Chicago Craft Breweries Play Second Fiddle to No One

While wandering through the sea of endless beer booths at Great American Beer Fest (#GABF2017), it was easy to both be enamoured with craft beer and overwhelmed. But for this writer,  it also provided an opportunity to compare and contrast Chicago’s craft beer to national offerings. The beer-to-beer approach helped solidify what had already become abundantly clear the last year or two: Chicago is no “second city” when it comes to craft beer and craft beer culture.

Take, for instance, Forbidden Root’s Fernetic. The Forbidden Root team transformed the flavors behind the popular, classical Italian digestif (circa 1845) into an spectacular craft beer. At 8.4% ABV, Fernetic includes such ingredients as rhubarb root, saffron and wormwood that compliment the 27 herbs and spices found in Fernet-Branca, as well as the typical Forbidden Root botanics, One gets subtle coffee notes and peppermint on the nose followed by soft roastiness and bitterness before ending dry.

This video says it all:

As special releases go, that’s a tough one to top. It involves a wonderful story, a terrific collaboration, demonstrates deft skill and imagination; and above all else — it tastes terrific.

But, there’s also plenty of beers found on regular rotation in Chicago taprooms that truly provide evidence of Windy City brewing prowess. Hailstorm Prairie Madness won Gold in the 408-entry American IPA category. For that matter, On Tour Brewing winning “Very Small Brewery of the Year” in its first year of operation speaks to the brilliance that is Chicago Beer. Indeed, Chicago took home nine brewing medals and the aforementioned brewery of the year honor, which follows the ten medals secured in 2016.

(Don’t forget, Chicago won eight awards at the World Beer Cup in 2016, too.)

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Medals alone don’t tell the story, of course. The Chicago representation at GABF included numerous breweries and ample good beer.  For that matter,  one doesn’t need to rely on GABF to know the beer around Chicago is superb especially since only a percentage of Chicago breweries attend GABF.

Sours found at Scorched Earth, Werk Force, Pollyanna, Une Année, Penrose, Two Brothers, Imperial Oak, Off Color, Whiner and more, as well as plenty of BBA (or Rum-barrel aged or… you name it) speak volumes about the willingness by Chicago breweries and its drinkers to enjoy experimentation. Meanwhile,  lagers from Metro, Motor Row, Kinslahger and Church Street denote the city’s selection of good drinkin’ beers — and lagers include everything from Schwarzbier to Baltic Porters, mind you.

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Metro’s new riverside taproom, and a beautiful Metro beer. What could be better? Photo: Mathew Powers

And don’t forget about beers like Around the Bend Vera Pistachio Cream Ale brewed with Caravienne malt; the classic Half Acre Daisy Cutter; Revolution Eugene Porter; Vice District Everleigh — a sexy English Bitter if there ever was one; the Miskatonic Catchpenny Rye; Only Child Monster Under the Bed; and the best damn Irish Stout — Shane – in the world from BuckleDown Brewing in Lyons (trust me — it’s better than Guinness by a mile).

Did I miss your favorite beer? Of course I did; there are too many to name!

Unique to Chicago is that its craft beer community resides within a world class city, which provides for festival settings that include Garfield Park Conservatory, the Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, block parties and parties held in the shadows of the city’s renowned big-shoulder skyscape.

Furthermore, Chicago’s culinary prowess has permeated into the city’s breweries, from Moody Tongue’s culinary beer to Band of Bohemia acquiring a Michelin Star. Tribes, Two Brothers’ “The Craftsman,” Half Acre, Old Irving, Smylie Brothers, Horse Thief Hollow, Nevin’s., Flossmoor Station..well, the list goes on. Chicago has quite a food scene within its beer scene.

Oh, and you can bowl at Burnt City, watch the Hawks at Light the Lamp or play pool and arcade games at Blue Nose.

To wit: Chicago’s craft beer culture resembles its broader urban identity.

We haven't been this excited about Friday since last Friday 🍻

A post shared by Band of Bohemia (@bandofbohemia) on

FoBAB, of course, is unique to Chicago’s story, one that began at Goose Island almost a quarter of a century ago. Last I checked, despite the ABI ownership of Goose, Bourbon County still draws a ton of interest throughout the country.  And there’s Hailstorm Vlad, Revolution Deep Wood Series, Nevin’s Cookie Monster, Imperial Oak Quiet Giant and possibly the most underrated barrel-aged beer in the world, Spiteful Brewing Belligerent Bob Barleywine (although it did win third place at last year’s FoBAB).

However, given that the entire nation is currently in the midst of a beer renaissance, it’s unlikely Chicago’s brewing reputation can ever attain the same respect and recognition provided to craft meccas such as San Diego, Asheville, Colorado or the Pacific Northwest. Those regions attained crafted royalty prior to everyone getting in on the party, thus they remain on the geographical “Malt Rushmore.” And, to be honest, many of those places are home to breweries most beer fans, including me, love and respect.

Nevertheless, it’s clear Chicago enjoys a truly unique craft beer culture. It doesn’t matter if anyone notices, it’s just nice to know we can pull up a stool from Gurnee to Flossmoor and Geneva to Logan Square and have a beer that’s just as good as anywhere else in the country.  Sometimes, it’s even better.

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