Craft beer catches on in Chicago

By Matt Watson

The bartender dashes back and forth, filling drinks and sliding them across the counter to eagerly waiting customers. Roughly 30 people crowd around the bar, laughing and trying to talk above the person squeezed in next to them. The dining area, filled with a mix of young hipsters and older professionals, is completely full. Glass windows cover the back wall, revealing giant fermenters and a man skimming sediment from a vat of fresh beer. This is the scene at Revolution Brewery, 2323 N. Milwaukee Ave., on a Saturday afternoon.

Revolution is of one of five new brew pubs that have opened in the last five years, more than doubling Chicago’s number. The microbrewery scene here, long dominated by Goose Island Beer Company, 1800 N. Clybourn Ave., has lagged behind those of other major cities for decades. Apart from Goose Island and Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, 1 W. Grand Ave., microbreweries were few and far between. However, experts said Chicago’s tight-knit microbrew community is growing because there’s a greater awareness of craft beers and a desire for a more refined taste.

While Chicago doesn’t have as many breweries per capita as Portland, Ore. or Denver, according to Keith Lemcke, vice president of Siebel Institute of Technology, a brewing school located at 1777 N. Clybourn Ave., the scene is becoming increasingly popular.

“The city is on a craft brewing roll,” Lemcke said. “Not only are new breweries opening on a regular basis, but Chicago has a rapidly growing beer bar and gastro

pub culture.”

According to Martin Coad, brewer at Brew and Grow, 3625 N. Kedzie Ave., the growing craft beer culture in Chicago isn’t new; it’s

a renaissance.

“Before Prohibition, there were about 60 breweries in Chicago,” Coad said. “These days, you can count how many there are in the city on one hand.” When Prohibition was repealed, Coad said, the federal government gave power to the states to regulate alcohol. This created the three-tier system, a government regulation that requires beer producers to go through distributors to get their beer to bars or stores.

“The distributors are huge now because the laws favor them, and they don’t always care about small brewers,” Coad said. “They’re busy with Anheuser-[Busch].”

Gabriel Magliano, owner of Half Acre Beer Company, 4257 N. Lincoln Ave., said the system adds a level of complication to the beer-selling process by requiring small brewpubs to go through a distributor to sell to each other.

“I think all the small brewers, including myself, agree that should you want to self distribute, you can,” Magliano said. Not all states require microbreweries to go through distributors, but Coad said Illinois does.

Despite these laws, microbreweries have been sprouting up more frequently in Chicago. In February 2010, Revolution opened for business. The brewery was immediately acclaimed by food critics and patrons alike, Coad said. It has 11 house brews, and a plethora of other craft and mainstream beers. Revolution recently won the top five best new microbreweries in 2010 award by Brew master Jim Cibak is no newcomer to the brewing community because he previously worked at Goose Island.

On Christmas Eve 2010, Haymarket Pub and Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St., opened its doors with seven house brews. The pub’s Mathias Imperial IPA won favorite beer in the 2011 Illinois Brew Pub Shootout. Haymarket specializes in Belgian and contemporary American beers from brew master Pete Crowley.

Bob Wagner, general manager at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, 1927 W. North Ave., said with more brew pubs opening, people are moving away from big name beer and trying small batch brews that give more attention and care to detail.

“When I started [in 2001], it was just Rock Bottom, Goose Island and us. And now you have Metropolitan, Revolution and Half Acre,” Wagner said. “The trend in the beer movement has a lot of followers who are very passionate about it.”

Wagner said giant companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have long dominated the beer market, but things are starting to change. Many younger people who are new to the beer market are searching for something outside the mainstream.

“I think people are starting to want more from their beer, and demand more from it,” Wagner said. “We make beers where you can sit down and have two, three, four, five … up to seven or eight beers.”

Brew masters are very passionate about their work, Wagner said, and take great care and pride into crafting a unique brew. The crowd that appreciates craft beers isn’t looking to get drunk; they care about the taste. Coad said there has been a huge movement in the beer culture in Chicago. People are treating good beer like wine.

This love of beer has led microbreweries to grow close, Wagner said. The community is very tight, and many brewers are friends.

“We don’t see them as competitors, we see them as our equals,” Wagner said. “We throw beer parties seasonally and we try to support local breweries. I think the culture is very friendly; the breweries get along and work together a lot. There’s a lot of collaboration that goes along.”

Magliano said it’s a supportive environment, and he couldn’t ask for a better community of people. Breweries in the city also work together on recipes.

“We get together one day, brew a bunch of beer, drink a bunch of beer and have fun,” Magliano said. “Sometimes you can do collaborative beer dinners. We always do a lot of big local events that local brewers will come out for and pour beer.”

Groups such as the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild and the American Home Brewers Association help brewers collaborate, trade ideas and continue to learn. Wagner said Chicago’s microbreweries gladly sell one another’s beer and promote it to their customers.

“We serve PBR and Miller Lite bottles,” Wagner said. “But we encourage people to branch out, try new things and promote beer culture because it’s something we believe in and appreciate, and it’s something growing in popularity.”