Story by Abra Cohen
Photography by Ellie Pritts
Famous for its original architecture, longtime baseball rivalry, and gluten-filled culinary attractions like deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hotdogs, the Windy City has another slightly lesser-known draw: craft beer. No longer a subculture, the city’s craft beer industry has drawn national attention due to award-winning, Chicago-based breweries and world-class beer bars. With 16 breweries and brewpubs currently in operation (and 21 in planning stages), a thriving beer bar scene, and a rich history of pairing food and beer, Chicago rates among the best craft beer cities in the country.
Chicago’s craft breweries are relatively late bloomers in the national scheme of things—first it was the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, then Prohibition, and finally the Midwest’s big beer takeover in the ’50s and ’60s. Along the way, small breweries opened but eventually surrendered to economic forces beyond their control. Chicago’s craft beer couldn’t catch a break.
It wasn’t until 1988 and the introduction of an enterprising man, John Hall, that Chicago began building a craft beer industry. Hall had returned from a tour through Europe, where he tasted distinct beers from many different regions, and he felt confident that the Midwest could produce the same high-quality beer. Born out of Hall’s dreams and high expectations for quality, tasty beer, the first Goose Island brewpub, Clybourn, located in the heart of Lincoln Park, opened in 1988, with the goal of educating Chicago residents about craft beer. Seven years later, Hall opened the large Goose Island Brewing production facility and in 1999 opened the second brewpub, Wrigleyville.
“People in Chicago started paying attention [to craft beer] after Hall started Goose Island,” says Ray Daniels, who has been integral in helping to shape and support Chicago’s craft beer scene. In addition to being an early proponent of the industry in the late ’80s through the Chicago Beer Society, which held beer pairing dinners (long before they became popular) and taught people to homebrew, Daniels is also the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program, a nationwide organization that promotes education throughout the brewing and beer service industry.
“Hall had a broad vision with Goose Island. He reached out to the entire community—not just the beer geeks—to educate the city about craft beer. Sure, there was an element of being in the right place at the right time, but Hall really believed in promoting the mentality behind craft beer,” says Daniels.
Another long-time Chicago resident and craft beer evangelist, Peter Crowley, owner and brewmaster of Chicago’s two-year-old Haymarket Pub and Brewery, admits that the craft beer scene in the Windy City is about 10 years behind the West Coast and 20 years behind craft beer giants like Portland, Oregon. It has been a slow but steady growth trend in Chicago, with staple venues like The Map Room and Hopleaf Bar, and Piece Brewery & Pizzeria paving the way for more brewpubs, beer bars, and an increasingly educated beer public.
Tony Russomanno, owner of specialty beer bar Local Option, says that the Chicago demographic has a lot to do with the recent upswing in the beer market: The city is home to a good number of 20- to 30-somethings with jobs, disposable incomes, no kids, and creative, open minds. Crowley, who is also president of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, credits other factors: “The economy tanked, which made it more realistic for breweries to get [affordable] real estate in the downtown area.”
Now, I’m sitting with John Hall at Haymarket, located on the banks of the Chicago River in the city’s meatpacking district. We’re sipping Haymarket’s saison-style ale, and we’re surrounded by striped Cubs jerseys. Haymarket, a 300-seat brewpub, draws a young, enthusiastic happy hour crowd of die-hard sports fans into the pub’s 100-year-old, flag-covered walls to watch Cubs and White Sox baseball games. Tall glass windows between the bar and brewery offer views into the fermentation and bottling area, where Crowley is shoveling spent grain into large buckets.
Hall is here to borrow brewing supplies from Crowley. “If people are missing hops or need yeast, we help each other out,” he says. “We don’t see each other as competition; we see people who are doing it and doing it well.”
Other Chicagoans doing it well are Jonathan Cutler and Andy Coleman, head brewer and assistant brewer, respectively, at Wicker Park’s Piece Brewery & Pizzeria. Large flat screens line the walls of this multi-level New Haven-style, thin- crust pizza joint and brewery.
Piece started as a nanobrewery in 2001 (long before nanos were trendy) and has more than doubled its brewing capacity. There are at least two keys to Piece’s success says Daniels: One, they have an ideal neighborhood location, and two, they operate efficiently for brewing on such a small system. In addition to a well-rounded guest tap list, Cutler’s provocatively named beers, including the Top Heavy Hefeweizen, Camel Toe Egyptian Pale Ale, Fornicator Bock, and Dark-n-Curvy Dunkelweizen, are lauded in Wicker Park, a hipster-centric neighborhood known for trendy restaurants, nightclubs, and an Eastern European flair.
Like many passionate Chicago brewers I talked to, Coleman insists he wouldn’t trade hops for any other job. “It’s something I love to do,” he says.
When they’re not stirring the mash or cleaning brewing tanks, Coleman and most of Chicago’s other brewers are regulars at Local Option in Lincoln Park. The eccentric beer bar “welcomes nerds” and keeps 30 hard-to-find craft beers in rotation at all times. “[The brewers] come to Local Option because all their heroes are on draft,” says Russomanno.
