Reflections on Beer in Chicago…

After ten days in Chicago, I have to admit that the first thought on my mind is that I hope I don’t come across another stout or porter before Spring. I don’t usually gravitate towards any one particular style of beer but my sub-conscious buying choices led me to have a fridge full of roasty, dark beers. Now this was no explosion of beer geekery. With the exception of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout from America’s Brewing Company in Aurora, all of my stouts were standard session fare, be they oatmeal, dry Irish, or coffee-infused. I believe I had at least three different stouts from Dark Horse in Michigan. And commensurate with its name, this brewery really came out of nowhere to be a real hit this trip. The tasty Scotty Karate scotch ale was available at several local bars and each of the offerings, including the Perkulator coffee doppelbock (which I expected to hate) was top-notch. I’m beginning to think that Michigan may be the world’s capital of quality stouts and I look forward to visiting the state this summer or fall.

The holiday beer drinking experience was an especially difficult transition for me as I’ve recently experienced an unparalleled period of beer brand monogamy. During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I became enchanted with a particularly sharp and attractive little number. With golden waves and floral hints, this one knocked me over right away. From the first sip, I was enamored with the Pikeland Pils from Sly Fox. Better yet, the beer comes in a handy suitcase of cans that is easily transported and stacked in the fridge. I almost shed a tear when I finished my last can before leaving for Chicago. Happily, on my return, I was reunited with my new found friend and she brought along a companion, a case of Dunkel Lager cans from Sly Fox. I look forward to sampling this potent one-two hop malt punch for the next month or two before I have to start bugging friends to smuggle cases back for me.

While back in Chicago, I was once again reacquainted with how great a drinking city it is. We spent part of Christmas Eve at the recently reopened Berghoff Restaurant and Goose Island’s recently saved Clybourn pub, as well as pints at Delilah’s, the Hop Leaf, Map Room, Piece, Sheffield’s, and a half-dozen other great places. With the addition of a new package brewery, a soon-to-be opened new brewpub, and the emergence of strong nearby contenders and several new beer bars, such as the Local Option, I may have to revise my most recent BeerAdvocate column (recently posted here) as Chicago is making a run for the title of America’s best beer drinking city. And while I was very pleased to find Bell’s back in the area, I still longed for some Two Hearted, which was nowhere to be found. I was also disappointed that Summit was completely absent from everywhere I went (from bar to pub and grocery store to package store) and surprised that Summit’s twin city sibling, Surly Brewing, was nearly everywhere. I was also disappointed that the city’s global warming nose thumbing weather caused me to cancel a meeting I had at Miller’s pilot brewery in Milwaukee. I hope to reschedule a visit during a return trip to Wisconsin this June.

While shopping in local package stores and perusing tap handles throughout the city, I was amazed at how national the beer industry has become. The selection at Binny’s, Sam’s, or the Hop Leaf in Chicago looks like the selection at Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville, MA or the Foodery in Philadelphia and area bars. While we have several more years before nationalization really becomes an issue, I’m curious to see how breweries achieve growth and sales increases when they run out of new markets to conquer. My financial advice for the several business industry analysts who have been trying to contact me lately: Bet the farm on breweries in the 10,000 to 50,000 barrel range that are in fewer than five to seven states.

I’m looking forward to heading back to Chicago this June for a further review of local places, including Lunar Brewing on the city’s west side and the new Metropolitan Brewing Company.

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The Great Beer City Debate…

In the United States, we’re obsessed with debating the respective merits of just about everything and then assigning it a blue ribbon or gold medal. We have pig beauty pageants, pumpkin chucking contests, and the Summer Redneck Games. In the brewing world, the drive to judge things extends far beyond the usual beer competitions and festivals.

In the last two years, cities around the country have promoted their local beer offerings by touting their ranks as America’s best beer town. In Philadelphia, local supporters of Philly Beer Week extol their virtues in “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City.” Denver offers the “the Napa Valley of Beer,” San Francisco represents “America’s Original Craft Beer-Drinking City,” and Portland, Oregon proclaims itself “Beervana.”

