BeerDorks.com: Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

 
March 26, 2012

Beer Diary:

Chicago

Finally, the Windy City is starting to become our kind of town.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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Chicago is by a wide margin the largest city in the Midwest. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s the third largest city in the country. And it’s always been—and, most likely, always will be—a beer town. But until relatively recently, it hasn’t been a good beer town. Shit beer has been king, and there’s been many a tavern, whether it’s a blue collar neighborhood pub, trendy lounge, or giant sports bar, where the absolute best you could hope for would be, inexplicably, Old Style or the ubiquitous Guinness. You’d have to specifically seek out the good beer from a handful of beer bars, like stalwarts The Map Room and Hopleaf, and to a lesser extent Clark Street Ale House and Sheffield’s. (Sheffield’s has probably the best beer garden in the city, but its proximity to the pile of gravel at 1060 West Addison makes it an unbearable place to be after minor league baseball games.)

But in the last five or so years that’s begun to change. Breweries (Half Acre, 5 Rabbit, among several others), brew pubs, and beer-centric bars and restaurants have cropped up all over, and the city is starting to generate a genuine beer buzz. So I duct-taped the hood down on the Gremlin, threw in a couple bags of Funyuns, and cruised into the big city to see just what the Hell was going on down there.

I started my exploration at Bangers and Lace, sitting on the border of ground zero for Chicago hipsterism, the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood. The name suggests an upscale gentleman’s club, but “bangers” refers to the plethora of sausages on the menu (including venison and rabbit [drooooool]) and “lace” is talking about the complex pattern of suds left behind on the sides of the glass of a finely crafted (and drank) beer. The centerpiece of the bar is a huge communal table, where laid-back waitresses plunk down small but tasty takes on the medium of sausage. The beer list, on the other hand, was decidedly not casual. Although the main part of the menu was quality but nothing too far beyond what you you’d find at any decent beer joint (a few good German brews, some national craft brands like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada, and a draft-only—and extremely tasty—Three Floyds black lager), the night I was there they were pouring six of the Mikkeller Barrel-Aged Black Hole series of beers. Over the last month or two I’ve had a couple of these gigantic imperial stouts aged in an assortment of barrels (white wine, tequila, bourbon, etc.), and they are unbelievably complex (and, not, to mention, 13-plus percent ABV). Scoring a side-by-side-by-side-by-side-by-side-by-side tasting should be any beer dork’s dream. But needing my taste buds (and senses) intact for the rest of the night, I summoned up all of my willpower and passed.

The downstairs bar at Owen and Engine.
Instead I trekked northward to the barely over a year old Owen and Engine. The focus here is English food, and the beer list matches, with a good share of stuff from the UK, including a couple of cask conditioned brews, as well as a big list of quality Belgian and American craft offerings. Things got off to a rocky start when the beer I ordered—an English bitter—was no longer available, despite the fact it was quite early in the night. I really fucking hate that. Then the Scotch egg I ordered arrived  … without the egg in it. OK. But the staff was friendly and extremely knowledgeable, and I got the most surreal moment of the trip later in the night. A gaggle of guys poured into the upstairs dining area/tap room, looking for all the world like they got lost from filming a Bud Light commercial. But instead of staring blank-eyed at the daunting menu, they got a slew of good beers, then proceeded to argue amongst themselves about the best sparging techniques in home brewing. Like I said, surreal. After eating I slipped down to the ground floor bar and enjoyed a Youngs Double Chocolate Stout, a beer I hadn’t had on tap in almost ten years. As delicious and sublimely drinkable as I remembered.

Next up was Revolution Brewing, a brewpub in the same general vicinity as Owen and Engine (and right down the street from a cool little bookstore, Bucket O’ Blood), in the increasingly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood. This place was packed, and the crowd was so hip it made my face hurt. Lots of wallets with chains, unoriginal tattoos, and people sitting at the bar jacked into their ear buds—while they were talking to people around them. But folks were drinking beer, and with that I can’t argue. Said beer, though, was a little hit or miss. It’s tough for me to turn down a saison, so I immediately requested a glass of their Coup d’Etat. Like a lot of armed uprisings, this one was a little premature: it was definitely too green, with some solvent notes sticking out where they shouldn’t have been. Their pale ale, Iron Fist, was top notch, though, and their Baltic porter was quite tasty as well. The Double Fist, however, was overwrought, with fusel alcohols dominating despite it being under 9 percent ABV.

