Nestled into a friendly if unassuming little area near the southwest corner of Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side, you’d probably walk right past Empirical Brewery if you weren’t explicitly looking for it.
My sister hosted her 27th birthday party in their space last Sunday, which delighted me — I’d been searching for an excuse to get back there for some time. And it conveniently serves as an ideal topic for the introductory post to this fledgling little blog.
I first visited Empirical several years ago, so it’s difficult to recall my initial reaction, but I’d venture a guess that it was remarkably similar to my first impression last week: this is my kind of taproom.
We arrived at noon, missing kickoff for the Chicago Bears game (playing on both TVs, great sign) by a few minutes. Aside from an older couple nursing beers at the bar, we had the place to ourselves. Thanks to its communal tables — think of a German beer hall on a significantly smaller scale — we had ample room to set up shop, with table space for appetizers and plenty of seating for guests.
I’m a sucker for furniture and decor built with industrial pipe, and this style is a bit of theme at Empirical. Eye-catching pipe light fixtures add a stylish flair to the modest space. The taproom is canine-friendly, so a mild scent of dog hung in the air. The Kraft family dog was one of our guests that day, so this certainly didn’t bother anyone in our party.
Atmosphere and Staff
The down-to-earth, no-frills attitude extends beyond the taproom's physical environment, permeating the entire place. A shelf full of board and card games stands in one of the front corners, the contents of which saw more and more use as the taproom filled up with patrons over the course of the afternoon. The bartenders were attentive, helpful and polite.
As further testimony to the laid-back atmosphere, when we peered through the glass on the west wall to where the shiny 40-gallon tanks and brewing equipment reside, a few tranquil souls were practicing yoga, paying us no mind at all. It didn’t even appear to be an organized class; perhaps the urge simply struck them, so they rolled out their mats and got to work.
This is what occurs to me as Empirical’s distinguishing characteristic: it’s an old-school, welcoming neighborhood bar that just happens to be labelled a taproom because beer is brewed on premise. No one takes themselves too seriously, and as a result, no one feels out of place. As more taprooms and brewpubs continue to pop up around Chicago, this is a quality that's getting lost in the shuffle.
Call me basic, but I’m the first to admit then when I arrive at a new brewery, I typically beeline for the menu’s flagship American IPA. However, since I’m already quite familiar with Empirical’s Infinity IPA (tasty, with a bit of an overpowering piney aftertaste), let’s skip to the other stuff:
Styles Available: They had a pretty standard list in action (IPA, imperial IPA, pale ale, stout, porter, fruit ale), with some interesting experimental beers on tap as well (if it’s still available, I recommend trying the pale wheat ale — Gin Barrel Aged Gamma Ray).
For the Hop Heads: The Double Helix Imperial IPA is an easy-drinking, exhilarating blend of Simcoe and Cascade hops. This one goes down much smoother than the Infinity for me. I enjoyed two — which was probably one too many for a full day of beer drinking.
For the Dark Beer Folks: Our group consisted of one stout enthusiast and a bunch of others who tip toe around thick, malty beers, yet everyone seemed to agree that the Singularity Oatmeal Stout hit the right notes.
For the Serious Snobs: Aging a beer in gin barrels is inventive in its own right, but the Gin Barrel Aged Gamma Ray also features wheat, peppercorn and ginger flavors. In our group, the reaction was decidedly mixed.
For the People Who Are Going to Ask Me “What Tastes the Most like Bud Light?”: Yes, I drag plenty of friends to breweries who ask this very question. And please don’t take this as a slight to the Cold Fusion Cream Ale — it was the most popular beer of the afternoon for the majority of the crew. Crisp and sweet, once these started sliding, it was kind of hard to stop the momentum.
My Favorite: See “For the Hop Heads” above.
If you find yourself in Andersonville, or perhaps meandering around the nearby Ravenswood craft brewery corridor, I’d highly recommend making a pit stop at Empirical Brewery. And if you’re walking your dog, that’s no excuse — you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
- Empirical also recently opened a brewpub in Rogers Park.
- If you’re not familiar with The Hop Review, I highly suggest checking it out. Here’s an interesting 2014 interview the Chicago-based beer publication did with Empirical’s founder and brewmaster while the brewery was still under construction.
Lead photo via facebook.com/empiricalbrewery