Chicago's Booming Beer Scene, Explained

The Windy City is setting itself up as America's next beer mecca. Here's how they did it.

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Half Acre Beer Company

Perhaps no American city has embraced beer in recent years as heartily as Chicago. Places like Portland and San Diego have well-deserved reputations as craft brewing hotspots, but the Windy City – home to a pack of upstarts, several established players and two of the country's premier institutions of beer knowledge – seems well on its way to replacing its northern neighbor, home of baseball's Brewers, as the mecca of American beer.  

“The trend in Chicago mirrors larger national trends in craft beer, but 2012 will be a banner year particularly for Chicago,” says Paul Schneider, who writes about the city's craft beer scene at chitownontap.com. “We are primed for absolutely unprecedented growth in volume, dollars, breweries, and SKUs.”

The city's biggest beer producer is of course MillerCoors, America’s second largest brewer, which opened its new headquarters downtown a few years ago. But it's the craft beer scene that's got the most depth these days:

  • The local leader is Goose Island. Launched by John Hall in 1988 as a brewpub on the city's North Side, it's now the 18th biggest U.S. brewer and was recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch. Goose Island's beers are sold across the U.S. as well as in the U.K. and Sweden. Its ales win major awards seemingly every year, and its limited-run specialty brews – such as Bourbon County Coffee Stout, which is brewed with beans from Intelligentsia coffee – usually sell out in minutes.
  • Jason Ebel and his brother Jim founded the other elder statesman among Chicago's craft brewers, Two Brothers, in suburban Warrenville, Illinois, in 1996. The company continues to expand – opening its second brewpub, in a 150-year-old, 70,000 square-foot roundhouse, last year – and its award-winning Domaine DuPage and Bitter End brews are sold across the Midwest and in New York.
  • Half Acre Beer began production in 2006, but gained a much higher profile after opening its Lincoln Square brewery and tasting room and launching its Daisy Cutter Pale Ale a few years later. After facing frequent shortages due to high demand, Half Acre is expanding to boost production by a third.*
  • Revolution Brewing opened a brewpub in Logan Square in late 2009 and is now building a stand-alone production facility, with cans expected to reach area shelves by May or June.*
  • Flossmoor Station, in the suburb of Flossmoor, has been named the best small brewpub brewer in America by the Great American Beer Festival.
  • Then there's Three Floyd's. Every year on the late April day it releases its Russian imperial stout, Dark Lord, some 6,000 beer lovers from across the world descend on the tiny burg of Munster, Indiana, and transform the Three Floyd's brewery and pub into a pilgrimage destination just to claim a few bottles of the black brew.

“Pretty much every local brewery is operating at capacity and trying to find ways to get more beer to market,” says Schneider. “They can't make it fast enough.”

And it's only the beginning. Schneider's 2012 craft beer preview lists nearly two-dozen Chicago area brewers in various planning stages.

Several are embracing innovation. The New Chicago Beer Company has partnered with The Plant, a sustainable food production facility on the South Side. Samuel Evans, who owns New Chicago Beer with his brother Jesse, is looking forward to fueling his brewery with steam from The Plant's $2 million anaerobic digester.*

“It makes perfect sense for a brewery because we create a lot of organic byproducts and use a ton of energy,” says Evans. “Other breweries have to cart away their spent grain, we just wheel it down the hallway and put it in the digester.” (Magic Hat Brewing, in Vermont, uses a similar digester.)

Argyle Brewing is creating what may be the first community-supported brewery. The Ravenswood outfit will support itself with subscriptions from members, who will in turn receive their monthly supply of brews.

Other new brewers include Broad Shoulders Brewing, founded by a former Goose Island brewer, and Pipeworks Brewing, which recently began production in its Wicker Park location after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

So why is this happening in Chicago? Chalk at least some of it up to institutional memory. Across the street from Goose Island's original brewpub on Clybourn Avenue sits the Siebel Institute of Technology, founded in 1871 and the oldest brewing school in the United States. Scions of the Stroh's and Busch families learned the brewing arts at Siebel nearly a century ago. Today, scores of 21st century brewers-to-be come looking to gain insight on the finer points of hops and brewing styles. Siebel offers classes in Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, and at its sister campus in Munich, Germany.

Chicago is also home to the Craft Beer Institute, which trains beer servers, distributors and restaurant and industry professionals in the history, production, handling, and consumption of beer. The program recently issued its 10,000 certified beer server certificate, just four years after Chicagoan Ray Daniels created the program.

With established players like Goose Island, up-and-comers like Half Acre and a wave of newcomers, new entrants to Chicago's craft beer scene might worry about the competition. Not so. “We're not worried in the slightest,” says Samuel Evans of New Chicago Beer. “We're actually friends with the majority of these new breweries, and we all have our own niche we're going after. Craft beer's a very interesting industry, it's very open. There's countless collaborations between breweries. When one brewery struggles, others come in and help them out. It's just a culture that's been created around this young growing industry.”

Chicago's craft brewers are developing a culture of collaboration and cooperation just as millions of Chicagoans are learning to appreciate a fine brew. “The craft beer scene is definitely going to be a prominent feather in Chicago's cap,” says Schneider.

*An earlier version of this article misstated the name of New Chicago's head brewer. This story also incorrectly stated that Revolution makes bottled beer; they produce only canned beer. Finally the story incorrectly state that Half Acre required tour reservations - they are now first-come, first serve.

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.