Windy City Suds

A guided tour of Chicago’s best microbreweries
By Bob Gendron

Back of the Yards is one of the last places anyone would expect to find a brewery in Chicago. The hardscrabble South Side neighborhood, named for its location behind the former Union Stock Yards. which helped give the city its blue-collar reputation and inspired Upton Sinclair’s literary classic The Jungle, has for decades been best known as a breeding ground for violence. That Whiner Beer Company (1400 W. 46th St.) set up a state-of-the-art brewery and canning facility in the heart of the neighborhood serves as evidence of just how vibrant Chicago’s beer scene has become — and the extent to which it continues to boom.

Barrels on display at the Whiner Beer Company on the south side of Chicago. For a story on the Whiner Beer Company. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia /Special to FAR

Once associated with working-class macro suds such as Old Style, Chicago looms as one of the country’s most diverse, acclaimed and community-minded beer destinations. More than four dozen craft breweries call the city home. Roughly 100 others line the suburbs and outlying areas. A handful — Half Acre Beer Company, Piece Brewery & Pizza, Metropolitan Brewing, and northwest Indiana-based 3 Floyds Brewing Co. and Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery — have operated for nearly a decade or more.

But a majority, like taproom-less standouts such as Pipeworks Brewing Co. and Off Color Brewing, emerged within the last four years. They took root primarily in distinctive albeit underserved Chicago neighborhoods, just like Lagunitas Brewing Company, which in spring 2014 opened a facility in a one-time steel warehouse to complement its California base.

And what about the brewery that put Chicago beer back on the map in the late ‘80s? Goose Island Beer Company still produces small-batch beers and offers tours at its 1800 W. Fulton Street location. But many of its packaged offerings hail from Fort Collins, Colorado, and Baldwinsville, New York — a consequence of going national after selling to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011.

Bartender Elena Powell attends to customers at the Whiner Beer Company on the south side of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

Brian Taylor, Whiner co-founder and brewmaster, knows Goose Island well. He learned about wild yeast, bacteria and wine-barrel aging, and aided in the creation of the company’s Belgian-styled Juliet, Sophie, and Madame Rose beers while working there. With his partner Ria Neri, a fellow sour beer enthusiast, Taylor began molding their extensive experience — Taylor started in the industry in 2000, long before homebrew stores proliferated — into a vision for a brewery in 2013. After two years of fundraising, and another 18 months spent tackling construction and licensing, Whiner became a reality.

Housed in the Plant, a former meatpacking facility turned net-zero energy business incubator focused on community empowerment and material reuse, Whiner distinguishes itself by way of extraordinary Belgian-style beers, a sprawling European-themed taproom, and efficient production.

The youthful-looking Taylor, with his laid-back personality, radiant smile, and left-arm tattoo sleeve, mirrors the fun spirit of Whiner’s beverages. He could easily talk the ins and outs of beer all day but never gives the impression he’d ever talk down to someone who knows far less. “We didn’t want to be the normal brewery opening every month in Chicago,” he says, speaking while overseeing the canning line. “Our goal was to make some crazy beers and be environmentally sound. I know how wasteful breweries are. We wanted to devote energy to sustainability and zero waste.”

The word “beer” caps the outside building at the Whiner Beer Company on the south side of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia /Special to FAR

Inside the taproom — its high ceilings, concrete columns and floors, exposed brick walls, super-stretch bar, and wooden communal tables with built-in planters evoking a hybrid of an old-school Belgian church and castle — pipes run along the walls, filled with algae that eats CO2 and creates O2. Spent grain helps fuel the Plant’s anaerobic digester, which produces energy for the entire building. Whiner’s boiler runs off methane rather than electricity. There are future plans for a putting a greenhouse on the roof and controlling its temperature via spent steam coming off the kettle stack.

Behind the scenes, Whiner accommodates stainless-steel fermentation tanks as well as a growing collection of oak barrels required for French- and Belgian-themed beers. Tours of the Plant take place on Saturdays; Whiner conducts tours on Sundays. But the best reason to visit comes down to the beer. A kolsch with subtle apple notes (Et La Tête), funky barrel-aged saison (Pretty Bird), and bière de garde flavored with melon hops (Rubrique a Brac) constitute several standards at a brewery that’s anything but.
“I do have people that call and wonder if they are going to die if they come here,” says Taylor, laughing, who says he hasn’t had a single problem in Back of the Yards. “All our neighbors come support us. It’s a nice little bubble with families. You need locals to survive — you can’t depend on outsiders coming for the day.”

