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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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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Beer in Chicago…

  1. “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 hope you are right.

  2. Even better, keep an eye on the breweries in the 15,000 to 20,000 barrel range that are in one or two states. We have two here in Mass, Berkshire Brewing and Wachusett and both probably sell 90% of their beer within 50-75 miles of their respective breweries…

  3. I love seeing Chicago praised, and hope you’ll make it back to try Lunar Brewing Co. (although it’s decidedly west of the city’s west side, by about a half dozen towns!) It pains me to say, however, that it probably isn’t yet in the running for best beer-drinking city — unless you are generous with including the suburbs. And even then, probably not. Many breweries don’t bother bringing their brews to Illinois because of distributorship issues. And Illinois has few breweries of its own, though as you noted, that’s changing. So the beer found at the good beer bars tends to be the same — Hopleaf and the Map Room and a few others have surprises, but most don’t.

    It’s certainly a great place to live and beer lovers will be happy here. And I hope in a few years, Chicago will be in the running for best beer city in the U.S. But alas, currently, we have the suburbs to thank for brewpub choices, and proximity to IN and WI to thank for beer selection.

  4. Hi Bill-

    Lunar is definitely a far west side outfit but if you check out how far other cities stretch their own definitions (*cough* Philadelphia) I figured it’s close enough here. My point, and add to this post Half Acre Brewing, is that Chicago’s future looks very promising and that its present is pretty strong as well. I agree that there are some definite downsides to Chicago, the relative lack of selection (compared to a half-dozen other great beer cities) and the ‘pay-to-play’ nature of the market being two of the biggest as you note. But when you take a look at most other cities, you begin to realize that even some of the biggest names have less substance than you would have expected. I think Chicago is the reverse case.

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