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to travel around to most of America’s top-tier beer cities and after quite a few pints, tasters, and tours, I’ve come to one conclusion: there actually is no such thing as America’s best beer city. While this may be the inevitable end result of a hopelessly theoretical comparison of some highly competitive locales, the intellectual exercise of debating America’s best beer cities demonstrates the remarkable strength and diversity of our burgeoning regional beer cultures.

To the extent possible in our mental gymnastics, we should try and define the criteria underlying a great beer city. The core of a great beer city revolves around a handful of passionate breweries and brewpubs. Add to that a few superior beer bars focusing on diverse craft taps, fair prices, and offering events promoting better beers. Finally, throw in a few less tangible criterions, including how well craft beer and better beers integrates into the local scene and the number and quality of local beer festivals.

When beer drinkers toss around potential candidates, a few names always make the top-tier, including those mentioned above along with Seattle and San Diego. While these big cities pack some serious punch, size is hardly the denominating factor. America’s three largest cities, for instance, almost never get a mention. Between them, New York, L.A, and Chicago, all good drinking cities, offer fewer than ten breweries and brewpubs. By way of comparison, Portland (OR) has less than 4-percent of their population while offering three times as many brewpubs and breweries.

Size does matter and it’s another factor to consider when assessing smaller cities. Sure it’s easy to support a few good beer establishments when you have a couple million customers nearby. But it’s when you start taking a look at some of America’s smaller towns that you get a full appreciation of what constitutes a great beer city. While medium sized towns including Milwaukee, Austin, and Pittsburgh all have impressive offerings, let’s get even smaller. How about we nominate Portland, Maine, or Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Fort Collins, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin? And where else but Burlington, Vermont (population 40,000), can you hit three brewpubs in a three block radius and still have two breweries to visit?

The creation and celebration of citywide beer appreciation festivals is a significant development in the history of American craft beer and they should be supported. But it doesn’t take the aid of local chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus for people to help develop, nurture, and promote their local beer scenes. Although a handful of quality craft beers may not be available at average, budget Chinese food restaurants in our area, as is the case in cities throughout Oregon, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to support prefabricated pubs with run-of-the-mill beer offerings. Instead, it’s time to think before we drink and pledge our support for local places that appreciate the diversity of craft beer while respecting their customers with fair prices. Because looking inward and celebrating our local beer scenes is the only way to make every American city a great beer city.

–Article appeared in Volume II Issue XI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Is Philadelphia Really A Great Beer City? We’ll Soon See…

So we’re headed to Philadelphia and its northwestern suburbs for a family event next week and weekend, which, of course, I plan to turn into a beer trip. I first became conscious of Philadephia’s craft beer scene when I sampled my first and favorite beer from the town: Independence Brewing Company’s Franklinfest. A malty, toasted Octoberfest style beer, I can still remember how it tasted and how much I enjoyed it. Sadly, Independence didn’t make it but my interest in the town remained.

I first visited Philadelphia for beer a decade or so ago on a circuitous beer tour from Chicago to Wilmington, North Carolina. After enjoying time in Pittsburgh, at Stoudt’s and central Pennsylvania, we made our way through Victory and into Philadelphia proper. Pre-Beerfly days, we only had a well-worn copy of the excellent Beer Lover’s Guide to the United States to guide us. And after an aborted attempt to visit the Northeast Taproom in Reading (Stan and Daria’s guide was excellent but in the days before cellphones, books couldn’t tell you when a place decided to close on Mondays), we spent a fun night in the city. After visiting the well-known places, including Monk’s, we took a book recommendation and headed to McGillin’s. At the city’s oldest bar, we ran into the owners of Flying Fish (who gave my brother handwritten directions to his version of the area’s best bars) and a little known guy trying to give away t-shirts and pint glasses to people who would try his brown ale. Despite his efforts, the guy didn’t get much attention that night, much to our surprise as beer lovers. For that guy was Sam Calagione, founder of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. We sat down and chatted with Sam for a little while and I still have a snifter the bar gave away for buying one of his beers.

