WINDY CITY ALE-VOLUTION, PART I

Second city, first rate.

Five years ago, if you asked your average Alehead to name the ale factories of Chicago, they would have paused for a moment, said “Goose Island,” and then drifted off into silence, scratching their heads and looking perplexed. It’s one of the country’s largest, most populous, most famed cities: How could it have so little craft beer being produced within its limits?

And yet, this was the case. Small breweries and brewpubs had occasionally flared up in the Second City during the first phase of the “microbrew revolution,” as it was then called, in the 1980s and 1990s. None of these, save the honored Goose, made much of an impact. In 2005, excepting an entry in the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, there was only one other place brewing craft beer in town.

Today, there are seven active ale factories in Chicago, with two more about to open. All that growth happened in only five years, helping to transform nationwide opinion of Chicago from an Alehead barrens to a burgeoning new Mecca.

Having visited a number of these new ale factories, I can tell you that they are producing world-class brews. In this two-part series, I’ll give you brief descriptions of each and my impressions of them, if I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. I’ll leave out Goose Island, as I believe most of us are familiar with their more nationally distributed product. There’s no better time to familiarize yourself with these Chicago breweries, as the 2nd year of Chicago Craft Beer Week approaches.

Half Acre Brewing: I love Half Acre. I do. Of all the ale factories in Chicago, they’re continually impressive. Located on the city’s Northwest side, they’re well known for their flagship APA, Daisy Cutter, which has great press to go along with its cool label, and pushes the boundaries between “American pale ale” and “IPA.” It’s a small brewery that makes a variety of beers–usually about four year-round selections and new special releases on a monthly basis. I’ve yet to have a disappointing brew from them. They do subtlety pretty well (the Gossamer Golden Ale is toasty and delicious), and like to brew collaborative brews with other highly respected brewers like Three Floyds and Shorts Brewing. Don’t believe me? Check out the label for their Three Floyds collaboration IPA, She-Wolf. Tell me that’s not a thing you want to drink. I thought so.

Suckle at the IPA wolf teat.

Half Acre was founded in 2006, and at first took the route of having its beers entirely contract-brewed by Sand Creek in Wisconsin. Once the company was on its feet, the owners purchased the space it resides in today, started brewing on premises, and reaped the rewards as its popularity swiftly grew.

Of the ale factories in Chicago, I’ve had the chance to visit Half Acre the most, as it’s very conveniently located about a block down the street from the great Old Town School of Folk Music. The name is no exaggeration–it’s a really small place. They have no official bar, but do have a tasting room where people off the street can taste all the brews to their heart’s content, free of charge. One can then pick up a pack of 16 oz cans (all Half Acre year-rounders are canned), or a bomber of whatever the current special release is.

I must also say that the people there are incredibly, almost foolhardishly friendly. Visitors are encouraged to just walk into the brewery and wander around checking things out, close to dangerous machinery. The recipes are literally laying out on clipboards in plain sight. They didn’t mind as I thumbed through the Daisy Cutter recipe, noting the hop varieties and quantities. Corporate espionage isn’t exactly needed to root out these dude’s secrets.

Official brewery tours at Half Acre do exist, but good luck getting one–they’re free, held on Saturdays, and are often booked months in advance. The only obvious downside to the place is that it seems clear the demand is outstripping the production, as it has in so many other up-and-coming ale factories. Half Acre brews can only be found close to city limits–even in my hometown in the southwest suburbs, nobody has ever heard of them. Hopefully, the brewers at Half Acre will be able to expand enough, given their limited space, to be able to provide beer to more than just Chicago.  As is, I always look forward to my visits when I’m in the city. I am planning multiple trips to the Old Town School of Folk Music in late March and April, so you can expect more Half Acre news in the near future.

Metropolitan Brewing: I hate to admit it, but I’m rather willfully ignorant when it comes to these guys. Metropolitan is simply a weird brewery, when it comes to the American craft beer scene, for a number of reasons.

