Home to On Tour, Good Island, Great Central, and Finch (taproom opening soon!) breweries, you may have heard the two-block area west of Ashland and north of Lake referred to as “Chicago’s Brewery District." At least I have. Which is why, by the authority invested in me by no one in particular, I’m formally recognizing it as the official moniker of the neighborhood.
Of the taprooms, my most recent pit stop was to Great Central Brewing, the focus of this post. But given the close proximity of all the options, there’s no reason you can’t go on one little all-encompassing brew crawl to hit them all. Especially during the winter: less walking, more beer drinking. Words to live by.
Cavernous: if given one word to describe this expansive taproom, that would be it. The number on the capacity sign escapes my memory, but it had to be in the neighborhood of 200. With numerous lengthy wooden tables filling the space and convenient bench seating lining the wall, the place strikes you as tailor-made for catered parties and special events.
That being said, in order to truly get to know a taproom — or any establishment, for that matter — one element matters above all else: the bar itself. I walked in alone on a cold Thursday evening, shortly after most of the warehouse workers on the strip had punched out for the day. Despite the vast openness of the room, the bar felt intimate and inviting, nestled into the corner opposite the front door.
Atmosphere and Staff
On this night, capacity was a non-issue. A group of five or six young ladies experimented with a flight at one of the tables, and the rest of the patrons sat at the bar. A few of what appeared to be regulars at one end were playing a card game, which the bartender was participating in as well. I posted up a few seats away and ordered one of the only beers on the giant chalkboard I didn’t recognize: Funk Brewing Silent Disco. (Great Central is a contract brewer, which is why other brands are also on tap. More on that later.) Very refreshing — off to a good start.
During the next hour, I enjoyed brews from a few different breweries, learned about Great Central’s contract brewing business model, and had an intriguing conversation with a semi-regular who had just finished his shift a block away. On top of a mutual affinity for craft beer, we shared a common ancestry — turns out we were a couple of 100-percent Swedes, bonding over beer. Further evidence that the Scandinavians know what they’re doing.
As I alluded to above, Great Central is a dedicated contract brewer, meaning they help their clients — typically young microbreweries — expand operations, supplement in-house production, streamline logistics and ease their transition into a new market.
Great Central also brews their own recipes, six of which were on tap during my visit. The other 14 taps were pledged to clients; among them was Funk (Pennsylvania), Begyle (Chicago), Maplewood (Chicago), and Kinslahger (Oak Park).
Styles Available: Great Central’s house brews are all German-style — the core offerings include a lager, a bock, a pilsner and a hefeweizen. The client beers on tap seemed to be focused on IPAs, pale ales, lagers and pilsners.
For the Hop Heads: Although you’ll first notice its light, fruity aroma, the Begyle Crash Landed provides a sharp, bitter aftertaste to satisfy hop enthusiasts. I love Begyle.
For the Dark Beer Folks: If you’re in search of a thick, comforting stout or porter to curl up with next to the fire, you won’t find it here. The closest thing was probably Kinslahger’s Chicago Common steam lager, simply due to its rich and malty nature.
For the Serious Snobs: Most of the offerings catered to a more mainstream palate, although the Great Central Heller Bock, at 7.3%, yields a complex flavor profile and packs a bit of a punch for a German brew.
For the People Who Are Going to Ask Me “What Tastes the Most like Bud Light?: Bud Light lovers, rejoice! Throw a dart at the menu and you’re more likely than not to land on a light, crisp offering that will not overwhelm you. And it’ll definitely taste better than Bud Light.
My Favorite: Since we're dealing with both house brews and contract brews, I get to name two. From Great Central, the Pils was tops for me: crisp, traditional and thirst-quenching. And of the client beers, this was easy — Begyle’s Hopazardly, one of my top 5 IPAs in Chicago.
Whether you’re rolling deep with a crew of friends or flying solo for an afternoon, this is a relaxing place to kick it with some delicious beers. It’s a rustic, industrial-looking space that fits seamlessly into the surrounding manufacturing corridor that’s transitioning into a brewery hub before our very eyes.
You know, on second thought, maybe visiting all of the Chicago Brewing District’s taprooms in one fell swoop isn’t necessary after all. Take a trip to Great Central, sample offerings from several microbreweries at once, and save the other spots for a snowy day. Or tomorrow.
- Crain's Chicago Business examines Great Central and its role in the growing contract brewing trend.
- The always informative PorchDrinking.com spoke with the GCBC team back in May about the brewery and public perception of contract brewing. It's worth a read.
- Check here for the GCBC taproom's hours. FYI: it's bring-your-own-food.
Lead photo via facebook.com/greatcentralbrewingcompany