Several years later, after returning from my first trip to Bamberg, Germany, I foolishly opined on some Internet beer group that I didn’t believe Philadelphia to be a great beer town. I was heavily criticized at the time and have spent recent years considering the city’s place in the pantheon of great beer cities of the world. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the few great American beer cities I had managed not to hit, including Seattle and Portland, Oregon. While I plan to do a future BeerAdvocate column on the subject of great beer cities and whether designating such a pursuit actually matters, my upcoming trip has returned my focus to Philadelphia.

I have to admit to a certain amount of excitement on my part at getting a chance, after a few years away, to return to Philadelphia. But in reviewing the usual online sites, including the excellent Beermapping.com, I still wonder at the pronouncements of fellow beer writers Don Russell, Lew Bryson, Jack Curtin, and a number of other locals that Philadelphia is “America’s Best Beer Drinking City.? I’ve previously laid out here and in my book my criteria for a great beer city and Philly definitely meets several of those marks, with a handful of top-notch beer bars (Monk’s, Tria, Eulogy) that heavily focus on educating the public. And as I haven’t been there in a while, I’m looking forward to seeing how well craft beer has integrated into regular drinking establishments in the city. But when it comes to breweries and brewpubs, I think this is where I have some pause about claims of Philly’s greatness. For brewpubs, the city offers Nodding Head, Manayunk, and Triumph Brewing. I’ve been to Nodding Head several times and enjoy its quirky environment and solid beers, but have not had a chance to visit Manayunk and relative newcomer Triumph. But that is it for the city, three brewpubs, although I plan to stop by Tom Baker’s new enterprise in Germantown and expect that will add greatly to the city’s brewpub balance. In looking at local breweries, we see even less to support Philly’s claims of greatness. Dock Street is celebrating its one-year anniversary at its new location and has a history almost as twisted as the Concord Brewery’s story. Yard’s Brewing has also had a up and down history and its story continues to unfold. I know very little of the Philadelphia Brewing Company and look forward to trying its beers but doubt it would be touted as a ‘great’ place. In terms of locally produced beer, Philadelphia doesn’t appear to have much of a grasp on the greatest title.

With this said, I’m still excited about visiting and drinking in Philadelphia because it actually reminds me of the best drinking city this country has to offer: Chicago. My home town may not be able to lay claim to being the greatest beer drinking city, although I think it could put up a fight, the character and quantity of its drinking establishments, in my opinion, is unmatched anywhere in America. My visits to Philadelphia and its drinking establishments, as well as reviewing descriptions of other Philly beer bars, reminds me so much of Chicago. I’ve never been to several of the city’s best drinking establishments (at least as they are described online), including The Grey Lodge and the Standard Tap, but I am expecting to thoroughly enjoy them. But I wonder whether a handful of great bars can be enough to raise Philly to the top echelon of great beer drinking cities in America.

When local guys such as Don, Lew, and Jack tout Philly’s beer drinking prowess, I get the sense that their definition of ‘Philadelphia’ is probably a lot broader than mine. I expect that they include places like Victory (35 miles west), the Sly Fox and Iron Hill establishments (15-20 miles outside), Flying Fish (15 miles east in New Jersey), and other outlying establishments. With all that the northwestern suburbs of Philly have to offer, I’m not going to argue with designating Eastern Pennsylvania as a classic and great beer region. And I’ll be stationed in this area and will be visiting the Earth Bread + Brewery, Victory, and probably the General Lafayette Inn, as well as a few other places (with any luck, the Drafting Room in Exton). But as to the city itself, I have my doubts.

In any event, local beer lovers clearly have a lot to brag about in Philadelphia and its outlying areas. And we cannot overlook the achievement that is the Philly Beer Week project, one I plan to attend this year. I’m looking forward to the trip and to putting the Philly propaganda line to the test.

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