1. It’s a craft lager brewery. It’s all craft lagers. The brewer Doug Hurst, was apparently inspired by his years in Munich. The beers it produces throughout the year include a light German lager, a Kolsch, a Vienna lager, a baltic porter, a maibock, and an altbier (which should technically be an ale, if done traditionally). The brewery’s FAQ even goes out of the way to assure that it will never make an IPA. Although this certainly makes the brewery unusual, it also tends to make it rather, well…boring, at least in theory. There have been many, many times where I’m in a bar in Chicagoland and I’ll see a Metropolitan brew on tap, and I think about ordering it, but then I pick something else for the same price that just seems more intriguing. I figure I’m probably not the only one.

2. The brewery headquarters in Chicago itself is a production brewery with no public space. No tap room, no bar, they don’t even have a public phone number. The brewery runs tours only twice a month. For people like me who are visiting Chicago only occasionally, this makes it fairly unlikely I’ll ever end up taking one. The brewery also doesn’t sell beer on the premises, so you can’t stop by and pick something up.

3. Like Half Acre, it’s available only in the city, and to some extent in the suburbs. Once again, though, shopping in the package stores, I find myself asking “Do I really want to spend $8.99 on a sixpack of vienna lager that I’ve never had before?”

I realize that this is a rather unfair judgement. At some point I will actually make a point of sampling some Metropolitan brews. Ideally, I’ll find them on a mix-a-six beer rack someday and get all the tastings out of the way.

Piece Brewery & Pizzeria: Another ale factory I have little excuse for not having personally visited, Piece always seems to have mildly positive press and anecdotes surrounding it, but gets glossed over, hypewise, by the other breweries making waves in the Windy City these days. It’s not that they haven’t been successful or don’t have a reputation for making good ales–check out this list of World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival medals. That’s impressive stuff.

Sort of a minimalist brewery logo?

It doesn’t even seem like I’m alone in my forgetfulness when it comes to these guys. Check out the Beeradvocate page for the brewery–at a brewpub that’s been around in Chicago for almost 10 years, longer than any other currently operational besides Goose Island, the beer with the most reviews has only 25. Meanwhile, another brewpub called Revolution Brewing (covered in part II) that is located fairly close by opened last year and has nearly the same number of reviews, in around one-tenth the time. Going over to Facebook, the Piece page has 2,571 fans. The much newer Revolution has over 5,000. And I remind you, these two are only one neighborhood in Chicago apart, accessed off the same main street. If the quality of the two were the same, there would be no reason for such a disparity.

It may be that Piece falls into the “neighborhood brewpub” category, despite its awards success at the GABF and World Beer Cup. It doesn’t bottle or distribute its beers except in the pictured growlers, and it doesn’t seem to advertise too much. A casual glance at the beer list reveals things that sound good–rye beer, IPAs, hefe–but nothing really out there. Perhaps Piece just doesn’t draw the hipster Alehead crowd.

That, however, is no excuse, in my eyes. I have been lax in not visiting Piece during any of my forays into Chicago to experience its craft beer renaissance. I plan to correct this oversight during my next trip to the city, have a slice of pie, and admire one of Piece’s award-winning brews. Don’t be surprised if I come back singing its praises and bludgeoning myself for overlooking this ale factory. As Aleheads, we can’t afford to turn up our noses at any craft brewery without giving it a fair shake.

The mere fact that a Chicago brewery could get overlooked, however, simply reinforces my original point–the beer scene in Chicago is booming for the first time in a long while, with so many choices that the ale factories really have to stand out and do something unique in order to get recognition. Make ho-hum brews, and people will simply move on to the next ale factory making big, brash beers that make their taste buds sing. It’s an era of increased choice, which should only foster even more innovation.

In Windy City Ale-volution, Part II, I’ll tackle four more ale factories–one I’ve visited, one that just opened, and two that are preparing to open in the near future.

