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.
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.
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.