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Best Craft Beer in Chicago

chicago craft beer sceneOn a Friday night, start your hunt for one of Chicago’s hottest venues by strolling down North Milwaukee Avenue, past the Mexican restaurants feeding the diverse Logan Square neighborhood, and soon you’ll spot the crowd spilling outside a two-story brick building, milling beneath an awning adorned with a six-pointed red star and a fist clutching barley. “It’s a two-hour wait,” the hostess will likely say. Most patrons stay. As minutes tick past, they patiently wait for a table or a seat at the 360-degree bar, where artists, musicians and off-duty office workers create a merry din beneath the tin ceiling, everyone united by cold glasses of Revolution beer.

In a city stuffed with Michelin-starred restaurants, turns out one of Chicago’s hardest tables to secure is at a reservations-free brewpub. Since Revolution Brewing’s February 2010 unveiling, weekend waits for a seat to sip the citrusy Anti-Hero IPA and chocolaty Eugene Porter and chomp bacon-fat popcorn have routinely stretched into the hours—and show no signs of abating. “When we opened, the hole in the Chicago beer market was gaping,” says Josh Deth, Revolution’s founder. “Imagine the pressure of a dam with too many holes to plug.”

More than a decade earlier, Deth tried to be the Chicago beer scene’s Hans Brinker, the Dutch boy who plugged a dike with his finger. But after commissioning his clenched-fist logo, the former Goose Island brewer was beset by funding issues and unable to secure a lease. He iced his idea until a stint as executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce led to this epiphany: “I thought, I should really look into opening a brewery in this neighborhood,” recalls Deth, who revived his Revolution concept. This go round, the timing was right. “The city is a dry sponge for craft beer,” Deth says.

When it comes to locally produced beer, Chicago has long lagged behind other cities, but now, the Midwestern metropolis is playing accelerated catch-up. In recent years, more than a half dozen Chicago breweries have fired up brew kettles. If you crave aromatic, sessionable pale ales, try Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter. For textbook German beers, Metropolitan Brewing offers Krankshaft Kölsch and the Dynamo Copper Lager. Belgian ales and highly hopped IPAs are dispensed at Haymarket Brewery & Pub. To pair with the city’s plentiful Mexican and Latin American cuisine, 5 Rabbit Cerveceria fashions beers such as the ancho chile-spiked 5 Vulture “Oaxacan-style” dark ale.

“Chicago isn’t intimidated by Portland, San Francisco or the other great brewing cities,” says Laura Blasingame, 46, co-owner of the Map Room, which is home to 26 taps and a hand-pumped cask ale. “We were dormant, but now we’re waking up.”

Trial by Fire
To understand why Chicago’s craft brewing surge was delayed, one must return to 1871. That October, the Great Chicago Fire incinerated around four square miles of homes, businesses and breweries. To slake the parched, ravaged city’s thirst, Milwaukee breweries such as Schlitz began shipping beer barrels to town via train. Wisconsin brews gained a citywide toehold, and Chicago’s breweries never fully recovered. Despite a smattering of local beermakers (“Every neighborhood had its own brewery,” Deth says), what wasn’t destroyed by the fire was eventually finished off by Prohibition, consolidation and the rise of national beer brands. In 1978, Peter Hand Brewing, the city’s last, closed.

During the late 1980s, the beer drought began lifting with the opening of brewpubs, such as local stalwart Goose Island. It was joined by the likes of Sieben’s River North Brewery, Tap & Growler, Chicago Brewing and Golden Prairie. Alas, only Goose Island lasted. Quality beer notwithstanding, “most of our first wave of craft breweries crashed and burned, then we entered a neo-Prohibitionist era,” says Michael Roper, 57, the founder and co-owner of Michael & Louise’s Hopleaf Bar, which pours 45 Belgian-leaning draughts.

Shortly after Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989, he installed Winston Mardis as director of the Liquor Control Commission. As years disappeared, brewers and bar owners began to fear the bureaucrat’s name. During Mardis’ reign, many of Chicago’s taverns were shuttered, and brewing licenses were doled out as freely as a miser parts with a penny. “We were terrified of him,” Roper says. “He could shut down places arbitrarily and made it difficult for people to open bars, breweries or brewpubs.”

There were several success stories, such as Piece Brewery & Pizzeria, which navigated red tape to open in 2001; the TV-filled pub serves cracker-crisp pizzas alongside brewer Jonathan Cutler’s medal-winning IPAs and German wheat ales—good luck grabbing a seat during a Bulls or Blackhawks game. (Piece is recognized as a restaurant, along with other brewpubs such as the patio-equipped Moonshine, which makes Second City dry Irish stout and Piston Broke pale ale.) Yet every triumph was matched by a setback, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Real Ale Festival. Founded in 1996, the cask-ale fest attracted thousands of attendees until 2003, when Mardis “crushed it. He wouldn’t give us a permit,” Roper says. Because Mardis demanded that the fest’s location in a former steel factory be licensed as a year-round tavern—a cost-prohibitive undertaking—the 2003 festival was the final edition, and it left for San Diego. “Every time he did something like that, he thought it was a triumph against alcohol,” Roper says.

