Beercation: Chicago

Earlier this month, Rob and I took off for a four-day beercation to Chicago. The weather was hot, the beer was cold, and the people were friendly. We’d go back in a heartbeat. I could write about our trip for ages (check out the Chicago Architectural Boat tour while you’re there, and hope that the timing works out for a Cubs v. Sox ball game), but I’m going to limit this post to my top five beer highlights. Here they are, in the order that we experienced them:

1. Lagunitas Brewery

Sweet mother of pearl, this place is MASSIVE. Having visited the original location in Petaluma, CA on our 2013 summer beercation, I was expecting a similarly laid-back vibe on a grander scale. I was wrong. The Chicago location is absolutely huge, and has all the personality to back up the space. Catwalks have been set up from the restaurant and tap room so that visitors can self-tour through the brewery while they sip on something from the huge selection of the company’s delicious beers. Lagunitas also offers several guided tours each day - no reservations required. The tap room itself is a large space overlooking the brewery with plenty of long picnic style tables and a good sized bar top. We spent a couple of hours trying most everything on the beer menu ($5 per beer) and genuinely enjoying the food options that were available. A quick visit to the sizeable retail shop marked the end of our journey; we bought a ton of swag, and the guy working the cash was kind enough to throw in a 6-pack of pilsner in celebration of Rob’s birthday.
In short: the staff are friendly, the brewery is larger than life, and the open catwalks and floor-to-ceiling windows suggest a pride of ownership and a desire to share in the Lagunitas process. Did I mention that the beer is delicious? Because it is. My personal favourite was the DayTime Fractional IPA. Lagunitas is definitely a must visit.

2. The Oak Park Microbrew and Food Review

I am generally not a huge fan of beer festivals. I’ve worked at many of them, and have attended even more, and I’ve gotten to the point that it all feels a bit repetitive. I’m also not a huge fan of hanging around people that show up at craft beer festivals to get $#!+ faced, when all I want to do is quietly enjoy some tasty beers, and share my thoughts with friendly, like-minded individuals. All that said, the Oak Park Microbrew and Food Review was the first American beer festival that I’ve ever attended. Ever. I loved every second of it. $50US got me a ticket, a tasting glass, and forty 4oz samples. At least in theory. In reality, very few people kept track of samples, so I was able to try everything that I could get my hands on. Lines were manageable, downtown Oak Park is quaintly beautiful, and my fellow patrons were genuine beer lovers. The best part, though, was the fact that almost all of the beer offerings were new to me. With a focus on Illinois and Midwest, the festival showcased more than 90 craft breweries; I had only tried products from a handful of them prior to the zero-waste Microbrew Review. Highlights included Pipeworks Brewing’s Ninja vs. Unicorn Double IPA, all four of the offerings from Haymarket Pub & Brewery (more on them below), and the ReplicAle project, which saw 59 breweries presenting their take on a common recipe for an Illinois Saison.
In short: this zero-waste festival took us to a beautiful new area, included amazing beers, and was attended by genuine beer lovers from Illinois and beyond. If you are planning on hitting Chicago in the summer of 2016, try to make sure that you are there on August 20.

3. Haymarket Pub & Brewery 

After seriously enjoying all of this brewery’s offerings at the Oak Park Microbrew and Food Review, we were fortunate to end up on the same subway car as one of their brewers on our journey back to the core. Once he learned that we were down for the weekend from Canada, Eric quickly derailed our plan to head back to our hotel by inviting us to come check out the brewery. He didn’t have to ask twice. A five minute walk from the nearest L station, Haymarket offers their twelve products on draft (including their Defender American Stout, which took home a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup in the American-Style Stout category), along with a healthy bottle selection of predominantly American and Belgian ales. Beyond their delicious beers, Haymarket is a clean, well-organized operation with nothing to hide. Their brew system is clearly visible from the restaurant, as is their keg room. Having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to keg storage, let me just say that Haymarket’s system is straight up beautiful. I posted a photo on Instagram in celebration of it while we were down there.
In short: With delicious beer, friendly staff, and a keg room that warmed the cockles of my neat-freak heart, I can’t do anything except recommend a visit to Haymarket while you’re in town.

4. Piece Brewery and Pizzeria 

This pizza joint and brewery came highly recommended, and Rob is never one to pass up a good pizza. If you are looking for deep dish, this isn’t the place to go. If, however, you are looking for a gourmet thin crust pizza that can be enjoyed with tasty craft beer, Piece is for you. Rob and I shared a small pizza as an appetizer for the deep dish that we would seek out later that night, and washed it down with three beer offerings: the Light n’ Curvy Leichtus Weiss, The Weight Classic APA, and a Golden Arm German-style Kolsch Bier. They were all well crafted beers, but my highlight was definitely The Weight, which took home a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup. Also, the pizza. That was a gooey, delicious highlight. Our server was friendly, knowledgeable, and passionate about beer. He was more than happy to answer our questions, and to recommend other places to check out in the Wicker Park neighbourhood. His suggestions led us to the final place on my top five list.

In short: The pizza is delicious, the beer is delicious, and the staff are fantastic. You should go!

5. Links Taproom 

With 36 American craft beers on tap (plus 3 casks), Links makes it easy to sample interesting brews from across the country. We sat at the bar and asked for recommendations, shooting the $#!+ with the bartender whenever he had a minute to slow down. I loved their Digital Pour draft menu boards, which kept track of the volume remaining in each keg. It was like a delicious countdown that helped me to prioritize my selections. I started by trying each of the beers I wanted that were in the red zone, for fear that they might run out before I got to them. All of the lines were rotating taps, which I think is awesome. I won’t recommend specific beers, because there is absolutely no guarantee that they’ll have them on when you go! I look forward to returning to a whole new draft menu. Neither Rob nor I ordered food at Links (we were still full of pizza, and were saving room for our next pizza), but it looked great; they make everything from scratch in-house. From what I could see, most customers favoured the housemade sausages. 
In short: With 36 genuinely interesting options on the same number of rotating taps, Links is worth a visit for the beer selection alone. Add a great atmosphere (and good looking food), and it becomes a must-visit while you’re in Wicker Park.


So there you have it, folks, my top five. I also really loved the Map Room, and would highly recommend it as a place for a few casual, late afternoon pints. My non-consuming beer highlight was without a doubt our visit to Omega Yeast Labs. Lance has created something pretty amazing in his small space, which he is rapidly growing out of. It was great to see where the magic happens, and to hear a bit about the process of developing hybrid yeast strains like Saisonstein’s Monster (OYL-500).
In short: Chicago was freaking awesome. So awesome, in fact, that we missed our flight home… but that’s a story for another day. If you have any questions about the places on my top 5 list, don’t hesitate to comment below or shoot me an email at kat@shortfingerbrewing.com. If you have places to recommend, please list them in the comments section (links appreciated).


Cheers!

Kat Rogers-Hern
Kat Rogers-Hern

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