The Chicago craft beer scene saw plenty of change in 2018 – some laying the groundwork for what’s to come in 2019 and beyond. (One constant: Dovetail’s lager is still damn good. And now they have beer in cans!)
A few of our collective thoughts and observations from a year of beer:
- On the list of places for amazing beer events, few – if any – could have predicted that the Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace at Millennium Park would top that list. But Half Acre pulled it off this year, with their inaugural Far And Away Invitational. We didn’t hesitate to declare it Chicago’s “New Top Tier Beer Event.” Featuring invite-only breweries who only brought their A+ game and was attended by those who dropped $95 for a ticket trusting in Half Acre’s judgment. They didn’t let anyone down. It’s not the biggest, not the craziest and there were no awards, but it was certainly the best of 2018.
- Driving hundreds of miles for a beer or standing in the cold for several hours became less appealing. Have the 40s turned me into a grumpy old man? Are so many breweries making such high-quality beers that it makes lines seem unnecessary? Have whale-chasing secondary-market profiteers made it all seem absurd? Maybe a bit of each. And let’s not discount the impact of certain breweries announcing a “limited release,” only to see it on appear on shelves for weeks after.
- Slashies have been a city staple for decades. But the idea of picking out a bottle for home and having a pint in the same space has been a bit of a foreign concept in the suburbs until fairly recently. But places like Beer On The Wall in Park Ridge, Crafted 1979 in Mokena and The Open Bottle in Tinley Park, among others, have provided a long-overdue introduction of the concept to suburban drinkers. Their loyal suporters leave little doubt there’s more slashies to come to even more suburbs.
- Speaking of slashies, the very best “best of” lists consistently rank Maria’s Community Bar as a go-to joint for beer, cocktails and a great vibe. They one-upped things with the introduction of Kimski, the Polish/Korean restaurant attached to the Bridgeport bar. This year saw the opening of the Marszewski family’s latest reason to hang in the neighborhood, Marz Community Brewing taproom in McKinley Park. Much like Maria’s, it comes with plenty of character, along with WLPN, Lumpen Radio, playing in the background.
- Peter Frost’s “Behind The Beer” continues to be a must-read. There’s no question the content is coming from a MillerCoors employee and that’s a good thing. That transparency is welcome in this age of “fake news” and sites whose followers are often duped into believing they’re reading legitimate news – when it’s actually just carefully-concealed sponsored content. Come for the quality writing and reporting, educated insights on industry issues and trends, then stay for the occasional light-hearted jabs at Anheuser-Busch.
- Chicago is lucky to be a city with one of the only full-time reporters devoted to covering craft beer. Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune has the “pinch me” job that has lasted even as the newspaper endures wave after wave of downsizing. Having an objective journalist covering the beer industry for the business that it is, is something we shouldn’t take for granted.
- New York intellectual property attorney and craft beer advisor Brendan Palfreyman has gained a Twitter following because of his unique insights on the business side of the industry – from trademarks to investment groups, mergers and acquisitions and more. Best of all, he makes legal issues in the industry easy to understand even for those of us without a law degree.
- For examples of what keeps folks like Palfreyman in business, look no further than the Instagram account Intellectual Pooperty. On a near-daily basis, we get a peek at the labels that best demonstrate the lack of creativity or lack of understanding of the legal side of the business that some owners have. A joke among staff can get expensive when owners allow that joke to be put on a label so they can make money off it.
- The Average Joe’s Above Average Beer Podcast has been shining a spotlight on the local beer scene for a year now and consistently delivers engaging conversations with those behind the beer – from brewers to bottle shops, bar owners to yeast lab scientists. Joe Bobbe’s local focus is what makes it unique amid a sea of options.
- We’ve also really been enjoying the latest episodes from ABV Chicago — their deep dive into this year’s GABF really helped find some new places to seek out (I doubt we’d have rushed as quickly to The Referend at Far & Away without hearing of them on the show) as well as deep dives into the new hazy beers, rose beers and brut beers.
- Amid the Black Friday wave of variants, Goose Island created a buzz with the old standard – this year’s Bourbon County Brand Stout Regular drew well-deserved, consistent praise for its high quality. It’s a reminder that while adjuncts are fun, it all starts with a solid base product.
