Chicago’s Exploding Beer Scene


At about 5 AM, after tumbling out of the Rocky Mountains through the great plains of Nebraska and Iowa, the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp tour bus finally crossed over the Mississippi River into Illinois — and Chicago traffic — on its way to the city's top tourist attraction, Navy Pier. Bellies on the bus were still full of late-night roasted pig and fresh corn from Des Moines's El Bait Shop, one of the greatest bars in the Midwest — which was followed by a case worth of the "Champagne of Beers" and rounds of Tangmeister shots at the High Life Lounge. With such an early start, the brewers are bleary-eyed, but remarkably on time for departure.

By noon, fresh faces descend the stairs into breezy Navy Pier on the shore of Lake Michigan and the beers begin to flow. Typically seen as one of Chicago's biggest tourist traps, the Sierra Nevada crew transformed the entire Navy Pier promenade into an indoor-outdoor walkabout with the region's best and newest breweries. "Let's get over to Cigar City!" yelled a group of bearded fans as they clamored past to get their hands on the Tampa, Florida's Jai Alai IPA, which isn't distributed in Chicago. 

For an outsider, going for anything other than a regional brew here would be insane. The draw of the Chicago fest brought in some 105 brewers including a strong representation from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Missouri. "Midwesterners stick together," says Joe Barley of Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, IL. "It may be considered the fly-over state(s) but those people are missing out on an amazing movement that's happening here."   

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Indeed, for a city that was once occupied only by Goose Island Beer Co., the domed hall of Navy Pier was now filled with breweries less than 5 years old, and most even less than that. Chicago lagged behind craft beer hotbeds like Portland, Oregon and San Diego for much of the late 90s and early 2000s, but in recent years it has seen an explosion of nano breweries and larger production breweries in the suburbs. Chicago is also home to the Siebel Institute, the nation's oldest technical brewing school, and the Cicerone program, (kind of like sommeliers for beer), which has become the dominant certification program in the U.S. for beer servers and industry professionals. As a result, much of the intelligentsia of craft beer now resides in Chicago, or consider it their alma mater.

But in beer, size still matters. With Lagunitas building their second brewery on the city's south side with a 1.2 million-barrel capacity (twice as big as the Petaluma, CA home-base) the talent attraction and economics of beer in the Windy City are about to shift forever. While breweries like Stone, New Belgium, Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada struck out for fertile ground on the east coast, Lagunitas looked to the center of the country for their big play. Why? Well, it's founder Tony Magee's former home. It's also a perfect logistical hub for both coasts. But most importantly, as California faces one of its most intense droughts on record, building a brewery on the shores of the world's largest fresh water source is looking like a stroke of genius. 


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