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25 comments

  1. Sudsy Von Brue · · Reply

    Outstanding post, Kid. Thanks for taking me back to my favorite American city, if only for a morning. Half Acre is stellar. No two ways about it. I’ve been dying to get my hands on their collaborative efforts with Three Floyds – the best brewery in the country as far as this Baron is concerned. I’ll add one note to your comments on Piece, to which I made a pilgrimage on my last night as a Third Coaster. The beer is good. The pizza is great. Worth a visit before hitting the Map Room not too far away.

    Sudsy

  2. And likewise, next time you visit Piece just continue Northwest and Milwaukee until Logan Square and go check out Revolution Brewing. More on that in a few days.

  3. Worst post ever! Instead of damning Metro for sticking to lagers you should commend them. Instead of focusing on over-hopped “american ales” that are a breeze to make the folks at Metro are perfecting more difficult to brew (and harder to make money for a small outfit) lager beers. They seem definitely to be focusing more on the beer and less on the marketing.

    I live a block from Half-Acre and was super stoked when they opened the Lincoln Ave. location. Now I barely go in there. I am so tired of over-hopped ales and strange combinations of flavors. IT’S BEER.

    Last time I was in there I noticed a guest beer there was Ayinger Celebrator and it was sold out. I mentioned to the guy filling my growler what a great beer it was and I was not surprised that it sold out. He was like “Yeah, it is great, we are going to make something similar soon”. I go “Good luck with that since you do not have any lagering equipment here” and he had no idea what I was talking about. Their something similar will probably be “Skateboard Hop Head Dark Ale with Juniper”….and have a cool label of course!

  4. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    It didn’t take me that long to win the coveted “worst post ever,” did it? Let this be a lesson to the rest of you–piss off the right people and you could end up like me some day.

    Nhey, I’m sure Metro’s offerings are fine, it’s just not my taste, nor the taste of a lot of modern Aleheads out there. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of Aleheads who would ever write something off by saying “IT’S BEER.”

    And maybe they focus less on marketing because they simply aren’t very good at it. As they posted on their facebook earlier today, “our entire brewery is run by three people.”

    That’s fine though, I’m glad you commented. Individual tastes are what this is all about. Let me only say that “more difficult to brew” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” any more than “more alcohol” means “better.” What are the “most difficult” commercial beers to brew? That would be Budweiser, Miller, Coors, etc–there’s no room for error there, when there’s no flavors to mask anything. Does that mean it’s the best beer?

  5. Griffin the Dog · · Reply

    Don’t knock people for not liking ales, dude. For years,a couple of decades, really, I tried my best to like all these micro-brewery ales and have visited many breweries over the years. I’ve concluded that out of all of them, I’ve only actually enjoyed one, Two Brothers Domaine DuPage French Country ale. Great with winter type foods. Other than that, zip. My preference is lagers. You don’t like ’em? Fine, don’t bad mouth someones livelyhood and business just because they don’t have hookers come and pour your beer for you and hand out trinkets. And I’m very glad Metropolitan won’t make an IPA. I’m not stuck on a slow boat for two years straight, so there’s no need for that kind of way over-hopped bitter stuff. If I AM stuck on an extended boat trip, then I’ll drink it. But only then. And at the end of your post you finally say you’ve never actually TRIED their product. That makes your entire post suspect, as it comes across as dishonest, uninformed and lazy.

  6. Your right, everyone has their tastes. But calling a brewery boring because it does not make an IPA is silly.

    I never said lagers were better. The point I failed to make was that lagers take longer to make and need more space. As a result, it is difficult (for a small outfit) to be successful. As a result there are not many small lager breweries and that is why I said the people at Metro should be commended.

    It is also probably why most “Modern Aleheads” have a preference for hoppy american ales. That is what is available from most craft brewers…why, because it an easy beer to create and make money on. Maybe that is the market now. ): I most just be an old fashioned beer lover who appreciates what Metro is doing.

