Chicago’s Golden Age of Beer

1-2016 Brewery Revolution aisle-tanks

There’s never been a better time to be over 21 in Chicago, especially if you’ve got a predilection for craft beer.

Long gone are the days when the local beer conversation started and ended with Goose Island, an institution that helped pave the way for a seemingly never-ending barrage of up-and-coming breweries, both small and large. Nowadays, venerable classics like Goose Island share shelf space and draft lines with new MVPs such as Half Acre and Revolution, as well as smaller scale innovators like Forbidden Root and DryHop.

Chicago’s long, passionate affair with beer dates back practically to the city’s inception in the mid-1800’s. Apparently establishing a brewery in 1833 was top priority for city-founders, and thus was born a brewery courtesy of J. & W. Crawford. One devastating fire and a Prohibition later, Chicago emerged in the 1900’s thirstier than ever for craft beer, no longer content to subsist off imports from our beer-guzzling neighbors in Milwaukee.

While a myriad of tiny brewing operations dotted the city, Goose Island made a splash in 1988 with its first brewpub near its namesake island. Today, the godfather of local beer still stands strong, and although the company has been largely sold to Anheuser-Busch, it still commands a veritable empire of fans throughout Chicago and far beyond. Beers like 312, Honkers Ale, Green Line, Sofie and Goose IPA are as renowned in Chicago as Cubs players, and customers clamor for limited-release Bourbon County Stouts every year with the type of fervor typically reserved for Black Friday shoppers at Target.

Over the years, new breweries have established themselves as serious, enduring players in the Chicago beer scene. Half Acre, Revolution, Metropolitan and 5 Rabbit Cerveceria (Chicago’s first Latin brewery) have all emerged with great success, each one churning out coveted staples like Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, Revolution’s wonderfully floral Rosa, Metropolitan’s Krankshaft Kölsch and 5 Rabbit’s colorful Paleta series, featuring fruity beers made with the likes of guava and watermelon.

Additionally, Chicago lured California-based Lagunitas, which opened the largest brewery in the Midwest in Douglas Park. Then there’s indie brewpubs like DryHop Brewers, the triple-threat restaurant, bar and brewery responsible for some of Chicago’s most quirkily named beers like Shark Meets Hipster wheat IPA, Kitty Empire schwarzbier, and a nitro pub ale called Strangeways, Here We Come.

Flash-forward to 2016, a time when Chicago’s appetite for craft beer has reached such a fever pitch that elite chefs like Rick Bayless have gotten involved with brewing, and “culinary”-inspired brewing beckons the onset of a new national trend at places like Moody Tongue, Band of Bohemia and Forbidden Root. Along with this new crop of Chicago classics, such as the aforementioned newfound household names like Half Acre and Revolution, these fresh new brands are taking beer in bold new directions.

Band of Bohemia, photo by Rudy Rubio

Band of Bohemia, photo by Rudy Rubio

Bayless’ first new major local project in years (any foodie with a pulse recognizes him as the chef and owner of Frontera Grill, XOCO and Topolobampo) is set to debut this year with a nano-brewery on in the West Loop called Cruz Blanca. The restaurant and micro-micro brewery will be making its own beers, including their soon-to-be signature beer, La Guardia pale ale made with hominy and epazote. Then there’s Moody Tongue, a Pilsen-based brewery presided over by chef-turned-brewer Jared Rouben. The Goose Island alum has made a name for himself with inventive, bracing brews like churro porters and ales infused with locally sourced ingredients like pawpaws, peppers and nectarines.

Another chef-cum-brewer, Michael Carroll is manning the tanks at Ravenswood’s newest and most exciting restaurant and microbrewery, Band of Bohemia. Here, the cast of characters reads like an Avengers-level talent team, with food and beverage pros from Alinea, The Aviary and The Brixton, among others. Carroll, most recently a brewer for nearby Half Acre, helped conceptualize what they’ve dubbed a “culinary brewhouse,” where the on-site beers are specifically designed to pair with and accentuate the food. And they do so by making beers with ingredients that sound more like salad-fixings than suds. Examples include a grilled apple and tarragon beer, an orange-chicory-rye option, and a rich, dessert-friendly maitake mushroom beer infused with basmati rice. Billing itself as Chicago’s first “botanical brewery,” West Town’s Forbidden Root uses spices, herbs and botanicals in all of their unique brews, like their boozy root beer made with wintergreen and sandalwood, their “Sublime Ginger” scented with lemon myrtle and honeybush, and their “Wildflower IPA” brewed with elderflower, marigold and sweet osmanthus.

With Chicago’s food scene at the forefront of the world stage, it’s only logical that the local beverage landscape would follow suit. Brewers are taking risks like never before, experimenting with beers to appease an audience thirsty for innovation. Customers are approaching beer lists with the same curiosity and appreciation of a fine dining tasting menu. There’s truly never been a better time to be a beer-lover in this great beer town.