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According to the award-winning Chicago-based beer blog The Hop Review, the city alone hosts 65 breweries and brewpubs. Include the greater Chicagoland area and we’re talking triple digits, if you can believe it. So while the rest of the country has been losing their sudsy minds over the Portlands, Brooklyns, and Ashevilles of the world, the City of Broad Shoulders has been building up an army of badass craft breweries, each more innovative than the last.
“Chicago’s breweries have great camaraderie, and for many this is reflected in collaboration -- be it tap-takeovers, dodgeball tournaments, brewers conferences and obviously, beer. But most importantly, there is a fundamental motivation to elevate the quality of Chicago’s beer, brewers and beer scene,” attests Tim Faith, a research and development brewer at Chicago’s inimitable Goose Island Beer Co. “This is Beer City USA.”
It’s time this booming beer scene gets the props it deserves. And no matter what you’re looking for in Chicago’s scene, we’ll help you find it here: from barrel-aged beers to hoppy brews to European-style delights.
For Belgian-style brews with a twist: Whiner Beer Co.
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This South Sider opened its doors in 2016, making it a relative newcomer to an already crowded brewing landscape. Unlike many of their fellow young bucks, co-founders Brian Taylor, a longtime Goose Island vet, and local industry pro Ria Neri decided to set themselves apart by eschewing quick and dirty IPAs and swinging for the fences with Le Tub: a tart, earthy saison aged in cabernet barrels and packaged in banana-yellow cans. That little flagship took off, and Whiner’s been knee deep in sour goodness ever since. Their 46th Street taproom runneth over with complex, Belgian-inspired curiosities like Rubrique A Brac -- a delicately spiced, well-balanced Bière de Garde with just enough fruitiness to keep things interesting -- and Miaou -- a dry-hopped, red wine barrel-aged wheat ale brewed with wild yeast, and housed in a turquoise can dotted with the brewery’s signature cartoon cats. Get ready to party, Chicago.
With two full-scale production breweries, a perpetually-packed taproom hawking everything from tender BBQ brisket to pork fried rice, a bevy of best-selling tall cans, and one of the city’s most dedicated followings, Half Acre’s crushing the midwest beer game. And they’re no johnny-come-lately brewery -- they’ve been around since 2008, back when most of these other outposts were just twinkles in a brewer’s eye. They’ve got a diverse portfolio of styles, sure, but it’s their core lineup that has hopheads around the country drooling into their pint glasses. Their flagship pale -- the citrusy, resinous Daisy Cutter -- has become something of an institution around these parts, especially during those notoriously taunting early spring days when the sun comes out for five minutes and everyone thinks it’s high time to throw on some shorts and fire up the grill. Warm weather delusions or not, Half Acre is happy to help thirsty Chicagoans get their (deliciously bitter) fill all year round: the brewery offers a seasonal roster chock full of IPAs, Pales, and Double IPAs, each bursting with a freshness capable of righting all those blustery January wrongs.
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“The Chicago beer scene is home to some of the most creative and adventurous breweries pushing the boundaries of craft beer,” says BJ Pichman, head brewer and operations manager over at this winning addition to Chicago Ave’s food and drink lineup. Specializing in mysterious drafts inspired by everything from natural elements like spices, herbs, and flowers to spirits like botanical-rich Fernet, the airy restaurant, brewery, and bar certainly fits Pichman’s apt description. And experimentation is also the name of the game inside their gorgeously-renovated former theater, which at times feels more akin to a mad scientist's lair than a brewery. The result? A mix of delicate sours, refreshing hoppy numbers, and belly-warming stouts, each with their own distinct personalities. Not to mention a slew of farm-to-table small plates to keep you thirsty. “We pride ourselves on discovery and innovation. Searching and obsessing about the ingredients, flavors, and processes that make up our one of a kind beers,” he adds. Keep on keeping Chicago beer weird, guys.
For European classics meet South Side pride: Baderbräu
A lot of words come to mind when you’re talking Chicago beer -- intense, unique, diverse, creative, boundary-breaking, pioneering -- but one that doesn’t often make an appearance is traditional. Baderbräu is determined to change all that with its expertly brewed lineup of stalwart, true-to-form European styles. The first, a Czech-style Pilsener named Baderbräu Chicago Pilsener, was brewed in honor of the city’s suds soaked history, inoculated with the same yeast strain found in a popular '90s craft beer -- one also called Baderbräu Pilsener. This neo-Baderbräu continues to give props to its forefathers with lagers like the South Side Pride Helles (“beer flavored beer” as the website proclaims), smooth, roasty Bocks, and creamy, easy-drinking wheat beers. No matter the style, these bad boys are basically Chicago in a glass.
We couldn’t write about Chicago without mentioning Revolution, the hard-hitting Northsiders behind some of the Second City’s most iconic 21st century brews. Standing proud as the state’s biggest independently-owned brewery, Revolution’s epic fleet runs the gamut from bitter to sour with stops at mellow, boozy and chocolatey along the way -- each bolder and more impressive than the last. Chi-town to the bone, many of the brewery’s cans put Chicago’s storied past on blast, showcasing statues, landmarks, and other famous figures on their shiny labels. For a history lesson with a side of suds, check out Eugene Porter, a dark, coffee-tinged dream of a cold weather-sipper decked out with an image of its namesake, Eugene V. Debs, a local union leader who played an integral role in the game-changing 1894 Pullman Railroad strike. (Fun fact: the strike is responsible for why we celebrate Labor Day today.) And if that weren’t enough, Rev’s original Logan Square brewpub still serves up some pretty tasty food along with a bunch of taproom-only exclusives. It’s nothing short of...revolutionary.
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This Logan Square gem is the beloved brainchild of John Laffler, another Goose Island vet, and Dave Bleitner, who cut his teeth at Two Brother’s Brewing in nearby Warrenville, Illinois. In 2013, the two aspiring brewery owners set out to shake up the Chicago beer scene, centering on a diverse program of historically-inspired styles most local drinkers had never before encountered. Sure enough, Chi-Town soon embraced these strange brews, which range from Scurry, a smooth dark honey ale based on a traditional German Kottbusser, to a puckery, coriander-infused Gose called Troublesome, to their flagship Apex Predator, a juicy, hazy farmhouse ale with a dry, satisfying finish and just a hint of funk. While these mainstays are hugely popular, the boys’ ingenuity really shines when it comes to seasonal and limited run releases like QingMing. The deeply layered, aromatic 9.5% ABV powerhouse is a riff on an age-old semi-sweet, herbaceous Chinese rice beer called Chang and is brewed in partnership with The Field Museum. You can’t get more Chicago than that.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but dip your toes into Chicago’s beer scene and you’ll immediately get the sense that almost every brewer in town has spent at least some time at Goose Island. The city’s OG suds purveyor, Goose has been steadily cranking out the good stuff since 1988. By the mid-'90s, Goose decided to take a gamble on a then novel idea: piping their fan-favorite stout into retired bourbon barrels and letting it soak up all those delicious vanilla, oak, maple, and boozy notes for 8-12 months. Their crazy experiment (obviously) worked, and to this day, their Bourbon County Stout reigns supreme as one of the country’s top barrel-aged releases. Since then, the pioneers have also added a delicious line of barrel-aged sours called the Sour Sisters to their fleet, as well as a few other woodsy palette-pleasers. In addition to their production brewery, Goose also operates a brewpub and a soon-to-open, state of the art event space inside their massive barrel house. And as any Chicagoan will tell you, a visit to one of the brewery’s many outlets is a must.
Note: Goose Island Beer Co. is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.