As the third largest city in the country, it is no surprise that there are plenty of options in Chicago when it comes time to drink local. And when you throw in the rest of ‘Chicagoland’, you have a massive area that has seen an explosive of craft brewery growth in the last decade. I have not had time to fully dive into what the area offers. However, thankfully I’ve dabbled at least a little. From the two breweries I would call the most centrally located, to a couple of breweries located in the far northern suburbs, there is one common denominator: great beer!
- Vice District Brewing: Chicago
- Haymarket Brewery: Chicago
- Light the Lamp Brewery: Grayslake
- Tighthead Brewing: Mundelein
Surprisingly, there are not many breweries within walking distance of downtown Chicago. Vice District bucks this trend. Located in the South Loop, they are about a mile and half south of Millennium Park, essentially due west of Soldier Field. The tap-room has an industrial feel, but with some natural touches like the wood tables and shiplap wall. A large L bar greets you at the entrance, with shiny tanks storing the beer crammed into one corner. During warmer weather, the large windows in front open up, giving the place an airy feel. There are also several large black & white photos on the walls. They depict scenes from the ‘Vice District’ days of this area in Chicago.
Even though it was a warm day, the beer that stuck with me the most was the Affiliated Imperial Milk Stout. This was such a creamy and smooth brew, with the chocolate notes standing out. Hideout Hefeweizen was a refreshing, and accurate representation of the style. It was even slightly effervescent, which made it stick out even more. For hoppiness, the Habitual Black IPA is a winner. At 75 IBU, this beer was surprisingly quaffable, with a nice balance provided by the roasted and chocolate malts.
Because of its location, Vice District should definitely be on your radar for any beer trip in Chicago. With a nice variety of beers which rotate through the menu, it will please just about any palate.
Opened in 2010, Haymarket is right next to I-90, about 5 blocks from the Chicago River. It is housed in a large corner building, which is broken into two sections. First, there is a pub side, which of course has a bar and some other high top seating. Separated by a wall, the other section has a slightly more restaurant/brewpub feel. Brewing equipment is stationed in one corner enclosed in glass. A neat feature was that everything was labeled (hot liquor tank, mash tun, etc). A plethora of TVs also gave the place a sports bar vibe. And a bonus: the food is AMAZING. I cannot stress that enough.
Hopheads rejoice! When I visited, 8 of the 23 house taps were IPAs. The IPA I had was on the tamer side. Yes Dear had a sweet nose of orange and citrus, and was less hoppy than other IPAs I’ve had. Mash Made In Heaven X was my favorite. This white peach wit was fairly sweet, but still had a little spice that you expect from this style. For an interesting take on a saison, give Bat Flips Black Saison a go. Chocolate malts dominate this particular beer, but it remained fairly light. They hit pretty much every style, with other offerings such as Scotch Ale, Maibock is Better than Your Bock, and I’m Not Lonely Belgian Single. Cool note: the flight paddles are shaped like Lake Michigan!
Haymarket is all about options. They give you a choice if you want to have more of a bar experience, or a sit-down-and-enjoy-a-meal experience. And as I mentioned, there are TWENTY THREE house beers on tap. You’ll have to go multiple times just to sample everything once!
Light the Lamp shoots and score in Grayslake. Why the bad sports pun? Because this is a hockey themed brewery! The décor mainly revolves around the Chicago Blackhawks (jerseys, banners, etc.), but there are also some interesting framed diagrams depicting hockey related items (skates, rink, etc.). There are large windows and plenty of high top and bench seating. Tap handles are taped-up hockey sticks with pucks stuck on top. And while you cannot see the brewery from the taproom itself, if you go outside and walk down the block, there are windows where the equipment is viewable from.
Most of the beers take on the hockey theme as well. From the super roasty Sin Bin Stout, to the citrusy Center Ice Session Ale, it is clear they are going on all. Personally, their Berliner Weiss Never Nude was my favorite. Packing a strong tart punch at the front, this brew then gives way to a nice subtle peach flavor on the back. One of the better examples of this style I’ve had. Strawberry Bench Minor Blonde is another lighter option, as this sessionable beer has strong hits of strawberry, especially on the nose. Paying homage to the most famous hockey team in history is the 1980 Miracle American Ale, which is a great balanced brew. Their hoppy offering, Power Play IPA, still remains balanced, at only 65 IBUs.
As a huge sports fan, Light the Lamp’s theme resonated with me. However, even if that does not appeal to you, they have incredible beer, and one of the strongest overall lineups I’ve seen. Plus, it’s hard to not enjoy a beer while looking at a Team USA hockey jersey.
We stick with the sports theme, but shift to rugby when we visit Tighthead. Although they do not take the theme quite to heart like Light the Lamp, I do enjoy the branding Tighthead is accomplishing, and even purchased a shirt. This place is a little tricky to get to, as you have to wind around to the backside of a large business park, but you’ll know you made it when you see the outdoor patio. There are two almost identical bar areas separated by a reclaimed wood wall. They have an interesting feel, with wooden floors and bars, but with some industrial touches. Windows behind the bar allow patrons to see the brewing equipment as well.
The beers all have their own piece of art, which can be seen up on the wall. Go Go Wit had the perfect amount of spice to it; enough to keep your attention, but not overpowering. My other two favorite were Pitcher of Nectar IPA and Boxcar Porter. Pitcher of Nectar just sounds delicious, and it lives up to those expectations by being incredibly juicy with tropical notes. Boxcar pays homage to all the trains than pass by, and has significant coffee notes with some chocolate flavors present as well. For those looking for a beer they can toss back, look no further than Comfortably Blonde. Bock lovers can check out Mechanics Grove Maibock, although it seemed much lighter than a normal bock to me. And hopheads will want Irie IPA, Tightheads 100+ IBU offering.
You may be going a little out of your way to get to Tighthead, but the interesting vibes and wide selection of beers make it worth it. Plus, they have awesome merchandise. If you don’t believe me, check out their website and find the Rugby T-Shirt.
The entire Chicagoland area is a massive place, and there is certainly an impressive number of craft breweries. I will hopefully make more progress in this area in the future, but for now this is at least a little taste of what the Windy City has to offer. Overall I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the quality I experienced in each of the four breweries we visited in this article.
I’ve been to several breweries in the suburbs that surround my hometown of Milwaukee, and I will be picking four of my favorites. For those that may not have heard on Twitter, my wife is becoming a travel nurse next month. So, I will be able to visit breweries in many more regions of the country in the near future. Up first: Portsmouth, NH. Located right on the coast about an hour north of Boston, and an hour south of Portland, ME, this seaport is going to be a great base to explore what New England has to offer.
Current Brewery Count
78 breweries across 38 cities in 7 states as of 7/21/17. (Sorry, I didn’t get to any last week). For an up-to-date count follow my adventures on Twitter: @brewerytravels.