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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Why Midwestern Beer Rocks…

When beer enthusiasts ponder great American craft breweries, their minds often wander to the coasts. West Coast brewers are deservedly renowned for their experimentation, especially in all areas hoppy. On the East Coast, craft brewers boast big reputations for their extreme acts and style defining efforts. But when it comes to dishing out respect, Midwestern breweries get very little for their impressive efforts.

I have a public confession to make. I think Midwestern breweries make the best beer available in the United States today. That’s a bold statement to be sure, but let’s take a closer look at this underappreciated beer region to test its accuracy. For starters, the Midwest has some of the strongest and longest operating craft breweries in the country. While names such as August Schells, Boulevard Brewing, Great Lakes, and Summit may not ring in the ears of ardent beer geeks, these breweries have provided strong leadership for the industry and solid, diverse beer lineups at reasonable prices. In stark contrast to their brewing compatriots on both coasts, these Midwestern breweries, and many others, appreciate the worldliness of beer. In contemplating their portfolios, these brewers recognize that the brewing playbook extends beyond the comfort zones of brewing and the hum-drum ubiquity of the big three: blonde, pale, and wheat ales. The lineup of top-notch lagers produced by Midwestern brewers, such as the Capital Brewery with its four seasonal doppelbocks, is unparalleled elsewhere in this country.

I’m not saying that the Midwest lacks its share of beer geek friendly breweries, far from it. Some of the region’s leading breweries, including Bell’s Brewery and New Glarus Brewing, bring a reserved, steady hand to the idea of extreme beer. From Larry Bell’s anniversary batch series and his former ’10 Stouts of November’ campaign to Dan Carey’s classic fruit beers and his phenomenal ‘Unplugged Series,’ Midwestern brewers know that pushing the envelope means more than simply turning the hop and alcohol dials up to 11. If the edge is where you need to live, then you can always try Three Floyds, Surly Brewing, and Kuhnhenn Brewing to get your adventure fix.

When I think about beer in the Midwest, one state clearly comes to mind, and I don’t mean Wisconsin. While the Badger State boasts dozens of excellent craft breweries, Michigan is perhaps the region’s most impressive brewing state. While it has but one brewery (Bell’s) in the top 50 craft brewers by volume, Michigan is home to more than 70 breweries and brewpubs, just behind Wisconsin for sixth most in America. The litany of Michigan’s small, local breweries and pubs include Short’s Brewing, the Livery, Dark Horse, Founders, New Holland, and of course, Jolly Pumpkin. With perhaps less flash than their coastal counterparts, these breweries produce beers that are anything but reserved.

Midwestern breweries also appear to better appreciate the value of providing fresh beer close to home. While many fledgling craft breweries struggle to contain their wide-eyed expansion plans, many of the breweries mentioned here practice a very different distribution system. Beyond the small breweries, which service their local communities, even the big guys do things a bit different. The Summit Brewing Company of Saint Paul sells nearly 90-percent of its beer in its home state of Minnesota. Boulevard Brewing was modeled on the historic local brewery system and limits distribution of its 130,000 barrels to the Midwest. The best example of this careful growth method is New Glarus, which famously pulled out of all other markets, including Chicago, because it could not make enough beer for its home state of Wisconsin.

With all of the region’s successes and the outstanding and diverse beers available, I think it’s about time we give Midwestern brewers the praise due to them. They’ve got my vote for best in the industry.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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