Old Chicago’s Explorer Series Comes to St. Paul

Summit and Old Chicago team up to create Cracking Wit, a Belgian witbier perfect for patio season

Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom is known mostly for the pizza part of their name. But the restaurant chain is all about the beer—and always has been.

Since opening in Boulder, Colorado, in 1976, Old Chicago has stocked its bars with craft beers. More than 30 are on tap at a time, ranking them as the second-largest craft-beer purveyor in the chain-restaurant scene. (Buffalo Wild Wings technically comes in on top, but also has more than 840 locations to Old Chicago’s 100.)

From the beginning, Old Chicago has encouraged guests to try new beers through its World Beer Tour, which rewards members for drinking the global brews on tap. In 2014, they took things a step further and initiated the Explorer Series. The program pairs Old Chicago with breweries to collaborate on new beers and put a handful of breweries’ top offerings on tap at Old Chicago locations for two to three weeks at a time.

The first three collaborations were with Odell, Boulevard, and Left Hand Brewing Companies (as well as Allegro Coffee Company, which partnered with Left Hand). But Old Chicago brand manager Jason Murphy says that when he originally thought up the idea for the Explorer Series, he had one brewery in mind: St. Paul, Minnesota’s, Summit Brewing Company. On May 20, Murphy’s goal will be realized as Summit’s EPA, Saga, Hopvale, and new Cracking Wit take over the taps of 43 Old Chicago’s in 11 states.

Cracking Wit is a witbier that blends traditional Belgian white ale elements—light body, fruity/peppery notes from Belgian yeast—with the “it” hop of the moment: Equinox. “As far as we know, Cracking Wit is the first witbier using these hops,” says Murphy, referring to himself and Summit head brewer Damian McConn. The result is a traditional Belgian beer with aromas and flavors of tangerine and papaya—the perfect summer-patio drinking beer, especially at 4.7% ABV and 32 IBU.

McConn took the lead on choosing the witbier for the Explorer collaboration. “He said Summit hadn’t done a witbier in more than five years, and it was something he really wanted to do,” Murphy says. “We agreed—especially after he mentioned wanting to make it using the Equinox hops.”

If it seems surprising that Old Chicago would partner with the Summits and Odells of the nation—that’s the point. The goal of the Explorer Series is to show craft-beer lovers that Old Chicago caters to their cravings as much as any other craft-beer bar.

“We want to push regulars outside their comfort zones and appeal to the crowd that frequents craft-beer bars like The Happy Gnome,” Murphy explains. “We want to show our guests that we’re passionate about the beer we serve and to give them beer that’s relevant to them in their market.”

With seven Old Chicago locations and a booming craft-beer scene, Murphy says Minnesota was a natural fit for this vision.

Cracking Wit will be on tap at all seven Minnesota Old Chicago locations starting May 20. It will be available as long as there’s beer in the keg. Also on tap from Summit will be EPA, Saga, and Hopvale Organic Ale, which will be available for two to three weeks.

You can also find Cracking Wit on tap at the Summit Brewing Beer Hall and Tap Room (910 Montreal Circle, St. Paul).

Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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