes their beer making very seriously, but “we try to create beers that are accessible, enjoyable to everyday life, and an accompaniment to whatever you’re doing,” Gilbert continued. “Most people don’t care [about the awards]. They care about good beer and having a good time.” He believes that even if you’re not a beer drinker, you’ll find something you like, insisting that people who stop in and say they only really like wine tend to love the Root Down porter, with low ABV and notes of chicory and licorice root. The community vibe is palpable at Temperance’s taproom, with a big communal-seating outdoor deck in the summer. Currently you can bring your own food or enjoy the food trucks that stop by, but be sure to check out their new kitchen, due to open sometime in the fall of 2018.
Off Color Brewing: House Lion Farmhouse Ale, Jonesy American Wild Ale
Off Color is a Chicago-grown brewery that distributes in 37 states and is well known for their Apex Predator Farmhouse Ale, by far one of their most popular beers. Like the other breweries, Off Color is all about a combination of variety, traditionalism, and experimentation. “We tend to focus on beers we feel are missing in the landscape,” explained co-founder and brewer John Laffler. “We prefer to look to more delicate and subtle beers, techniques and historical beers time has forgotten.” Ustick adds, “We truly do see brewing as being art. We’re constantly trying to innovate and challenge norms, but[…]create approachable beers that speak to a wide audience that appreciate the quality that comes from nuanced and careful craftsmanship.” Their commitment to experimentation also extends to a partnership with Chicago’s Field Museum, brewing museum-inspired beers such as Wari, QingMing, and Tooth & Claw. Swing by either their brewery or the Mousetrap, their separate taproom, to try some beers that may not get distributed as far and wide as others. Look for two original Mousetrap beers they’re brewing now and are mostly local such as House Lion, a low ABV table farmhouse ale brewed with Brettanomyces yeast, or Jonesy, an American Wild Ale brewed with the zest of the lemony Buddha’s Hand fruit.
Revolution Brewing: Penguin Hops Ale
If you’re from out of town, Revolution might actually be a Chicago brewery you’ve heard of. Brewing since 2010 in their brewpub in the Logan Square neighborhood, Revolution now distributes popular award-winning beers such as Anti-Hero and Fist City in seven different states. But if you’re lucky enough to make it to either the brewpub or the Avondale taproom in early November, be sure to grab a glass of limited edition Penguin Hops, a delicious harvest pale ale made in partnership with Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. Using super-fresh, local hops grown right on the grounds of the Shedd, Revolution turns the beer into a multifaceted ale that is light in color and aroma but has amazing depth of flavor. The adorable Rockhopper Penguins on the label are super cute, too. Grab it while it lasts: Penguin Hops is a limited release that sells out quickly.
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