The Windy City’s rebooted beer scene will blow you away.
By Zak Stambor
It was always odd that Chicago had so little beer. As San Diego and Portland became craft meccas, Chicago had just a few notable breweries, like Goose Island and Piece. In 2008, the city woke up: Within two years, Revolution, Half Acre, Metropolitan and Haymarket not only opened, but instantly cemented themselves into Chicago’s culture. (You just don’t go to Chicago without drinking a Daisy Cutter.) Now, another beer wave is cresting: 12 new breweries have opened in the past 18 months (15 more are in development); “veterans” like Half Acre and Revolution have expanded; and the city’s best chefs are migrating to beer-focused eateries. And then there’s native Chicagoan Tony Magee’s new outpost of Lagunitas, whose more than 2 million barrels of beer annually will place the company just below Boston Beer Co. as the nation’s second-largest craft brewer, which couldn’t be more serendipitous for the Second City. Beer lovers: It’s time to book a trip to Chi-town.
Monday’s trivia night: Get a seat in the handsome, dark wood bar and feast on mussels (the kitchen does them four ways; opt for the traditional steep in white wine, parlsey and garlic) and the crisp, grassy Demeter witbier as you and your friends try to remember who shot Mr. Burns.
Collaborations with venerable Chicagoland breweries had beer geeks buzzing about DryHop on message boards months before it debuted; its first weekend open, the line to fill growlers stretched halfway down the block. Now, the minimalist-modern brewpub is just as revered by the culinary crowd for chef Pete Repak’s (formerly of James Beard darling Charlie Trotter’s) upscale twists on bar food, like a lamb pastrami sandwich dressed up with Gruyère, fig-shallot jam and preserved lemon aioli that pairs effortlessly with the hoppy wheat ale Shark Meets Hipster.
Howells & Hood
Spilling out from Tribune Tower onto Pioneer Court, the sleek, sprawling patio has tables with built-in fireplaces and 114 draft selections that span local Two Brothers’ spicy, citrus-tinged Cane & Ebel to Belgian lambics like Bockor Brouwerij’s fruity Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge.
Nearly all the restaurant’s farm fare originates in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan, and the seasonal/local ethos carries over to the 28 taps that pour exclusively Midwestern brews (Founders, Vander Mill, Three Floyds; they’re all here). Go when it’s slow to properly ogle the beautifully salvaged materials and reclaimed objects from old Chicago watering holes.
An industrial park in nearby Naperville is not where you expect to find a line out the door made up of grandmas, hipsters and typical suburbanites, but the beer is that good. Inside, a half-wall separates them from the beer tanks as they sip reimaginations of tradition, like wits brewed with coffee and Belgian IPAs with loud American hops. Bottles are rolling out now, and a downtown location is in the works.
Lagunitas TapRoom and Beer Sanctuary
The California-based brewery is making its second home in owner Tony Magee’s native Chicagoland, in the South Side’s Douglas Park. The taproom’s elevated for an eagle-eye view of what it looks like to brew 1.7 million barrels of beer, and serves A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ with pub grub like panini filled with local greens and smoked beef.
Chef Cleetus Friedman closed his beloved deli/beer thinktank City Provisions and landed here; now, the brunch menu’s got his famous potato latkes, along with “the eggel,” a bagel stuffed with scrambled eggs, mushrooms and Gruyère. The new rooftop bar is the best place to savor one of Friedman’s innovative beer collabs like Comb the Desert, a schwarzbier he developed with Begyle Brewing.
Northdown Café and Taproom
Patient, flannel-clad bartenders go to great pains helping novices and experts alike navigate the bar’s dozen taps and more than 200 bottles. Carnivores devour fries smothered in pulled pork, pickled jalapeños, bacon and green onions; the veggie pot pie is a hearty, meat-free counterpoint.
This modern Bavarian beer hall is one giant ode to beer aging: The place isn’t even open yet, but the vintage beer menu’s been growing for years, and beers by local nanobreweries are custom-aging in The Radler’s barrels. Flesk Brewing handles the house Helles.
Sensing that Chicago’s beer scene was about to blow up (again), Hopleaf doubled in size last year, making the two-hour wait for a CBJ—a deliciously oozy grilled sandwich of cashew butter, fig jam and Raclette cheese— much shorter. Thirty new taps (bringing the beer list to 400) cement the tavern as one of the all-time greats.
Half Acre Tap Room
Clad in wood salvaged from a century-old grain mill, the rustic-meets-modern taproom is the showpiece of Half Acre’s recent expansion, and where North Center neighbors and beer geeks gather for the freshest Daisy Cutter pale ale around.
The Green Lady
West Lakeview neighborhood regulars pony up to this low-key dive for its well-selected list of hard-to-find beers like Central Waters’ Bourbon Barrel Barleywine and local picks like Chicago nanobrewery Spiteful’s piney, citrusy Ghost Bike Pale Ale.
Larger and warmer than the original location in hipstery Wicker Park, Jerry’s newish Andersonville spot draws families and young couples (and yes, a few hipsters) with a slew of sandwiches like Mindy F (blackened chicken and mango-chipotle chutney) and an equally impressive beer list with scores like a ginger-spiked version of Metropolitan Krankshaft Kölsch on cask.
WHERE TO SHOP: The Beer Temple: Chris Quinn stocks a lean (read: fresh) inventory of killer craft inside his Avondale bottle shop, stored cold so shoppers can bounce over to BYOBs like noodle shop Urban Belly with beer in tow. With a well-trained staff at his side, Quinn’s on a mission to teach you about beer. But you don’t have stop into the Temple to go to school: The store’s website hosts a slew of tasting videos by Quinn himself; he cracks open everything from behemoth barrel-aged stouts to trendy Berliner weisses to buzzed-about farmhouse ales—all for the sake of your education, of course.