If you’re heading to Chicago, come parched.
As of this writing, there are just under 200 breweries in the greater Chicagoland area. Like many American cities, the Chicago craft beer scene is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Eight Chicago-area breweries took home a total of 10 medals at the most recent Great American Beer Festival, further cementing Chicago’s place in the conversation of America’s best craft beer town.
We spoke with five breweries about the local craft beer industry, in an effort to place a hand on the healthy pulse of the craft scene in Chicago. We know you’re thirsty for beer, and assume you’re thirsty for information, too.
The Powder Keg
For many, the conversation about craft beer in Chicago starts and ends with Goose Island. Though some may snarl at the notion of calling it a craft brewer following its acquisition by AB InBev in 2011, what Goose Island has done for the beer industry in the Second City is undeniable. Since its inception in 1988, Goose Island beers are regular winners at festivals across the globe, while still supporting the local beer economy by hosting block parties and other events year-round.
Liquor store managers regularly find seasonal offerings, like Bourbon County Stout, quickly out of stock. While you can find typically 10 to 15 different Goose Island beers on shelves and behind the bar at any given time, there are usually twice that in research and development.
In this sense, Goose Island still operates more microbrew than macro, at least at its Chicago brewery. Brewmaster Jared Jankoski (formerly of New Glarus) has been with Goose Island since 2012, and was named brewmaster in the spring of 2015. In that time, he’s seen the craft scene blossom, not as a separate entity, but an extension of the vibrant arts scene in Chicago.
“It’s an amazing local community,” Jankoski. “People support local whatever it is, arts and culture. And beer is definitely part of that.”
Though he’s a Wisconsinite by birth, he’s passionate about Chicago’s craft scene and helped form the Chicago Brewing District—a coalition of five craft brewers in Chicago’s Near West Side.
“We banded together to make this little brewing district to encourage people to come out here. Breweries are in every neighborhood. They’re around every corner […] When craft beer grows, everyone grows and benefits. So we’re just trying to say, ‘hey, come out to this neighborhood and walk around.’”
Jankoski was pretty tight-lipped when asked about the sort of things Goose Island has planned for the future, but one can be sure that if it passes the eye and taste test in the tasting labs there, it will be drunk passionately in Chicago.
Brewers Gone Wild
In one way, Off Color Brewing is defined by what it doesn’t serve rather than what it does. It doesn’t brew an IPA, and has no intentions of doing so, according to Ben Ustick, social media manager at Off Color. Its flagship beer, Apex Predator—a farmhouse ale—makes up the majority of sales, so that’s where most of its hops go.
Off Color is also the most recent local brewer to add a destination taproom. Coined Mousetrap in Chicago’s trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood, the brewery finally has the capacity to expand on its wild program, which Ustick says had to take a backseat due to space and time constraints.
The original brewery on the edge of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood can produce 8,000 barrels of beer a year. Mousetrap will add an additional 2,000 barrels to its capacity—all of which will be used to run its wild and cask program. The brewery invested in five Barolo wine casks from Italy and a Calvados apple brandy cask from France and are looking forward to seeing how their beer interacts with the spirits.
“We’re super excited because we feel like we started this path forward with the wilds and wild fermentation,” Ustick says. “But there’s so much that can be done. Even things [like] at some point going out with a petri dish to an apple orchard and collecting your own wild bacteria, and really doing something wild in the truest sense.”
The brewers at Off Color haven’t gone out to an orchard yet to harvest bacteria, but co-owner and brewer Dave Bleitner has grown his own plants, like costmary, to be used as an ingredient in his beer.
Unlike other craft operations, Off Color is known for collaborating with Big Beer. It just may be the only microbrewery that’s ever made a beer with Miller High Life.
“We are a huge fan of collaborations. We drink more High Life than anyone,” Ustick says as Notorious B.I.G. bumps in the chilly Logan Square brewery. “John [Laffler] went up to Milwaukee to brew High Life on their pilot system; it was a dream of his. Then they came down here and brought their champagne yeast and their light-resistant hop [extract] and we made Off Color Eeek.”
Mousetrap has 12 Off Color beers on draft, many of which are experimental, to go along with three guest beers and a craft cocktail on tap. Off Color also got the necessary license to distill its own sake, and is starting up a coffee program. It is indeed a one-stop-shop for thirsty Chicagoans.
“We want people to feel that higher-end service and quality without the bone-crushing prices of high-end cocktail bars, so I think we’ll be providing something special,” Ustick says. “We want to provide this middle ground of high-end beer and thoughtful flavored beer that’s really led by yeast and hops and bacteria that ties into flavors of cocktails. A lot of ingredients make these delicate compositions of flavors. How you pour ingredients into a cocktail changes how it drinks. So I think that speaks to our sensibilities.”
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