During this dark era, Chicago’s microbrewing flame was kept flickering by Goose Island, a fast-growing local brewery with a national reputation for quality, as well as nearby suburban breweries Two Brothers, Flossmoor Station and Munster, Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing. In the city, the beer scene was nurtured by bars like Sheffield’s, Hopleaf and the Map Room. Sheffield’s, located blocks from Wrigley Field, was an early booster of American craft breweries, such as Bell’s and Anchor. Roper’s dimly lit Hopleaf, decorated with 1920s beer posters, focuses on Belgian brews alongside mussels, frites and house-smoked meats. At the Map Room, where the beer selection spans the globe and customers’ postcards adorn walls alongside international flags, the focus has always been on education. When Laura Blasingame and her husband, Mark, opened the Map Room in 1992, “there weren’t many craft beer aficionados outside the Chicago Beer Society,” she says. “We educated ourselves, our bar staff and our customers.”

To that end, the couple instituted a monthly “beer school” session and, over time, slowly grew their draught list. “Each time we expanded our tap lines, from three to nine to 13 and, finally, to 26, Mark would say, ‘Are you sure we can handle this?’” Laura recalls. Chicago drinkers answered with a resounding “yes.” It was just a matter of time before those draught lines dispensed local beer.

A New Brew Day Dawning
By 2006, Chicago’s brewing culture was ready to blossom. A new liquor commissioner had been appointed in June 2004, and entrepreneurs such as Gabriel Magliaro were gearing up to enter the underserved market. That October, Magliaro and friends founded Half Acre Beer. Looking to launch without drowning in debt, idea man Magliaro contracted a Wisconsin brewery to create his inaugural lager. It was unveiled in September 2007, and “out of the gate people wanted to like us,” says Magliaro, 33. “Chicagoans love Chicagoans.”

Having built brand awareness with the lager and the malty, liberally hopped Over Ale bitter, Magliaro moved to his plan’s second phase: “We wanted to build a brewery in the middle of the city and be part of the neighborhood,” he says of Half Acre’s location in Northcenter, which opened in February 2009. Stroll down North Lincoln Avenue, and you’ll smell air perfumed with sweet malt. Follow the bouquet inside Half Acre’s tasting room, and you can fill a growler, grab a canned four-pack of aromatic Daisy Cutter Pale Ale or take a 1 p.m. Saturday tour—come early, because the 60 tickets sell out quick.

While Magliaro put the brand before the bricks and mortar, Pete Crowley trod a different path to open Haymarket Pub & Brewery in December 2010. For 13 years, Crowley brewed for the Rock Bottom brewpub chain, the last 10 of which were spent at Chicago’s branch. Though he’d won seven Great American Beer Festival medals during his Rock Bottom stint, “I’ve wanted to open a brewery since I started brewing,” says Crowley, 40.

Analyzing the market, Crowley realized that there was plenty of room in Chicago for local beer. “We were bringing in beer from across America and Europe,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t we making more beer?’ ” Attracting backers during a recession may seem counterintuitive, but the freefalling economy was a blessing. “Investors that were afraid of banks and the stock market were willing to invest in something tangible,” Crowley says.

He turned a spacious, tile-floored former steakhouse into Haymarket, naming it after the nearby square infamous for its 19th-century workers riot. Since pouring his first hoppy IPAs and Belgian-inspired ales at the sunny, room-spanning bar, Crowley has greeted a constant crowd ranging from couples to businessmen and guys in flip-flops. “Everyone identifies with something that’s fresh and local,” he says of the universal appeal.

In short order, a native-beer shortage has become an abundance. Fans of German lagers can support Metropolitan Brewing, which began distributing in early 2009. Like session brews? This May, Finch’s Beer Co. launched with two low-alcohol canned creations, the light-bodied Golden Wing Blonde Ale and the gently citric Cutthroat Pale Ale. That month also welcomed 5 Rabbit Cerveceria. Relying on recipes created by Randy Mosher and Argus Brewing (a Chicago contract brewery run by father-son duo Robert and Patrick Jensen, who also sell the floral Pegasus IPA), 5 Rabbit puts a Latin spin on classic styles. For instance, the 5 Lizard witbier is spiced with lime peel and passion fruit. “We wanted to be a Latin microbrewery in a city with a big Hispanic population. Chicago was the perfect fit,” says cofounder Isaac Showaki, 27. “It was more affordable to start a business. Everything that we needed to do, Chicago had to offer.”

