Chicago is a long way from San Francisco, a four-hour flight in fact. It's not just the distance but the culture that made a trip to Chicago seem like visiting a different country. This is a city built on Irish, Polish, and German immigrants, surrounded by the cold, continental extremities of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Food is hearty and substantial. This is certainly not wine country; although grapes are grown on the other side of the lake in Michigan, the climate is not suited at all to vine growing. Nor is wine central to drinking culture. I remember serving customers here in Napa and asking them if they drank much wine at home. "We're from Wisconsin," was their direct, pointed answer.
Beer is the drink of choice, much of it inexpensive lager. Back in the nineteenth century, Frederick Miller and Pabst and Emil Schandein, all German immigrants, established breweries in the Chicago area; the companies now make the ubiquitous and much drunk Miller Lite and Pabst Blue Ribbon (although the latter is now made in LA). Beers like these are found in bars all around the city, and there is an unquestioning attitude to food and drink that's different from the Bay Area in California.
It's seventeen years since I visited Chicago, the first time I'd been to a US city. My welcoming experience then was a bowling alley where I was served Budweiser in a bottle the shape of a bowling pin. How was I going to last in this country? I asked myself. But I quickly and thankfully learnt that the city and surrounding states are home to a fantastic craft beer scene, which goes from strength to strength, based around great bars and vibrant, young drinkers. I finally revisited Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, where I got to taste several beers from a number of breweries.
Although I didn't get to visit the brewery itself, the beers from Pipeworks were the stand-out of my trip. As with many craft breweries in the States, their labels are bright, vivid cartoons which require powerful beers to match. Ninja vs Unicorn is a famous local beer, even though Pipeworks only opened in 2012. It's a Double IPA which I drank from a pint-sized can (quite common in Chicago) at a great pool-hall/games room/bar called Emporium. The beer was wonderful: pungent, fruity, hoppy, and intense, yet very drinkable. Even better though was their Emerald Grouper, the label of which features a grumpy looking fish. This is an Imperial IPA, coming in at 9.5% ABV, and which has been brewed with honey. I'm always suspicious of beer made with honey, as it can be too rich and sweet. Despite this - and despite the alcohol - this was an incredibly balanced, hoppy, textured beer which I drank and enjoyed greatly with tomato soup at a Polish restaurant called Podhalanka which can only be described as very Polish.
Established in 2008, Half Acre have a brewpub decorated with some amazing, quirky artwork and which serves good food. The menu is based around burritos, but in true wino style we chose a couple of small plates featuring burrata cheese and salmon rillette. Their most famous beer is Daisy Cutter, a light, dry, biscuity Pale Ale. I also tried Tuna, an Extra Pale Ale; I've no idea why the beer is called that, but it was fuller and more tropical than Daisy Cutter. Both, it must be said, went extremely well with the cheese and the salmon.
Rather like Rogue in Oregon, Revolution's labels have an interwar Soviet constructivist aesthetic which feeds into beers called Anti-Hero and Fist City. They have a brewery as well as a pub, busy with eager drinkers on a Saturday afternoon. Revolution make perhaps the easiest drinking beers of the breweries I visited: Anti-Hero is a citrusy IPA, Galaxy Hero is a seasonal, more hoppy Double IPA, and there's also a refreshing approachable hibiscus-infused beer called Rosa that works well in the summertime.
Based in neighbouring Indiana since the mid-1990s, Three Floyds are one of the founding fathers of the local - and for that matter national - trend for small, sought-after breweries. Unable to visit, I was excited to find some of their bottles in a small shop near Humboldt Park. They too make intense IPAs complete with eye-catching labels and high alcohol but Deesko stood out as a little different: a white beer that had tart citrus aromas and a smoky intensity.
It's the nature of the craft beer scene that much of the best beer is only available locally. So if you're in the Chicago area check out these breweries, they certainly are a welcome alternative to Miller Lite.