The next afternoon I set the radar to closer to downtown, and made my way to Haymarket, one of the newest brew pubs in the city. While Revolution seems like it is still trying to find its focus, Haymarket knows exactly what it wants to be. The beer list can be summed up thusly: IPAs (and double IPAs), Belgian-style beers, and all combinations thereof. I cannot find a single thing wrong with that sentence. I started off small, with the session-strength Oscar’s Pardon Dry-Hopped Belgian Pale Ale (4.5 percent ABV). Quite yummy. And to get my saison fix, er, fixed, for my second beer I opted for The Saison Also Rises, which did the trick: funky, refreshing, refined, without the greenness of Revolution’s take. Even with a full line up of house-brewed beers, Haymarket also has a dozen or so guest taps, almost all of which were just as in-your-face as their own offerings. To wit: Three Floyds Cimmerian Sabertooth Berzerker, a big ass imperial IPA, which I just had to try (luckily, they offer four-ounce pours, which I think a lot more places should do).

So after that I needed to take a walk. I mosied a few blocks north and wandered into the Fulton Market district, a long row of warehouses, delivery trucks, forklifts, and the odor of fish. Hidden back there is a tavern/restaurant called Publican. By far the upscaliest of the places I visited, from looks alone it seemed it was more about the trendiness factor than about the beer. Well, looks can be deceiving. Every bartender was trained to some degree at the Siebel Institute, and these peole knew their fucking beer. The menu, while not gargantuan, was obscure Belgian with virtually every other beer style you can imagine thrown in. I sampled Three Floyds Zombie Dust—a Citra-hopped pale ale—while the guy next to me sucked on a gigantic Belgian imperial stout and a woman on the other side sampled a cocktail aged in a tiny wooden barrel sitting behind the bar. Then the bartenders hauled a cask of English IPA onto the bar right in front of me and pounded it open with a wooden mallet while the rest of the staff stood around and gawked and took pictures. Pretty goddamn cool.

By this time I was working up a mighty hunger and Publican’s foodie menu was just a tad too daunting to deal with. I piled into a cab and zipped waaaaay north to Fountainhead. The food menu was small plates, the beer menu was gigantic. So I called up the captain and said “Please bring me some monkey bread” (yes, that’s what it’s called) while I perused the beer list. The selection spanned the globe, and if you had to assign a specialty to the menu, it’d probably be Midwest. Tons of locals to pick from, so I went with a Three Floyds Rune Priest (a Belgian-style pale ale) followed up by a Two Brothers Resistance (barrel-aged IPA). (Both went great with the monkey bread, by the way.) The staff was quick and attentive, especially considering how mobbed the place was, but I couldn’t get a feel on their beer knowledge. The best way to do that would be to sit and sip at the bar, but it was jam packed by the time I was done eating, so called it a night.

I decided I needed to make one more stop: my old friend, Hopleaf.
Or so I thought. The night was cool and crisp—a real March night, not the creepy warmth we’ve had the past two weeks—and a snootful of semi-wintry Midwest air cleared my senses. I decided I needed to make one more stop: my old friend, Hopleaf.

It’s still probably the best beer bar in Chicago. Before the city’s beer awakening it was virtually impossible to get into on any given night, more due to hype surrounding their food (rustic Belgian) than the incredible beer list. This night it was crowded, but I was able to slide in and snag a stool at the far end of the bar. The tap list featured more locals than I ever remembered seeing—because there never were that many local breweries in Chicago before—along with the usual stellar lineup of Belgian brews, including Tripel Karmeliet, which I had to order up. I sipped, savored, and mused upon my Chicago sojourn.

It was hit and miss, but the hits far outweighed the misses, and I had only really scratched the surface of what Chicago has to offer when it comes to great beer. To some extent you still have to seek out those places that cater to the discerning palate, but the good news is that Chicago is just getting started. Sure, it’ll probably get overblown and flame out—big cities have a way of doing that—but the true beer bars and beer people will endure. And until that happens, get out there and enjoy the ride.