I’ve lived in Chicagoland for my entire life, and until this year, I’d never even heard of Willow Springs, the home of Imperial Oak Brewing. Now we’ve visited this charming little village in the southwest burbs twice, and even biked the scenic riverfront path that runs up against the Calumet Sag Channel a mile or so to the south.
Just another example of the ancillary benefits that come with constantly seeking out new breweries — discovering new towns or neighborhoods and exploring previously unfamiliar terrain can be half the fun.
Imperial Oak does it all, and seems to do it all well.
Too often you’ll fall in love with a taproom’s atmosphere, setting the stage for a flight of underwhelming beers to kill your buzz. Or, you’ll go into it knowing the beers will be top notch, only to end up kicking yourself for not opting to pick up a couple six packs for a relaxing day on your own patio.
Given Imperial Oak’s spacious and vibrant indoor-outdoor setup, two separate bars, perpetual food truck presence (at least on Saturdays), and diverse beer list, I’d guess that very few patrons — beer geek or otherwise — walk away from this spot disappointed or unsatisfied.
Atmosphere and Staff
I imagine the proximity to the adjacent Des Plaines River and its labyrinth of hiking and biking trails helps make Imperial Oak a natural meeting ground for the local community and out-of-town visitors alike.
It’s a destination for families as well: canine-friendly, with plenty of nearby space for the kids to play bags or partake in various outdoor tomfoolery. For as bustling as the patio area tends to get when the weather cooperates, I envision the indoor space becoming a bit packed during the winter months…but the staff is attentive, and the beer line seems to flow quickly, so I assume a full house isn’t much of a problem.
Styles Available: The taproom caters to many a palate; aside from the staples, their menu seems to be everchanging, dishing out everything from malt-forward German genres to sours and the always in-demand hazy IPAs. And with a name like Imperial Oak, you can’t overlook brews the barrel-aged variety, of which they have several.
For the Hop Heads: Prediction…Pain! If you’re a fan of Simcoe and Amarillo hops, this creamy, cloudy, and mildly bitter Double IPA will get the job done. A bit boozy for me.
For the Dark Beer Folks: I typically avoid stouts and porters during the summer, so I was glad to discover the Nobodys Alt But Mine Altbier: aesthetically a deep brown, subtly sweet with a rich malt profile in the traditional German style.
For the Serious Snobs: Barrel-aged sours are hit or miss with me, and the Blanc- Foeder Aged Berlinner Weisse neither impressed nor disappointed. This funky concoction, part of their Savage Oak Wild and Sour line, is fermented with a custom mix of exotic yeasts and remains available year-round.
For the People Who Are Going to Ask “What Tastes the Most like Bud Light?”: I typically make it a point to try beers based on outstanding names alone, so the fact that I failed to order at least a five-ouncer of the Buzz Lite Beer golden ale is sacrilegious. I should be punished.
My Favorite: As a group, our adventurousness was lacking this time around, all opting for pints of the standard Crank It Hop American IPA once the initial testing session had ended. During our previous visit in the spring, however, I gravitated toward the Intoxicator — a formidable, 8-percent ABV Doppelbock that lived up to its name and then some.
As a city resident, if the taproom itself sounds far more appealing than its southwest suburban location, you’re in luck — it’s situated right next to a Metra stop, so you have a built-in designated driver.
You may never know what will be on tap on a given day, but you can feel confident that Imperial Oak is a hell of a place to spend a sunny autumn afternoon.
- It may be three years old, but this porchdrinking.com piece offers a nice snapshot of the owners’ early brewing philosophy and expansion strategy.
- A quick 2017 Voyage Chicago interview with Imperial Oak’s founder Grant Hamilton.