The city’s first contract-focused brewery comes into its own with a new West Loop taproom.
If you’ve been following our coverage, I’ve been a little fascinated by Great Central Brewing Company.
For those of you playing catchup, they’re built for contract brew clients, helping breweries like Begyle, Maplewood and Kinslahger to expand their production and move new beers into cans for retail sales. They’re also in business to help breweries outside the Chicago area — right now that’s Pennsylvania’s Funk Brewing, specifically — get into Chicago with fresh beer rather than shipping it across multiple states.
In the past few months, they’ve been cranking out batches of beer for the above breweries as well as helping pick up the slack for the new WarPigs line of beers, brewed in collaboration with the teams behind Three Floyds and Mikkeller. Pretty heady stuff for a brewery so new you can still practically smell the paint on the walls drying.
This weekend they opened their taproom, a huge space at the corner of Wood & Walnut just west of Ashland, within walking distance of the Goose Island taproom and in sight of the Finch Beer Co. facility (literally across the street). Between these two breweries, along with All Rise a little east and On Tour a little north, the West Loop coalition of beermakers is in full swing.
When we first looked into GCBC, their taproom was still months off. Back then, we said:
GCBC will have 24 taps onsite to showcase the beers they’re making in house, which is kind of thrilling to consider. Between the different beers for varying brands, it’ll be like having multiple brewery taprooms in one single spot with fresh beer made just a couple dozen feet away.
Now that we’ve had a chance to visit, I don’t know if “thrilling” has quite paid off yet — their Chicago-heavy roster of clients means that the vast majority of their taproom beers will be well-known to craft fans — but “interesting” definitely qualifies.
Aesthetically, it’s not quite a taproom-in-a-box setup that is easily maligned these days — they don’t have Edison bulbs dangling from the ceiling and the waitstaff aren’t gruff burly bearded gents. If anything, the room takes its cues from the nearby Publican — large globe lights, somewhat communal picnic table style seating, and a photo-shoot-ready serving staff.
Let’s keep going with the “interesting” parts of the taproom. Light streams in through the two walls of windows on the north and west, but the most notable windows at the GCBC taproom are the ones they don’t have.
As in, there are no windows that actually look into the brewery itself. I can’t remember if I’ve ever been to a brewery taproom where they didn’t want to show off their towering brewhouse or their forest of stainless fermenters, but Great Central has opted to keep its taproom as essentially one big concrete box, giving no visual indication that there’s a huge beer manufacturer cranking away behind the walls.
Another random interesting feature of note — the bathrooms are only accessible by elevator. That’s a new one for me too. Beyond that, the high ceilings and the subway tile-accented walls ensure that if you’re sensitive to loud rooms, you should probably opt for the nearby Kaiser Tiger patio — this room is built to get loud.
On to those beers.
Pours are by the half-pint and pint only — no tasters, no flights, another interesting decision — meaning if you want to sample a wide variety of the beers crafted for GCBC’s contract partners, you’re going to have to commit to at least 8oz. at a time. So if you were planning to try to quickly tick your way through every one of their options…don’t drive. (The El is like a five-minute walk away. No worries there.)
The house brews were never supposed to be the true focus of the brewery — when we spoke prior to GCBC’s opening, co-owner Conor McFerran told us “if we happen to have some space available in our schedule and we want to provide our team the ability to kind of have a little freedom and have a little fun with the limited distribution of the taproom and that volume limitations that that gives us, it’s kind of a low-risk way for us to … put some interesting things out there.”
Unlike most breweries built these days, I don’t think the Great Central taproom is meant to be the main draw of the facility. It’s a nice opportunity to make people aware of the beers they make and have some fun with their house brands, but the vast majority of the beer made by GCBC is supposed to go out the door and hit bars, restaurants and store shelves.
As that gets harder and harder to lock down in an increasingly busy beer world, it’ll be interesting to watch what role the taproom takes as a place for breweries to have some guaranteed handles — at a place where drinkers will still have a variety of beer options instead of being locked into one brewery’s output.
That said, aside from Funk Brewing, their contract brands aren’t exactly rare around Chicago, so the only true draw to the taproom could very well be the house beers, assuming they remain. GCBC’s selection of German-focused lagers could be just the thing to differentiate themselves from the middle-of-the-road Finch beers and the well-known Goose taproom nearby.
The unfiltered helles lager I sampled was nice, bright, crisp, clean and fresh — all the things you want in a light German style beer. And you can take ’em to go.
On the whole, you don’t need to feel obligated to haul ass to get to GCBC’s taproom ASAP — but if you’re dying to try fresh Free Bird, Crushinator and Chicago Common at the same brewery you can certainly have a fine time doing so. There’s certainly a cross-section of drinkers that’ll be interested to see if they can suss out any differences between different brands brewed at the same facility, and for my money, the more German-style lagers there are in the world, the better.
If any of these things appeal to you, you’ll do fine at the new Great Central taproom. If you require off the wall adjunct-laden oddballs and a variety of barrel-aged or sour options, you’ll be out of luck here for the time being. Choose accordingly.
The afternoon lighting makes for a decent picture, though.