By Michael Austin | July 1, 2015 | Food & Drink
From a bumper crop of new microbreweries to major industry players and distributors, Chicago has cemented its status as one of the nation’s premier destinations for the frothy stuff.
Chicago has beer on the brain. Home to just a handful of breweries a decade ago, these days the Windy City has become beer “ground zero,” with 60 breweries and counting in the city and a whopping 81 more in the suburbs and outlying areas.
“It’s all about Americans’ renewed interest in, and love of, gastronomy,” explains Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Chicago-based Cicerone Certification Program, whose mission is to educate and certify beer professionals. More than ever, he says, “People are interested in flavor and good beer.”
And they’re finding it in Chicago, which has become one of the world’s great beer cities. From barrel-aged beers made by several breweries and 5 Rabbit Cervecería’s Latin-tinged concoctions to Metropolitan’s lagers, Forbidden root’s botanic brews, and the tangy hop-centric offerings of Lagunitas Brewing Company, Chicago-made beers are varied and plentiful. Plus, the city has great beer bars, retail stores, and restaurants with expansive, serious beer lists offering craft brews from around the region, the country, and beyond, along with macrobrews from every corner of the earth.
Jason Klein, cofounder of Spiteful Brewing, which released its first beers in December 2012, echoes Daniels’s belief that Chicagoans’ interest in beer stems from our interest in all things culinary. “I think it’s just that the city’s palate is changing in general,” he says. “We were such a macrobrewing town for the longest time. The farm-to-table movement happened, and beer goes hand in hand with that. People expect more, whether it’s food or beverage, because the bar has been raised.”
Chicagoans’ passion for beer dates back a century and a half. The city’s first lager brewery opened in 1847, according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. When the Great Chicago Fire leveled most of the city in 1871, Chicago was home to 19 breweries and about 300,000 residents—roughly one brewery for every 16,000 people. A German immigrant named Dr. John Siebel began offering brewing classes in the late 1800s, and today, Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology is the oldest brewing school in North America.
During Prohibition, again according to The Oxford Companion, Anheuser-Busch sold more than 250,000 tap handles to Al Capone. Things quieted after the end of Prohibition, and it was not until 1986 that the city saw the opening of its first microbrewery, Siebens Brewpub. Goose Island followed in 1988, and the modern era of Chicago brewing was born.
Of course, the city’s beer boom isn’t just about microbreweries. Chicago also has ties to two major global players in the industry: The world’s second-largest beer company, MillerCoors, is based in the city, and by the time Anheuser-Busch purchased Chicago-based Goose Island Brewery in 2011, the St. Louis beer giant had already merged with Belgium-based InBev to create the largest beer company in the world. “Chicago has always been one of America’s most vibrant beer towns, dating back to the 1800s,” says Andy England, MillerCoors’s executive VP and chief marketing officer. “Chicagoans have a sophisticated beer palate, and that’s why we moved our corporate headquarters here.”
Local beer importers and distributors such as Constellation Brands, Louis Glunz Beer Inc., and others also ensure a constant, abundant, and varied supply of both macro- and microbrews in a city that has loved beer for just about as long as people have called it home.
“We’re obviously very encouraged by what is going on,” says Michael McGrew, senior director of communications for the beer division of Constellation Brands, which imports such labels as Corona and Modelo. “It’s a great sign that the economy appears to be healthy again, and that is lifting the water for everybody in the industry.”
To keep up with demand, some larger Chicago breweries—Half Acre and Revolution, to name a couple—are expanding, and other Chicago breweries have even begun exporting their beers to Europe and Asia, a true testament to the quality of Chicago beer making. Revolution Brewing is expanding its brewing facility on the Northwest Side, tripling its capacity to 300,000 barrels annually and adding 15 new employees over the next few years, bringing the company total to 180. It was all part of owner Josh Deth’s original business plan, which he wrote more than a decade ago, according to communications director Kim Vavrick.
“We’ve sold-through, and the demand is growing,” says Vavrick. “We know how great our local beers are, and the rest of the world is discovering them, too.”
Chefs are also discovering Chicago beers. At craft brewery and restaurant DryHop Brewers (3155 N. Broadway, 773-857-3155), the house beers both inspire and are used in the food menu (a second location, Corridor Brewery & Provisions, is in the works at 3446 N. Southport Ave.). Connoisseurs now know that the same rules that apply to wine and food pairings apply to beer and food pairings. You have two options: to complement the f lavors of the food with beer or contrast them—choices that DryHop owner Greg Shuff calls “enhance or cut.” “I think a lot of people chase that ‘complement or enhance’ concept,” Shuff continues, “but the further you get into it, the more that cutting becomes a more enjoyable way to experience it. So, for instance, if the beer is really hoppy, you could cut it with either a cream sauce or sugar instead of enhancing it with curry, which is the classic combination: IPA and curry.”
As DryHop experiences an invigorating expansion in Chicago, Baderbräu Brewing Company prepares for a homecoming of sorts. An early Chicago-area craft beer producer, founded in Elmhurst in 1989, Baderbräu plans to have a new home on the South Loop (2515 S. Wabash Ave.) this summer. The facility, in an existing building, will include a brewery, a 4,000-square-foot taproom, and a retail store.
“In the craft-beer world, not having your own brewery makes you a second-class citizen, and it gives you less control,” says Rob Sama, Baderbräu’s president, who revived the brand in 2012. “We want our beer to be closer to the community. We want to have a place you can visit, where you can come and meet the people and get to know our products. We also want to make sure the product stays fresh for the local community.”
The local beer scene is so vibrant in Chicago now that brewers often have their own side breweries. Mikerphone Brewing is the side project of Mike Pallen, who released his first two beers on May 1—an IPA called Misty Mountain Hop and a Belgian IPA called One-Hit Wonderful—and will continue to make only two new beers per month. He has the capacity for eight barrels of each beer, and he does not want to make more than he can easily sell. “There are a ton of new breweries opening up every day,” says Pallen, 33. “Supply and demand is tough. I don’t want to just jump out there and say, ‘Here’s an ungodly amount of beer.’ I want to feed only those who are hungry for it and interested in it.”
Besides, Pallen would not have the time to make much more than 14 or 15 new barrels of beer per month anyway; his day job is head brewer at SlapShot Brewing Company on the Southwest Side. When Baderbräu was first showing up in bars and stores in the early 1990s, it was easy for consumers to keep track of local beers. But roughly 25 years later, when there are people like Pallen contributing to Chicago’s vibrant, passionate beer community, it’s difficult for even the most devoted professionals to keep up.
“My wife and I are both in the business,” Daniels says, “and I swear to God, every time we go to an event we’re like, ‘Have you ever heard of that one? I’ve never heard of that one. Who are these guys?’ And they’ve got beer!”
photography By neil Burger
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