Wandering the Windy City
Mention Chicago to most people, and what comes to mind? Conventions, sports and, oh yes, unpredictable weather. Not long ago, a convention landed us in the city, and Mother Nature greeted us with 90 degree heat and humidity to match. Oh, the hardships of beer traveling.
We went to college in Indiana, where our classmates from Chicago raved about Old Style, the favorite local beer. Old Style is still popular, but nowadays, most establishments offer craft brew—Fat Tire has come to Chicago—as well as the traditional brands. Neighborhood taverns are places to meet friends, watch a ballgame, or discuss politics—all favorite pastimes in the Windy City.
After spending time in those laid-back gathering places, you’ll wish you had one just like them in your neighborhood. Chicago is a beer bar town, but it’s the home of several brewpubs as well. Getting around, both on foot and by public transportation, is easy. CTA “fun passes” are good for a 24 hour period and only cost $5 for unlimited travel on buses and the El, the famous elevated trains.
Goose Island Brewing, the city’s first modern-day craft brewery, is fast approaching its twentieth anniversary. It has two locations with taprooms, and another production facility on Fulton Street. The original brewpub is in the Lincoln Park area (1800 North Clybourn Avenue). The other brewpub, Goose Island Wrigleyville (3535 North Clark Street), is, yes, not far from Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs. More about them later.
The brewery was one of the first establishments in a neighborhood renaissance. The first time we visited the area, a dozen or so years ago, it was crumbling. Today, it’s a vibrant shopping area.
“The Goose” has several year-round beers, and their seasonal rotation is quite large. So large, in fact, that they invite patrons to get a MBA card—that’s “Master of Beer Appreciation.” Get a card, sample all 64 beers (not on the same day, of course!) and get a plaque with your name on the wall displaying your achievement.
The flagship beer is Honkers Ale, which is also widely available in restaurants and watering holes around town. The other mainstays include IPA, Nut Brown Ale and Oatmeal Stout. There’s a daily cask-conditioned ale to boot. The kitchen serves hearty portions, and the chef adds interesting twists to traditional dishes. The Goose’s beers, by the way, are now available in 15 states and the U.K.
Give Piece a Chance
Nothing about Piece Brewpub (1927 West North Avenue) is conventional. In 2001 owner Rick Neilsen, of the band “Cheap Trick,” converted a roofing company building into a pizzeria, complete with a skylight and a big open front window overlooking a lively street in a neighborhood filled with clubs and restaurants. Inside, modern decor contrasts with exposed brick walls.
Piece boasts a long list of award-winning beers. In 2006, it took home Champion Small Brewery honors at the World Beer Cup competition. And that pizza? It’s a thin-crust style from New Haven, CT, not the famous deep-dish style served almost everywhere else in Chicago. There’s a good lineup of guest taps and an interesting selection of bottled beers, including a wide variety of Belgians.
Within walking distance of Piece is the Map Room (1949 North Hoyne). You’ve probably heard of it, even if you’ve never been to Chicago. To call it famous is an understatement. The neighborhood doesn’t see many tourists except for those on a serious beer expedition. And why not? This small and informal establishment offers one of the best tap and bottle selections in the Midwest.
Blackboards above the bar list the “Beer of the Month,” “Belgian Drafts,” “American Craft Beers,” and “Import Drafts.” Don’t worry: paper versions are available, along with a “Traveller’s Guide,” which describes the various styles of beer, and examples of each. This would be an ideal place to study for the BJCP exam.
True to its name, the Map Room is decorated in a travel theme, with globes, old atlases, and shelves full of back numbers of National Geographic, many of which we remembered reading as kids. The far wall, beyond the pool tables, contains a relief map of Africa but with black oceans instead of blue ones. And no, the beer hasn’t gone to your head: that really is France and Iberia where Saudi Arabia ought to be.
A great deal of thought went into the tap selections. In addition to the better Belgians—bar staff are careful to serve them in appropriate glassware—the list includes Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA, Flossmoor Station Panama Red, and Three Floyds Alpha King, along with Stiegl Pils from Salzburg, Austria. What’s on tap is subject to change and that, after all, is why you come to places like this.
Refreshingly Old Fashioned
Half a mile from the Loop, amid touristy theme restaurants and old-school Irish bars in a district north of the Chicago River, you’ll find the Clark Street Ale House (724 N. Clark Street). It’s an unpretentious, old-fashioned bar, the kind where people from all walks of life can unwind over a pint.
This establishment appeals to beer lovers without descending into snobbery. The emphasis is variety over the sheer number of tap handles. There’s at least one hand pull available too. Unusually for a beer bar, samples are available as well.
The long, skinny barroom leads to an outdoor beer garden in back. There’s lots of beer-themed art on the wall opposite the front entrance, and the TV volume is kept low to allow guests to have a conversation. The menu is good bar fare, and you’ll notice little touches like pint glasses full of pretzel rods set out in front of you.
Clark Street Ale House stays open very late and gets busy in the wee hours of the morning. The staff is very knowledgeable about beer—another big plus. It’s easy to find, too: look for the big neon sign that says “Drink Here.”
Paul is part German American, so he couldn’t resist a visit to Resi’s Bierstrube (2034 West Irving Park Road), reportedly the city’s last surviving German beer garden. It’s located behind the restaurant and has about a dozen wrought-iron tables and chairs and guarded by a couple of sturdy trees. It looks like Brainiac, the villain from Superman comics, shrank a German beer garden to the size of an urban backyard and plunked it down here.
Once we saw the beer list, we knew that all was well. The selections include BBK Kutscher Alt, Spaten Optimator and Lager, Hacker-Pschorr, Konig Pilsner and even Kostritzer Black Lager, one of the first beers from the former East Germany to find its way to America. The food, of course, is classic German fare.
Beer traveling makes a person hungry, so we couldn’t resist a side trip to the Billy Goat Tavern (430 N. Michigan Avenue on the lower level), the establishment made forever famous by the short-order cook on Saturday Night Live who yelled, “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!”
You won’t find any exotic beers—though there is a house lager of mysterious provenance—but you will be transported back to the days when journalists were called “newsmen” and alcohol was part of the mix that produced their writing. The now-fading photos of celebrities contain quite a few local media people, as well as sports figures your father—or maybe his father—rooted for.
Besides, if you’re a baseball fan like us, how could you resist finding out the story behind the famous “Billy Goat curse” put on the Cubs?
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.