    It is silly even to bring the uber breweries into the conversation.

  7. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    You guys both seem to think I dislike these guys when in reality it’s just that I’m indifferent. As for “not stating that I hadn’t had the beers before,” I intended the very first sentence–the one where I talk about how willfully ignorant I am, if you noticed–to convey that exactly: haven’t had the beers. That’s what ignorant means.

    And actually, to be COMPLETELY honest, I think I HAVE had the kolsch and vienna lager at some point–I just don’t think they made enough of an impact for me to remember, so I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    But c’mon…there’s no “badmouthing” happening here. If that’s what you perceive this as, you should take a cruise around this site and find somebody actually talking about a beer they DISLIKE, instead of styles that simply don’t do much for them. Then you’d see some real bashing. And as far as being open to taste goes, it sounds like I’m actually MORE open to sessionable lagers than either of you are to ales. I could certainly name more than one craft lager that revs my engine, unlike Griffin, who for some reason has made a point of visiting “many breweries over the years” to sample their ales and say “Nope. Guess I’ll go back to only one and exactly one (Domaine DuPage) that I’ve found to be acceptable.”

    Or, to be less verbose:

    When one admits that only one beer in the world brewed with top-fermenting ale yeast is appealing to them, I’m PRETTY SURE that marks them as a person with just a wee bit ‘o bias.

  8. Wait? A site called Aleheads can’t knock people who don’t like ales? So I assume a site called Cheeseheads shouldn’t knock Steelers fans or a site called Deadheads shouldn’t knock people who hate falafel?

    Perhaps I read the Kid’s post differently. He clearly points out his ignorance re: Metropolitan Brewery and he willfully admits that he has unfairly ignored their offerings. At no point does he say anything even remotely demeaning about the brewery other than to mildly call their all-lager approach “boring” which he quickly tempers by adding “at least in theory”.

    If you’re an ale-lover who doesn’t get too excited about lagers, than a lager-only brewhouse WOULD be boring. And since the Kid prefers ales (as does everyone on a site that is, once again, called ALEHEADS), I think his statement is perfectly fair. I suspect I would find Metro’s outputs a bit underwhelming too…even if they’re making world-class lagers. But this is coming from a guy who has actively ignored the beer output of the ENTIRE COUNTRY OF GERMANY. So what the fuck do I know?

    Regardless, I bristle at anyone who claims that this is our “worst post ever”. I have easily written at least 200 posts worse than this.

  9. Griffin the Dog · · Reply

    Listen, I love beer. I love reading and talking to other people about it. Ales don’t flip my trigger. But I continue to try them hoping to be brought around. And it’s not “one ale in the world”, it’s in America’s micro-brewery movement and their penchant for out-hopping each other for bragging rights. I lived in Germany for several years and visited many breweries over that time. I lived a coupla blocks from the BBK brewery. Some of the best I have ever tried are the Belgian Ales.Straight up magnificent, especially when in the company of the Monks who do the brewing. On the converse, I’ve taken the Budweiser factory-ahem-brewery tour. It made me wanna weep. To be concise: I don’t care that you like ales, pilsners or what have you. If you are gonna do a write up on a company and PUBLISH it, you might want to actually know what you are talking about. Conjecture in journalism is called being intellectually lazy. If you haven’t tried something, don’t slam it. I HAVE tried ales, a whole lot. My neighborhood bar is next door to Half- Acre brewery. I stop in frequently for tastes and have my own growler, too, for when they DO have something that flips my trigger. Oh, and yes, I do know that this is called “Aleheads”. I am a member of many craft beer, micro brew sites. Knowledge can be gotten in many places, even from those with whom you don’t share much in common.

  10. Griffin and I may be the same person.(:

    My biggest problem with the post was the inherent negativity (as I interpreted it) about Metro when I think they should be celebrated for their unique approach, as I pointed out above. Plus, the beer at Piece blows, but the pizza is awesome as someone pointed out above. I guess the Kid should actually go to these places before writing them up because I feel he is way off.

