In 1917, Chicago had more than 200 different breweries producing beer for thirsty city dwellers. Early German immigrants had brought lager from across the ocean, and the breweries they built were among the largest and most important businesses in the city. But in 1917, Prohibition was enacted, giving birth to a wild, lawless, underground beer business, flourishing with speak-easy Chicago pubs, run by the likes of Al Capone. After Prohibition was repealed and beer began flowing openly again, Chicago’s breweries couldn’t quite shake their shady past, with all the vicious infighting that had come with it. Large, well-organized beer conglomerates from St. Louis rushed in, took advantage of the confusion, and effectively put all of Chicago’s breweries out of business.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that a successful brewery opened its doors in Chicago again. America’s “craft beer revolution,” was just getting started. All over the country, people were beginning to turn away from the refreshing-but-bland lagers that had dominated the market for a century and started to explore richer, frutier, more complex ale-style beers.
Goose Island Brewpub
When Goose Island Brewpub opened its doors in 1981, it catered to these changing tastes with its Honkers Ale, a mild ESB that has become the signature beer of Chicago. Goose Island Brewpub was a huge success, and the company soon expanded operations and began bottling and distributing its beers throughout the city and beyond. Goose Island now sells its line of 14 craft beers in 15 states and the U.K. All of these brews can be sampled at Goose Island’s two Chicago brewpubs, in addition to a number of “pub beers” brewed exclusively for the restaurants. Chicago’s “original brewpub” – Goose Island Clybourn is located less than a block from Wrigley Field (3535 N. Clark St). Stop by for a craft brew and stay for a little taste of Chicago nightlife.
Goose Island’s success inspired a number of Chicago’s craft beer enthusiasts to begin brewing commercially. More than 20 breweries and brewpubs now operate in the city and suburbs – many of which have garnered impressive awards. In 2006, Piece Brewery and Pizzeria was named Champion Small Brewpub at the prestigious World Beer Cup. Located in amid the retail boutique Mecca of Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, Piece serves New Haven-style thin crust pizza and small batch beers in a spacious and casual setting. Piece also features musical acts on Friday nights and, for the truly brave (or beer-emboldened) live band karaoke every Saturday.
Rock Bottom Brewery
Rock Bottom Brewery is located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Besides delicious microbrews, Rock Bottom’s biggest attraction is its stunning rooftop beer garden, featuring skyline views, that is open throughout the summer months. Chicago’s Rock Bottom Brewery is an outpost of a national chain that originated in Boulder, Colorado, the cradle of America’s craft beer craze. Although the atmosphere is somewhat corporate, the convenient location, delicious brews, and amazing views more than make up for it.
Three Floyd's Brewing Company
It’s a bit of a hike out to Munster, Indiana to sample Three Floyds Brewing Co.’s line of hop-heavy brews. But for those who love bitter, aromatic beers, it’s well, well worth the trip. Three Floyds specializes in out-there brews with over-the-top hops. Alpha King, an American Pale Ale that has gained cult status among hop heads, is Three Floyds’ flagship brew. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the Chicago area in late April, you can be one of a tiny handful of people who get to try Three Floyds’ legendary Dark Lord Imperial Stout. Released on one day each year, Dark Lord can only be purchased at the brewery on the day of its release – a day celebrated with BBQ, live music, and an unofficial “brew swap” among beer enthusiasts from all over the world. Although Dark Lord is the hardest Three Floyds beer to come by, unless you live in Illinois or Indiana – the only states in which the brewery distributes – it’s pretty much impossible to find any of Three Floyds’ beers. So if a trip to Three Floyds Pub in Munster just won’t fit into your travel plans, be sure to check out their brews at Chicago’s best watering holes. Three Floyds’ beers are always on tap at the city’s famed beer bars The Hopleaf, The Map Room, and Delilah’s.
Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery
Named “Best Small Brewpub” at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, Flossmoor’s Station Restaurant and Brewery is located in the historic Flossmoor railway station, just steps off the Metra’s University Park line. Although it’s a good 45-minute train ride from downtown Chicago, Flossmoor’s line of award-winning beers are certainly work the trek. Finding your minibar choices a bit bleak? Flossmoor sells half-gallon growlers to liven up your hotel fridge. And if you get a little parched on the train ride back to the city, here’s a little-known fact: the University Park Metra line is one of the only train lines in the city where you and your friends can pour yourselves a glass from your growler, sit back, sip, and enjoy the passing scenery – within reason, of course.
These are just a few of your choices in a city that is becoming not only the epicenter of progressive American cuisine, but a capital of progressive beer as well. Slowly, but surely, beer and brewing are recapturing their former glory as an essential part of the city’s culture and industry. For a full list of Chicagoland brewpubs, check out the exhaustive Chicago Beer Guide, put together by the always-helpful folks at the Chicago Beer Society, the oldest beer club in the United States.