One of the best parts about living in Chicago is our close proximity to so many different cultural institutions. The museums, the historical sites, the art galleries, the concert halls—the options are seemingly endless. Katie and I, being the cultured sophisticates that we are, pored over our options last weekend, wanting to find the place that would help us feel more connected to the city, to each other, and to ourselves. And we found the perfect backdrop for such a meditative experience: brewpubs!
Chicago hosts a surprising number of microbrews, though many don’t have their own pubs or seldom offer tours. We chose to visit three, and the reason for their selection is that they were easy to travel between using public transportation, and because we hadn’t been to them before. Though we are only going to talk about these three places, I encourage you to support some local businesses—and local flavor—and make a point to go to any one of Chicago’s brewpubs.
We started out at Rock Bottom Brewery, downtown at State and Grand. We were reluctant to try Rock Bottom because it is a national chain of brewpubs, and doesn’t have that local angle. But what it lacks in local charm, it makes up for in convenience—it was easy to get to from both Katie and my homes, and was a quick walk to the brown line to get to the other brewpubs. We liked the laid-back vibe of this place. Even though it was a Sunday during March Madness and the games were on every television, the bar felt quiet and relaxed. The place was bustling, but you’d never know it (unless you’re a total creepo like Katie and me and spend more time staring at all the people around you than talking to your companion, and then record your observations in a notebook at the bar). Now, Katie and I are not beer connoisseurs, and will not claim to be (though Katie did go to college in Milwaukee, which has to count for something). We ordered the sampler, which gave us about 2 ounces of each of Rock Bottom’s home brews, and were rather underwhelmed. Pretty much all of Rock Bottom’s products have a pronounced hoppy taste—that bitter taste that makes every sip a little harsh. I know there are many hops advocates in the world, but Katie and I are definitely not those kind of people. I don’t even see why people like hops. Here you have a perfectly good beverage, all smooth and nice and refreshing, and then the hops people come along and feel the need to make it a little less smooth and a lot harder to swallow. I think hops people are the same ones who like to order their steaks well done, or send their bacon back twice until it is really just a collection of ashes (hey, Mom). Just like burning your food takes all the flavor out of it, I think hops neutralizes flavor and makes the product less enjoyable…but what do I know. Katie and my favorite Rock Bottom brew was the White Ale, because we’re girls and think fruit belongs in every type of beverage, though the more hops-tolerant gentlemen next to us preferred the Fire Chief Ale and thusly asked that we endorse it. Note: if you’re ever feeling lonely, go to a public place with a pad of paper and just start writing. It doesn’t even matter what you write; at some point, somebody’s going to ask you about what you’re doing, and there you have a meet-cute for a wonderful friendship. Or at least the opportunity to spend a pleasant twenty minutes with some nice retirees sitting next to you.
Next came Atlas Brewing Company, 2747 N. Lincoln. Again, the hops! The hops, they were everywhere. I tried to keep an open mind as we went through our samples, reminding myself that my tastes are not everybody else’s tastes. But Katie and I were at a consensus that pretty much everything there had a bitter taste that serious beer drinkers probably like because it makes them tough, but just made us squirm. Atlas brews some less common finds, like Barley Wine and an Imperial Stout, which I’m glad I tried because now I know I never have to order that type of beer from anywhere again. It wasn’t that it was badly made—other patrons around us enjoyed those products greatly—but we just couldn’t handle it. We hoped that our order of fried pickles would help alleviate the bitterness, but were surprised to see that the pickles came as full spears instead of the little medallions we’re used to, and that became a whole other issue we had to adjust to. (Note to self: next blog entry topic should be on all the fried pickles in Chicago.) The staff at Atlas is incredibly nice, helpful, and very patient with newbies like ourselves. The bar itself was quiet for a weekend afternoon, but judging by the space, it hosts a bigger crowd later in the evenings. The space was a little dark and spartan, but I’m pretty sure that’s the vibe they were going for, so good for them. If you go, we recommend most the Hyperion Double IPA.
After that was Half Acre Beer Company, 4257 N. Lincoln. We were excited for this place because, according to our friend, their product is incredibly fresh. He envisioned a river of ale in the back that flows through the taps, a la the chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s factory. And yes, their product was very fresh and well made, but it just confirmed that all microbrews have some sort of deal with the hops people. Eh well, by this point it was pretty clear that Katie’s and my tastebuds are in the minority. This tap room had the liveliest atmosphere of any place we had been to, and the employees were fun and playful and informative. One of the owners even gave us a quick mini-tour of the brewery in the back, and the personal touches and his remarks made it clear that this company is a family affair, and every decision is made with care and diligence. The tap room itself is pretty bare-bones, but that is fitting for a place whose only duty is to serve beer (no food or anything else). Our favorite was the Akari Shogun (note that says the Japanese word shogun, not the American shotgun like I embarrassingly ordered).
It was a great afternoon spent with a great friend, but what I was most pleased to see is how many passionate, friendly people are in the city. Whether it was the owners and employees of the microbrews, the random strangers who talked to us along the way, or even the other parties we (creepily) watched, all these places have a power to bring people together and remind us of all the positivity and creativity there is in this city. It’s almost enough to get me to start enjoying the taste of hops.
Rock Bottom Atlas Half Acre