    I assumed this place was about all beer, not just ales, my bad.

    I have loved beer for a long time and was excited when the American craft beer movement began. Now it just seems like any brewery that makes an over-hopped ale wins an award. Don’t get me wrong, I like hoppy ales sometimes! I just think the style is getting a little over done.

    McHops, you have to try some German beers man!

    Griffin, Wild Goose has 3$ pints of every draft beer every Thursday!

  11. Actually, I assume we have a lot in common with you Griffin since you said, and I quote, “I love beer.” That’s usually enough for us.

    But really…intellectually lazy? You’re honestly making that charge against the authors of a poorly-written, unresearched, free beer blog? “Intellectually lazy” would be a step up for us. I prefer the term “willfully ignorant”.

    I do appreciate your implication that we’re journalists, however. I’d like to think we’re at least on par with Fox News in terms of how much research we do before we make bombastic claims.

    In conclusion: Can lagers give you herpes? I don’t know! I’m just asking questions!

  12. Nhey, I’ve had many (and thoroughly enjoyed many!) German beers.

    This site is indeed about ALL beer (lagers, ales, and everything in between), but mostly it’s about conjecture, wild speculation, apoplectic rants, obsessive fanboy fawning, and outright plagiarism.

    In all honesty, I enjoy many lagers on a regular basis and love a well-crafted doppelbock, schwarzbier and marzen as much as a good brown, pale, or amber ale. But when push comes to shove, I prefer the complexity, bold flavors, and MUCH greater variability inherent in the world of ales than what you can find in the land of lagers.

    The lagering process, by its very nature, smooths out and subdues the nose and flavor of beer. That’s why they’re more popular than ales…because they’re easier-drinking and less aggressive. But for someone that actively WANTS big flavors and bold aromas, ales are usually the superior option.

  13. It’s never been my style to enter a public forum, but after reading Nhey’s comment, “the beer at Piece blows, but the pizza is awesome,” as the owner of Piece I cannot sit idly. While I appreciate his love for our pizza, to state that our beer “blows” is insulting to me, to my great brewer, Jonathan Cutler, to the beer lovers who flock to Piece daily, and to the judges at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup who have bestowed 19 medals at these festivals since 2002, including the highest honor of Champion Small Brewpub at the 2006 World Beer Cup.

  14. And thanks, Kid, for the well written blog. Fantastic things are happening in Chicago in craft beer. Esquire Magazine put Chicago on top in its article on the Best 7 Cities for Craft Beer.

    Hope to see you at Piece soon.

  15. Sorry Bill, I just do not like your beer that much. But I apologize for using “blows” as that was a little harsh.
    You might not like my hairstyle, but thats is ok.
    And you do have good pizza.

  16. You will see me, Bill! Thanks for stepping into the foray. Having just returned from “Rango,” it’s all the more clear that the internet is another Old West, and we’re just a bunch of gunslingers. Check back in a few days for the second half of Windy City Ale-volution–after all, as you said, there’s a LOT more to say.

  17. Griffin the Dog · · Reply

    The beer I enjoy right now, is available to me due to the extreme duress and hardship endured by them what come before me(grandparents) in times so frickin’ difficult I wouldn’t have had the balls to endure. They did it, hoping against all hope that somehow their descendants would be able to enjoy freedom and its benefits. I am a lucky man, my kids face no persecution and suffer no stigma for their ancestry. For we are DonauSchwaben, the good neighbors of the world, the great assimilators. We brew your beer and design your rockets. We are cowboys, scientists, Generals and laborers. Hard work? Yeah, we speak that. The best at everything you think Americans are good at. Why? Because freedom suits us SO WELL. We also understand that this freedom thing ain’t truly free. That’s why about half of us serve the country or community. We are usually very quiet, too, until somebody pokes the Beast in the eye. Now, my Grandparents were able to forgive unconditionally to achieve their dream of seeing offspring free from spiraling hatred and bigotry. A petty argument like this would make them wince. Guys, can’t we just have a beer?

