A beer writer who used to find the Windy City lacking in craft suds is glad to find a tasty new crop of (transit-accessible) breweries
When I first visited Chicago for the city’s annual Blues Festival at Grant Park – a wonderful free admission fest typically held in June – the Windy City’s signature beer was Old Style, a sadly dilute and disappointing mass-production lager. When I returned several years and many beers later, this time as a professional beer scribe rather than earnest amateur, things weren’t that much better, with a since-defunct microbrewery and a Lincoln Park-area brewpub pretty much the only lights in an otherwise dreary beerscape.
Even into this century, Chicago was a bit of a dire place for the discriminating beer drinker. Oh sure, there was Goose Island – that “Lincoln Park-area brewpub,” by then evolved into a pair of brewpubs and a full-scale production brewery – and a small handful of others, but judged relative to comparable cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, the Midwest’s largest metropolis was lagging badly.
Thankfully, that has all since changed, and in very dramatic fashion. It’s hard to say precisely when the breweries began piling up in Chicago, or even what shift triggered the change, but by the time this century’s second decade had commenced, it was obvious that the City of the Big Shoulders was well on its way to becoming the City of the Big Beers.
“A great beer is often nothing more than a straight train ride away, no transfer required.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that visitors determined to stick to the prime downtown areas of the Loop and the Magnificent Mile are destined to miss the best of what the city has to offer. Because to really earn your craft beer stripes in Chi-Town, you first need to climb aboard the ‘L,’ as the above-ground train system is commonly known.
Handily, much of Chicago’s recent brewery development has centred around the city’s sprawling transit system, meaning that a great beer is often nothing more than a straight train ride away, no transfer required. Particularly so if you begin at the Brown line stop called Irving Park, gateway to a trio of particularly impressive breweries.
Exiting Irving Park, turn right and stroll about four minutes up the road to Begyle Brewing, a four-year-old operation that serves to ten beers ranging from good to very good in a relaxed and airy taproom. Order a three beer flight of five-ounce tasters – don’t skip the brewery’s original and best beer, the citrus and tropical fruity Crash Landed Pale Wheat Ale! – and then saunter up the road a short block further to one of the most impressive new breweries in the eastern United States.
Begyle Brewing Company
A mere four months old when I visited in August of 2016, the Dovetail Brewery specializes in German-style lagers and wheat beers, and is doing an exceptional job of it. The taproom here is darker but somehow more harmonious than is that of Begyle, and the beers will transport you to Bavaria even if you’ve never set foot in Germany. The Munich-style pale lager, simply called Lager, is sublime in its elegant straightforwardness, while the smoked malt Rauchbier is an outstanding exercise in smoky complexity.
If that’s not enough for you, a 10-minute walk three blocks west and up Lincoln Avenue will bring you to one of Chicago’s most revered breweries, the Half Acre Beer Company. You may find yourself first in the brewery’s bottle shop, in which case you’ve gone a bit too far and need to double-back one doorway before you can start with a glass of the flagship pale ale, Daisy Cutter, fruity and eminently quaffable. Thirst now slaked, work your way through samplers of a few of the 14 available taps, ending at the slightly earthy, herbal-fruity Navaja Double IPA, terrifically balanced for a beer of 9.5% alcohol.
Half Acre Beer Company
From Half Acre, you will need to deviate from the all-train theme of this brewery crawl, but fortunately not for long. A further few minutes walking west will have you at N. Western Avenue, where the number 49 bus will be happy to transport you south to another recently minted Chicago beer legend, Revolution Brewing. A fully licenced brewpub with an extensive dining menu, it’s a popular after-work destination, so a mid-afternoon arrival will best allow for the enjoyment of the superb, spicy and best bitter-ish Fist City or stronger Anti-Hero IPA in relative tranquility.
Revolution is situated practically right outside of California station on the Blue Line, so take that two stops south to Damen to find Piece, a brewery and pizzeria that excels equally at both disciplines, where you can treat yourself to a glass of The Weight, a zestily bitter pale ale, alongside a small pie with pepperoni and onions. Or take that same train all the way to Grand station and walk six blocks south to the Haymarket Pub & Brewery for a burger and a pint of The Defender American Stout, creamy and filled with roasted chocolate notes.
With all that on a single train line, you can well imagine that exploring the entirety of Chicago’s brewery options would take several days, if not weeks – all the more reason to keep returning to a city that has now evolved from the place that craft beer forgot into one of the premier brewery destinations in North America.
Stephen Beaumont has been writing about beer for longer than most people have been drinking it! He is the author of The Beer & Food Companion and co-author of the brand new, fully revised and expanded second edition of The World Atlas of Beer.