April 7, 2011

Beer Planet: Chicago

In the cocked-eyebrow, mischievous corner of my brain lives a dream scenario wherein I leave the Twin Cities on the edge of a whim, ready to ride the winds of the world. The past two years have seen my midwinter vacation as nearly the opposite: calculated travels by train to well-researched places for R&R, and of course...beer.
I had heard the talk & seen the images of brew-centric Portland, OR; Beervana, as it were. I had never been that far west & felt compelled to drop my end-of-year savings on a trip, by Amtrak’s Empire Builder, to experience the city that Lewis, Clark & a million craft beer folk use as a dream beacon.

All through the past year, whether over my brew kettle at home or packing homebrew equipment for countless orders at work, the idea of being kissed by sweet northwest air & suds that I barely knew sustained me. One day before the trip was to commence, though, fate placed its hand on my head & knocked the pint right out of my hand.

Our American rail system a marvel; unfortunately, it hasn’t grown with the nation. When a freight train derails in Montana, there’s only the trackage that first spanned America for all trains in front & behind the pileup upon which to queue. How could I have known last December that my choice of departure date would be smack in the middle of winter’s hairiest delay?

My Beervana fantasy was snatched; my wife & I could only travel east by rail. Airlines are no option for us. We enjoy Amtrak for the two free carry-ons & the chance to sip homebrew in a private compartment, the American landscape inches outside our window. That westward dream terminated in St. Paul. Where eastward would be our destination to sip & stroll?

As Sufjan Stevens proclaims, Go Chicago, Go!

So we reversed the tickets & got a hotel on Priceline. Packing a growler of double IPA, the Amtrak refund & a few clothes we stepped into the flow of the windy city. As adults we hadn’t yet been to Chicago as anything but travelers on layover. Beyond the awesome museums, vogue stores & skyscrapers that clearly identify tourists as the ones looking up, where do homebrewers get their kicks?

The ‘L’ trains are a drinker’s best friend. They’re efficient enough to seat you on a barstool before you’re parched, and friendly on the senses to deliver you home without the stop & go of a cab (way cheaper, too). The Red line took us to Goose Island, the iconoclastic original Chicago brewery. Their Clybourn brewpub is Americana through an imperial pint. 

Bonus: there’s a few Chicago-exclusive brews. My favorites were the Green Line Pale Ale and the Pork Soda. The first is a balanced, light golden ale with a fleeting touch of biscuit. The latter is a collaborative brew & an orange hop monster held at bay! Bearing citrus bitterness with a residual pine hop & finishing Belgian esters, it drinks as awesome as the Primus album for which it may have been named.

The Goose has built a reputation as Chicago’s microbrew. Though growing less micro, their brewers are blending tradition with experimentation to assure it remains part of the Chi-town zeitgeist. Try the properly aged IPA with Sriracha wings; you’ll get an old & new world kick. There was also a 6% Sahti when we went. Just try & tell me that doesn’t start your grain bill ideas!

The Blue line traces Milwaukee Ave. past the storefront (now a whiskey bar) where High Fidelity was filmed. Called either Wicker Park or Bucktown, it’s the setting for choice food & drink experiences. We hit up Piece Brewing (twice) & Revolution Brewing.

Piece Brewing won the 2006 GABF’s best small brewery award, and don’t expect them to turn down the kettle five years on. I spent our visits in the airy skylight atmosphere contemplating how to brew a Dunkelweizen like their Dark ‘n Curvy. That’s one tall beer that compliments a smoky BBQ bacon pizza with light malt layers of chocolate & a nice snappy finish.

Revolution Brewing is two stations north. Pints in hand, we idled in the packed crowd for a chance to sit a body’s width apart from other casual diners drinking up clean brews poured from fist-shaped tap handles. The menu dresses Chicago favorites like BBQ ribs & chili dogs with well-grown fruits, veggies & cheeses. The Iron Fist Pale Ale had all the hoppy trimmings of the northwest, while the Kinks-named Village Green Bitter had a more pungent, yet restrained Northdown hop flavor. I recommend the Workingwoman Brown on cask with baconfat (yes) drizzled popcorn.

Through yearning for humid Cascadian air and those Portland brews, the wife & I were soothed by the manic harmony of the metroplex we thought we knew. Chicago brewers find ways to uniquely accent each individual brew. They find the perfect moment in the boil to make a flavor hop smack your tongue, then linger. They give high gravity brews exact fermentation & aging controls to make a beer smooth enough to happily lose oneself and survive the winds off Lake Michigan.

With Oregon on next year’s calendar, I’m happily & practically recalling my sudden week in Chicago. If I can learn to get on & off public transit in the allowed half second without looking like a tourist, I can learn to brew with the clean character of Chicago’s eccentric & traditional beers without realizing it happened on my stovetop.


  1. Sorry you missed out on our Beervana, but you found a great time in my hometown. It's too bad you didn't get to the Hopleaf for the incredible selection of beers they have. Portland awaits your travels next year, and there will no doubt be 12 more breweries here by that time!

  2. In Chicago myself, appreciate the shoutout. Chicago is on the cusp of becoming a big beer capital in the midwest.

  3. Haymarket brewery is a must see as well, it's my personal favorite having been to all of them in Chicago.

  4. No Chicago-inspired recipe? Weak!
    You're slipping, Steve.

    Just kidding, man... but in all honestly I do love me some SS recipes on the NB blog when we can get them.

  5. Chip, you keep me viable!

    Here's my go at the Green Line Pale:

    5 gallons, all-grain

    7.5# Canadian Pale Malt
    1.5# Belgian Pale Malt
    1# Belgian Biscuit Malt
    1# American Caramel 20L
    Mash at 151 F.

    Collect 7 gallons, boil 90 min.
    0.45 oz. Columbus 60 min.
    0.75 oz. German Hallertau 15 min.
    1 oz. Cascade 5 min.
    0.35 oz. Simcoe (or Falconer's Flight) 0 min

    Chill to 66 F. & pitch appropriate starter Y1099 Whitbread Ale Yeast
    Ferment 2 weeks primary, 2 weeks secondary.

  6. First tasting notes:

    Reduce Hallertau addition to 0.5 oz. Maybe make the Columbus a first wort hopping addition?

    Not shabby, but the hops need to yield to the biscuit character to be a good clone.

  7. Do you have a clone for the Iron Fist Pale Ale?