They come for the food, too. Local Option pairs their beer with Creole-style comfort food like jambalaya, swordfish tacos, and po’ boys. Dark and spectral (in a good way), this small, cozy bar encourages visitors to get comfy.
“[Local Option] is one of the most cutting-edge beer bars in Chicago,” says Daniels. “I can go there any day of the week and see a beer on tap that I’ve never tried. They are a beer geek bar and they’re really succeeding.”
Another must-see, famous-among-beer-geeks venue is the self-proclaimed “traveler’s tavern,” The Map Room, which has been holding beer court in Chicago since 1992. Just as the name suggests, this beer bar is chock-full of travel paraphernalia, including hanging maps, and shelves of globes garnishing the walls. A variety of craft beer from around the world populates the tap list, and the best thing about this beer bar is the gracious attitude. Admittedly, owners Mark and Laura Blasingame opened The Map Room with little beer knowledge and now are a fantastic resource for all things beer. They even hold educational events like the monthly Beer School and invite local brewers to teach informal beer seminars.
Speaking of beer school, one of the nation’s most widely recognized brewing schools, Siebel Institute of Technology, also happens to be in Chicago. Founded in 1872 (they creatively survived Prohibition by becoming baking educators and consultants), Siebel is an internationally acclaimed study program for brewers and other fermentation science experts.
Alumni of the brewing program span 60 countries, and graduates inhabit many West Coast breweries, like Laurelwood Brewery in Portland, Oregon and Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham, Washington, to name a few. Siebel expanded in 2008, relocating to the Lincoln Park district, and now is conveniently located near Goose Island Brewing, where staff and students partake in hands-on research in the large-scale craft brewery.
“Siebel has helped introduce people from all over the world to the Chicago beer market; it’s great for local businesses,” says Daniels, who is a Siebel graduate and instructor.
Though Chicago is an undeniable craft beer destination led by pioneering entrepreneurs, big beer is still lurking around the corner. In 2011, Anheuser-Busch acquired Goose Island for $38.8 million. There was, understandably, criticism and shock in Chicagoland regarding the buyout, but Hall insists that Goose Island brewing practices haven’t changed, and that the influx of capital will simply allow more money to be invested in the beers. “Everything that has happened has only enhanced what we were already doing. We have more access to raw materials like scarce hops varieties and other resources that we didn’t have before.”
While growth in the Chicago craft beer scene may have taken its sweet time, now it’s catching on like wildfire. And unlike the Great Fire so many years ago, this is a welcome flame and one that’ll hopefully continue to burn strong for years to come.
Sidebar 1 /
Beyond the deep (dish, that is)
Thanks to the Chicago Beer Society, which began educating consumers about beer and food pairings in the late ’80s, Chicago’s culinary leaders understand that the two things should not exist exclusively. Along with terrific tap lists at neighborhood restaurants, the city’s brewpubs, beer bars, and gastropubs are redefining the way Chicagoans view beer and food pairings. Check out our picks for some of the best beer and grub in the city.
773.486.2473 // bluebirdchicago.com
Chalkboards adorn the barnyard siding and rustic brick walls here, and low lighting makes for a cozy drinking and dining session. The sophisticated food menu combines American and European influences to create dishes to pair with beer and wine.
Pairing/beignets with Brasserie Dupont Monk’s Stout
773.697.8204 // fountainheadchicago.com
This Old World-style pub opened two years ago and features beer, wine, and spirits (with an emphasis on whiskey) as well as an eclectic, European-inspired menu that is best sampled on the 70-seat roof deck.
Pairing/Monkey Bread and Venison Spatzle with a bottle of Three Floyds Robert the Bruce Scottish-style Ale
Goose Island (Clybourn)
1.800.466.7363 // gooseisland.com
Goose Island’s original location showcases a classic pub menu by chef and Certified Cicerone Andrew Hroza to pair with a rotating lineup of creative house beers brewed by Jared Rouben, who works closely with top Chicago chefs to brew collaboration beers.
Pairing/Oysters Rockefeller with Goose Island Matilda, a Belgian-style pale ale
773.334.9851 // hopleaf.com
A classic, 65-tap Chicago beer bar, the Hopleaf recently finished an expansion that doubled the pub’s size. Now serving lunch and dinner prepared by chef Ben Sheagren, who keeps Hopleaf favorites on the menu but plays with fresh new recipes, too.
Pairing/Montreal-style Brisket with Revolution Eugene Porter
312.733.9555 // thepublicanrestaurant.com
This stylishly simplistic gastropub is located in Chicago’s dining-centric Fulton Market district, and the menus include meat-focused, unfussy farmhouse fare served in a European-style beer hall setting.
Pairing/Sunday brunch with a Publican Bloody Mary accompanied by Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza
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