Taking the Chicago Craft Beer Scene to the Next Level

As some of you may be aware, the hubby and I recently spent a lovely week in the Pacific Northwest for a beercation.  We have wanted to travel to this beer-tastic area of the country for a while and after making some friends from the area at the 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference, we decided to finally take the plunge and go during fresh-hop season.  Instead of providing a detailed play-by-play account of our adventures (which would be both boring for you to read and for me to write), I thought I would take my observations of their craft beer scene and see how applying them to Chicago would take our craft beer scene from infancy to adolescence, and beyond.  Now I understand that there are certain laws and contracts that are currently in place that may negate these suggestions from becoming a reality in the near future. However, over time, we may be able to change the perception of craft beer in Chicago and truly make us “the next Portland.”

Take Pride in Your (Local) Beer

One thing is evident about the Pacific Northwest: they love their beer.  And not just any beer; they love their hometown craft beers.  Portland, Oregon, a city a third of the size of Chicago, has 40 breweries and Portlandites (Portlanders?) are proud of this fact.  Even those individuals that may not be that into beer know and love that Portland is known as a major beer city. Brewery tours are even advertised on the Portland travel sites! How do we garner the same appreciation in Chicago?  I think by doing a lot of what we are currently doing, but maybe on a larger scale.  And I think this will happen as more breweries open up in the various neighborhoods of Chicago. It will definitely make a difference for someone in a craft beer desert to suddenly have access to craft beer in the form of neighborhood brewery.  We need more education, more breweries, and more beer that is accessible to everyone, not just beer geeks. Which brings me to my next topic…

Accessibility

The general perception about beer in the Northwest is broader than it is here in Chicago; it is much more approachable and accepted amongst the locals. I am not sure about the beer selection at Wrigley as I am a White Sox fan, although the last time I ventured to Wrigleyville left much to be desired.  And while the beer selection at US Cellular Field has improved, it is far from stellar.  There are NO craft beer taps, and the few beers they have available in bottles are typically on the lighter side. This is not the case in the Pacific Northwest, however.  The hubby and I went to a Seattle Mariners game and to my surprise, the majority of the tap handles were for craft beer while Coors Light and Bud Light Lime bottles were relegated to the sketchy cooler in the back. 

Tap handles at Safeco Field in Seattle, WA

The beer guys that travel up and down the aisles carry craft beer, too, in 22-ounce bombers and will gladly pour it into a 22-ounce cup for you (yes, they have 22-ounce cups for bombers at Safeco Field). At Safeco Field, they had an IPA from Ninkasi, a Summer Ale from Alaskan Brewing, a Red Ale from Elysian, and a Pale Ale from Georgetown Brewing all on tap.  They even had bombers of Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale! This variety led to a further enjoyment of the game and encouraged us to buy more beer because we wanted to try the different local brews.

Growler Stations

For those of you that don’t know, a growler is a jug (typically 64 ounces, although smaller and larger ones are sometimes available) that one can purchase full of beer; take the beer home and drink it; clean and sanitize the growler; and then bring it back to re-fill with beer. Here in Chicago, there is a law that stipulates that growlers can only be used for beer that is brewed onsite, such as at Piece, Revolution, or Haymarket. In the Pacific Northwest, however, it is popular to have growler stations in other places, even if the beer isn’t brewed there. From the big box liquor stores like BevMo (the West Coast’s Binney’s) to the smaller, mom-and-pop beer stores, to even grocery stores and gas stations, growler stations are prevalent.  For instance, I was in a small convenience store and they had a system of five tap handles, all of which could be put into a growler. This is an added convenience as someone can do some minimal grocery shopping and pick up a growler of beer to take home and enjoy. The biggest benefit of the growler stations is that it is better for the environment since you fill a reusable growler, eliminating the waste produced by bottles and cans.

Get Over the Belief that the Chicago Craft Beer Scene is Over-Saturated

Tasters at Hair of the Dog Brewery

Portland, a city a third the size of Chicago, has 40 breweries.  FORTY.  Do you know how many Chicago has right now, up and running? At my last count, Chicago has less than 15 breweries in the city proper. There are quite a few that will be opening in the next year but not enough to get us even close to 40. Rather than look at saturation or whether the landscape is getting too crowded, look at the quality and uniqueness of the beer that is being brewed.  Also, craft beer has not fully tapped into the entirety of its possible customer base here in Chicago.  While we have come a long way, there is still quite a ways to go.  We need more outreach and education, and then the demand for exceptional, Chicago-brewed craft beer will be there. But this brings me to my next point…

Distinguish Yourself

While there are 40 breweries within the city limits of Portland, they distinguish themselves and each provides something unique to the Portland craft beer scene.  Cascade Barrel House blends some of the best sour and wood-aged beers I have ever tasted. Hair of the Dog brews unusual beers utilizing traditional brewing methods.  Buckman Botanical Brewery uses chamomile, ginger, and other interesting ingredients to distinguish its beers. I feel Chicago is doing this well so far, but with the influx of new breweries opening up over the next year and beyond, I wanted to reiterate this point. Pete Crowley at Haymarket is a master of the Belgo-American Style. Metropolitan has changed the way many of us view lagers.  The new breweries opening up need to find their voice, and then brew it well.

End the War on Homebrewing

While the hubby and I were lounging the afternoon away at the Fort George Brewery Tap Room in Astoria, Oregon, news broke via Twitter that Chicago homebrew general store Brew Camp was shut down. More recently, Brew and Grow decided to stop offering samples of homebrew to customers due to “grey areas” and conservative interpretations of Illinois homebrew laws.  This war on homebrew is ridiculous; beer is one of the safest items to consume and it is not taking business away from established brewers.  Actually, most (if not all) established brewers started as homebrewers and they tend to be supportive of those that make tasty beer at home.  Once again, Oregon is leading the way with regards to beer in the recently passed law that decriminalizes many of the homebrew laws that used to be in existence. 

The small scale brewing system at Green Dragon Bistro and Brewery.

 

This law (SB 444) not only eliminates the restrictions on transportation of homebrew and where it can be consumed, but it also eliminates the restriction on where homebrew can be made.  This is a vital part of the law that should be addressed in Illinois, especially with regards to Brew and Grow and CHAOS Brew Club. This law also allows homebrewers to participate in small-scale brewing at licensed breweries, which I witnessed at the Green Dragon Bistro and Brewery.  At this establishment, there is a large brewing system where Buckman Botanical Brewery beers are brewed, and then there is a small-scale brewing system where homebrewers come in, brew, and then the beer is served at the bistro. The advantages to this law are endless and Illinois legislators should use this law as a template for Illinois.

The large scale Buckman Botanical Brewery system and the small scale homebrew set-up at Green Dragon Bistro and Brewery

 

Like I said, many of these suggestions are not easy to implement due to legal red tape.  However, as our craft beer scene grows and evolves, we may find the need to challenge some of the laws that are currently in place.  These are just some tidbits that may be helpful in taking the Chicago craft beer scene to the next level.

For more pictures of our beercation, check out Christopher Murphy’s photostream.

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