- It was incredible to observe the 2018 rise of Hop Butcher For The World. Remember South Loop Brewing Company? That 2016 name change was just the start of changes to come. Demand regularly leads to their 16oz cans disappearing from store shelves just as quickly as they arrive (via self-distribution). Look no further than their social media activity to follow the madness. Providing real-time updates as they cruise the city and suburbs, they even respond to virtually every “have you hit X-store in Y-city yet?” type of question. That level of instant engagement is a reminder of how small they are – it’s actually manageable – so show some understanding if they can’t be as instantly responsive as their inevitable growth comes.
- No more muling cases of M-43 and Boss Tweed across state lines! 2018 ended with the welcome surprise from Plainfield-based Heartland Beverage that they’d begin distributing Michigan’s Old Nation to bars, restaurants and stores across the city and suburbs. Here’s to continued growth for that small distributor, which prioritizes its independence with both local and out-of-state breweries.
- Keep an eye on Lombard’s Afterthought Brewing. They’re still so new, they have no taproom, but they spend their weekends hitting shops and sampling their saison-focused offerings and leaving behind bottles for sale. And they’re very good. So good that they’ve cracked the Top 20 breweries in the world, according to Untappd users – not bad for a place with just 65 beers under its belt so far.
- I know that the location has had a tough go of it before (alas, BreakRoom and Finch Kitchen, we hardly knew ye) but I think Twisted Hippo will finally be able to make their way at Montrose and Richmond in Albany Park. They have been working toward their own facility for quite a while so they probably have some pent up excitement and enthusiasm to hit the ground running — and based on what I’ve seen from social media, they’ve done a ton of work to truly make the space their own. It seems like it’s going to be a Day-Glo explosion of crazy, weirdness-encouraged, beery fun, which the city really needs after a very serious year of beer.
- Make way for the meads! You’d likely never guess that the top-rated brewery in the world, according to millions of Untappd users, lies on the Illinois/Wisconsin border, in Beach Park, IL. Pips Meadery has lotteries for virtually all of their releases and consistently leaves thousands of fans – or eager first-timers – disappointed. They pride their production on quality, not quantity, and it shows. As a result, not many bottles make it to market.
On the other side of the border, Northwest Indiana is suddenly bursting with meaderies. Valparaiso’s Misbeehavin’ Meads has consistently blown minds with their “With A Baseball Bat” series, utilizing various fruits to make what can only be called “a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” And as 2018 draws to a close, Crown Point welcomed Manic Meadery, which is already winning rave reviews, including from fellow mead makers. That said, one of the best things we drank this year came from the almost-open Boneflower Craft Mead. You might have heard how the Boneflower crew started an Indiegogo campaign in May and in just 13 hours, had nearly $110,000 in support.
Also coming to Chicago in 2019: The new Second City Meadery plans to open a space on north Elston.
Dilly dilly, indeed.
STUFF THAT SUCKED (AND ONE WAY TO HELP 2019 NOT SUCK):
- While the rest of the beer world had an end-of-year (justified) freak-out about Trillium treating their employees poorly, we were far more bummed out about the lawsuit filed against Founders in October. They were accused of racial discrimination by a former employee and while we know it’s still working its way through the courts – and we’ve heard a lot of off-the-record talk about what’s really going on behind the scenes – we’re still waiting for an official word from Founders to put them back on our “OK to drink” list.
One of us may spell out some more thoughts on this in a future post, but for now, we’re finding it pretty easy to not drink Founders Porter in favor of the Ed Fitz from Great Lakes, and we’ve also generally avoided their All-Day in favor of a few of the thousands of other low-ABV IPAs in the world. Your choices are your own, but we try to spend our money conscientiously. When we put them back on our drinking roster, we’ll let you know.
- The most visible fan of beer in 2018 was this guy.
- Quenchers closed and we still miss it. We strongly suggest making a point to visit a beer bar that you haven’t drank at lately — especially if perhaps you’ve spent more time at taprooms over the last year? If you have, don’t forget to pony up to the bar at The Green Lady, Map Room, Hopleaf, Monk’s Pub, Sheffield’s, Rock Island Public House, Beer Geeks, Lassen’s Tap and so on. They deserve your monetary support as much as the newest taproom on the block (and the beer is probably, on the whole, better). Find them on our map!