A proud sense of community also serves as the backbone of Old Irving Brewing Co. (OIB) (4419 W. Montrose Ave.). Located seconds from the I-94 expressway that goes to O’Hare Airport and just a four-minute walk from the Montrose Blue Line el stop, the culinary establishment resides in one of the city’s best-kept secrets — Old Irving Park — an historic area revered for its tight-knit feel, relative quiet and rich housing stock. Brimming with joyous enthusiasm, OIB’s bearded brewmaster Trevor Rose-Hamblin comes across as a quintessential Midwesterner uninterested in glitz or nonsense. He’s the kind of guy with whom you’d want to share a pint or two — or a community. Rose-Hamblin emphasizes that the brewery is particularly created for — and reflects the character of — the surrounding neighborhood.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of community,” he says, sipping a beer at the large rectangular bar. Tom Waits songs play in the background. “We want people to feel part of everything.”

To that extent, OIB aims to appeal to patrons who simply want a drinkable beer as well as those that “seek out the next weird thing.” Rose-Hamblin also ensures the 8,500-square-foot brewery reflects the cozy vibe embraced by many in his home state of Michigan — basically, OIB welcomes you to come and stay a while. More than a dozen TV screens, placed high enough so you don’t have to watch them, glow with sports action. A drop-down projection screen shows games or acts as a giant video-game monitor. Cornhole boards flank the main beer hall. OIB even hosts a 16-team bocce league on Tuesdays.

In many ways, OIB doubles as the modern version of the traditional corner bar that’s slowly fading from Chicago’s social fabric. Along with the unpretentious atmosphere, OIB’s semi-industrial interior conveys modesty and warmth. Natural light streams in the windows. Exposed brick walls, 22-foot-high ceilings, and overhead doors whisper of the building’s former use as a roofing company headquarters. It’s easy to get a close look at the tanks, surrounded by a fence tailored for safe bicycle parking. OIB offers tours anytime anyone asks. Guests have even named and suggested ideas for beers.

The interior at the Whiner Beer Company on the south side of Chicago. For a story on the Whiner Beer Company. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR

Such collaboration extends to the kitchen. With a culinary background, and stints at esteemed Chicago restaurants Moto and iNG — where he worked with Herman Cantu, the late chef who developed the original idea to start a brewery but whose suicide in 2015 changed OIB’s direction — Rose-Hamblin stays in constant contact with chef Matthias Merges. They develop food and beer pairings that take advantage of creative flavor profiles. OIB’s “farm-to-glass” pourings include a Belgian dubbel paired with orange peel, cherry, and bourbon-soaked chips (Rat Pack) as well as a coffee stout made with heat-extracted Brazilian coffee beans, hazelnuts, vanilla, and orange peel (For Whom the Dell Tolls). A potted chicken liver mousse and outstandingly fresh burger — among the best in the city — comprise a few of the appetizing eats.

“It’s all about balance,” says Rose-Hamblin about the formula. “It’s like nutmeg. You use too much, and it’s bitter. You use too little, and you don’t know it’s there.”

Empirical Brewing, located in the charming Andersonville neighborhood on the North side, will join OIB — as well as DryHop Brewers, Corridor Brewery & Provisions, and Forbidden Root Restaurant and Brewery—as a culinary outpost when its Brew Pub opens in late spring in Rogers Park (1328 W. Morse Ave.).

The expansion affords the brewery the freedom to pair food and beer, and to take advantage of a five-barrel system for more experimental pours. Not that Empirical is abandoning its current spot (1801 W. Foster Ave.), which features a down-home taproom and production facility that happens to be home to several adopted feral cats.

“Malted barley is caviar to rats,” explains head brewer Jacob Huston, who saw firsthand how much grain Empirical lost to rodents gnawing their way through bags. After traditional means of pest control failed, Empirical partnered with the Tree House Humane Society’s Cats at Work program and adopted four felines. Huston says that the brewery hasn’t spotted one critter or seen any damage since the day the cats arrived. “It’s 100 percent effective,” he says, proudly.

The collaboration with the Andersonville-based animal rescue speaks to Empirical’s community emphasis. The brewery works with neighborhood restaurants and bars, teams with a local coffee roaster, encourages customers to give in-depth feedback on the beer, and strives to use local ingredients. Empirical, which offers tours on Saturdays, is also one of the few Chicago breweries that welcomes dogs — and children.

Akin to a large living room, its BYOF taproom engenders a family atmosphere. Food trucks often sit outside on the weekends. Two windows give visitors a clear view into the 8,000-square-foot space patrolled by the cats. Communal tables spur friendly conversation between strangers and elicit tail-wagging greetings from canines.

Huston, reached on the phone after spending a busy week working 12-hour-plus days, can hardly contain his excitement over Empirical’s upcoming space. He speaks at a fast, self-assured clip and, like Taylor and Rose-Hamblin, displays not an ounce of pretense. But none of the amiable ambiance would matter if Empirical’s beer disappointed. Formulated via test batches and that much-valued customer feedback, each recipe goes through extensive analysis and refining — true to the empirical method — before becoming a production beer like the clean, crisp and balanced IPA (Infinity) or roast-forward, full-bodied oatmeal stout (Singularity).

“The public is with us through the whole process,” Huston says, returning to the collective concept on which Empirical — and Whiner and OIB — is based. In Chicago, at least, it takes a village to raise a brewery.

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