The Case for Chicago

The Windy City's blowing handcrafted suds every which way.
American craft beers have flourished in big cities — New York, Boston, San Francisco — and out-of-the way places like Milford, Delaware (home of Dogfish Head) and Cooperstown, New York (site of Ommegang, makers of Belgian-style ales).

Now Chicago is booming as a beer town, generating more enthusiasm for local suds than at any time since Prohibition was repealed nearly 80 years ago. What once was a booming market for generic American lagers with only flickers of craft beer interest has blossomed into a full-fledged network of breweries, brewpubs and restaurants with elaborate beer lists.

"What has happened in the past three years astonishes me. All of a sudden everybody has this level of familiarity," says Michael McAvena, beer director of the Publican, a beer-focused restaurant in the West Loop that is a sister operation to acclaimed gourmet establishments avec and Blackbird. "We have such a close scene," he says, consisting of "people in the hard-core food scene, whether they work in restaurants or patronize them very often. There's so much cross-pollination. Once something becomes popular, it's like wildfire."

The Publican's beer list ranges with names from across the U.S. and Western Europe, from heavy stouts to pale ales. The restaurant follows the Belgian tradition of “lambic doux” — mixing a lambic with another beer or candy sugar and serving it in a clay pot called a “pichet.”

McAvena is a cicerone, a holder of a sommelier-like designation achieved through years of study and certification by the Chicago-based Craft Beer Institute. He instructs the restaurant's bartenders and servers — all of whom have a level of Craft Beer Institute certification themselves — on not just the qualities of the beers they serve but the subtleties of how they pair with food.

"When people come in and say, 'Is the beer good?,' it hurts me a little bit," McAvena says. "I want to say, 'Sweetie, there's not a bad beer on that menu.' I would never say that to a customer, but every beer I put on that menu I have full confidence in." And with every season, new brews arise with the potential to displace the European imports that for centuries set the bar for quality.

Beers from Three Floyds in nearby Munster, Indiana, McAvena says, are "not only the best in the city, these guys right now are making some of the best beers on the planet." The Publican has had Three Floyds' Zombie Dust pale ale on draft — the brewery describes it as an "intensely hopped and undead pale ale."

But the Three Floyds brew that commands the most national attention is Dark Lord, an imperial stout available only one day each year in one place — the brewery itself, which hosts Dark Lord Day, a selling frenzy and music festival, on the last Saturday in April. Dark Lord "outmatches nearly every other beer on the market in sheer size and intensity," Aaron Sherman, sommelier at the Park Hyatt Chicago's NoMI Kitchen, wrote on NPR's “Deceptive Cadence” blog. "It is the answer to the question, 'How big and intense a beer can we make?'"

Naperville, Illinois' Solemn Oath Brewery, McAvena says, has "exploded on the scene. They have great imagery, great narratives, great values and all their beers are really great, beer after beer." He also praises the consistency of Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, Illinois, as well as the beers from Revolution Brewing, which began in 2010 as a Logan Square brewpub, and Metropolitan Brewing, which began operations the following year.

McAvena says some local beer lovers were dismayed about the acquisition of the beloved and award-winning local Goose Island brewery by the Anheuser-Busch InBev conglomerate. He is more sanguine: "There's still human beings working there. They still have families and they're still making exceptional beers," he says.

McAvena's serious love affair with beer began in college, when he wanted to explore beverages but didn't have the wallet for wine. At the Publican, the democratic tradition of suds continues through the last item on the beer and wine menu — the 6 Pack for the Kitchen, which patrons can send back to thirsty chefs and staff for $10.

"We've got to do at least six to 12 a night," McAvena says. "There's no way we ever do less than six. Sometimes it doesn't happen until 7 o'clock and we ring a bell. Pretty soon after it's ring, ring, ring. It's totally cool."