  18. I never thought I’d be posting comments on yet another blog but Barley’s comments were so utterly disarming and funny that I just had to jump in. Thanks Barley, you’ve been the sugar in my morning coffee.

    Only unfiltered lagers cause herpes. Once you’ve got a taste for them it never goes away.

  19. Gracias, Marko. I can honestly say I’ve never been described as “sugar” before. Vinegar perhaps. Sometimes lye.

    Griffin, I have deleted my offending remark since we value our readers and appreciate their patronage. I would like to recommend that, in the future, you try not to get too worked up by off-the-cuff remarks in blog forums. The internet is many things, but “civil” is generally not considered one of them. Oh, and whatever you do…do NOT go to 4chan.org. Your head might explode.

  20. Alright Barley, vinegar or lye if you prefer– and I’ll be more cautious with my coffee tomorrow.

    I can sympathize with both Kid and nhey. Kid’s criticism of Metro was leavened with plenty of disclaimers but I’m still left with the question of why they were included at all if they don’t really qualify as an ale factory. Perhaps a hint of regret that Doug hasn’t focused his considerable talents on ales? I can agree that the thought of a Vienna style lager is not very tempting. Vienna is too close to České Budějovice for me to even notice that they brew anything. Perhaps I should make a trip to Vienna one of these days.

    I didn’t feel that nhey’s “IT’S BEER” was in any way writing anything off. I’ve noticed an almost pretentious effort by some brewers to create beers that stand out from the crowd by containing so many bizarre ingredients that they cease to have very much in common with what used to be a beverage with a four item recipe. The wonderful world of ales does occasionally take on some aspects of a freak show. I mean, how can I mock St. Louis swill for putting rice in their brew and still sip a blackberry ale with a smile on my face? I manage somehow. I try not to be an overbearing purist and keep my mind open. I’ll try anything once. But the brews that I come back to, the ones that I choose to share my meals with or even have for my dessert, are the ones that take that deceptively simple four item recipe and treat each item with the reverence that a wine maker gives his grapes. That reverence, that attention to detail, is what makes a great beer.

    Anyway (getting thirsty), I’ve been to Metropolitan Brewery. Yeah, it is weird but it is truly a very small company in an even smaller building. They simply don’t have the staff or space or time for tap rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, souvenir shops, game parlors, oompah bands or daily tours. I like weird.

    Ah, there I go again. Maybe I should just shut up and have a beer…

  21. […] Part I of this series, I introduced at a trifecta of three Chicago ale (and lager) factories that are part of the […]

  22. My God, the blanket statements abound on this site. To the guy who doesn’t like Piece’s beers…are you f’in serious? The best dunkleweisse this side of the Atlantic? Their incredible Kolsch? That lovely dubbel? I understand that an entire generation of you have grown up believing that good beer = hop bomb, (how’s that for a blanket statement), but seriously.

    Metropolitan makes session beers. Beers for normal consumption. And they tweek their recipes till they get it right. Their new Alt (yes, an ale, just like their Kolsch, which you forgot to mention was also an ale) is amazing. Fresh, delicious, bitter when it needs to be…but no hop aroma. Just like it’s supposed to be. I’ll buy it by the case, just like I do Flywheel, their bright lager, which is the best American lager out there. Period.

  23. […] now that are pushing the envelope in the same way that Goose Island did 10 years ago. I just ran a two-part series a few weeks ago extolling the virtues of breweries like Half Acre, Metropolitan, Piece, Revolution […]

  24. […] Brewery Krankshaft Kolsch:  I gave Metropolitan some shit a while back in my two-part brewery roundup of Chicago (already outdated), for making beers that […]

  25. […] back when I first started writing for Aleheads and conducted a now totally out-of-date survey of the Chicago brewing scene, one of the places I glossed over in my haste to showcase all the big, […]

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