Too Much of a Good Thing?
Several compelling factors have fostered an environment conducive to craft beer in Chicago. The city is home to educational groups such as the Chicago Beer Society, which was founded in 1977; Ray Daniels’ Cicerone Certification Program (which produces beer professionals akin to wine sommeliers); and the Siebel Institute of Technology, one of America’s foremost brewing academies—a farm league for future brewers. “All these pieces create a community that is friendly, creative and drives growth and development of craft beer,” says Chicago’s Joe Postma, 29, who writes about homebrewing for the website Serious Eats.

To serve a growing educated audience, area saloons have also elevated their offerings. Rocker haunt Rocking Horse features an epic jukebox (The Clash, Tom Waits, Pavement), tater tots and 16 taps of mainly Midwestern microbrews, many discounted to $3 on Thursday night. Despite the name, the trio of low-key, neighborhood-y Small Bars dish up outsize draught lists where Three Floyds, Half Acre and Metropolitan typically have a home. Complementing Golden Tee and its Cajun menu of po’ boys and jambalaya, Local Option serves 25 rotating regional and international beers and hosts release events from breweries like Denmark’s cultish Evil Twin. At Quenchers Saloon, you’ll find vintage beer steins, comfy couches and a chalkboard listing around 300 beers. Clark Street Ale House treats customers to endless free pretzel sticks and 25 draught lines, including a house pale ale crafted by Two Brothers. At biker hangout Twisted Spoke, you can pair cask-poured Templeton rye whiskey with flaming chicken wings, more than 150 bottled beers and 20 draughts; Tuesday night means selections such as Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout are discounted to $2.50.

Another important factor is the rise of Chicago’s restaurant scene, where craft beer and quality food go hand in hand. The pork-heavy Publican regularly hosts pairing dinners featuring breweries such as Michigan’s Founders and California’s Lagunitas, pours Berliner weisse mimosas for brunch, and every waiter and bartender is a certified beer server—helpful to navigate the list of 100-plus bottles, including a house-blended lambic. British-inspired Owen & Engine pours 20 draught beers and a quartet of cask ales, and it employs a Cicerone to match brews to its fish and chips and homemade bangers and mash. At the Fountainhead, hearty pub fare like mac and cheese awash in a smoky rauchbier–white cheddar sauce is complemented by 26 largely regional draughts also Cicerone-selected. Longman & Eagle’s eclectic menu of pastrami-cured sweetbreads and wild boar sloppy Joes are balanced by a deep list of stouts, IPAs and strong Belgian ales. If you’re more in the mood for hamburgers topped by Three Floyds Alpha King Pale Ale–battered fried shallot rings, Kuma’s Corner will hit the spot. Sassy tattooed bartenders serve pretzel-bun burgers with a side of ear-splitting heavy metal and, to drink, Metropolitan’s Dynamo Lager.

To appeal to restaurants, New Chicago Brewing plans to launch next March with a focus on “big, food-friendly beers that aren’t too hoppy,” says Jesse Edwin Evans, 33, who’s founding the brewery with his brother, Samuel, in an eco-focused food-manufacturing facility called the Plant. “We’re trying to reinvent Chicago beer and create a beer that the city can be proud of.” They’re not alone: Last year, Chicago Beer Co. joined the marketplace with Windy City Wheat, and fellow startup Pipeworks Brewing, which will focus on potent dark beers, is in the planning stages. At first blush, these breweries’ arrival may seem like a gold rush, a chance to become the go-to local brand in the wake of a seismic wave: In March, Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Goose Island, putting the local stalwart under control of an international conglomerate. Some Chicagoans may bristle at the change, but so far, the beer’s quality remains uncompromised. “The brewers are still zesting
oranges in oak barrels for [the saison] Sofie, not using an extract from St. Louis,” Haymarket’s Crowley says. The Map Room’s Laura Blasingame echoes that sentiment. “The sale doesn’t diminish the skill of the craft brewers,” she says. “I’m going to continue to rotate in Goose Island.”

Instead of a backlash, the bigger crisis is finding space for every Chicago beer. Just look at Hopleaf. Though the bar has 45 draught lines, finding room for new beers is becoming tricky, Roper says. “We want to support everybody that’s local.” To accommodate, the bar will add 104 seats and 20 draught lines in October. But compared to past problems, this is a good one to have. “We’re a metropolitan area of 8 million people who have been under-beered for too long,” Roper says. “We’re just getting started.” Adds Revolution’s Deth, “We can have 20 more breweries in Chicago before we reach saturation. Each neighborhood deserves a brewpub.”



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