Craft beer review: Lagunitas Frisco to Chicago Zephyr

Craft beer review: Lagunitas Frisco to Chicago Zephyr

You know, I still get the most views, hits, and comments for my review of the Walgreens Big Flats 1901 beer. Of course most of those comments tell me just what it is I’m full of for not loving the $3 six-pack, but to each his own. I’d rather talk up some new and interesting craft brews and hope to get you to try something different.

Here’s one now: Lagunitas “Frisco to Chicago” Zephyr. This beer is named, you might have already figured, for the famous California Zephyr train line that still takes passengers from Chicago to San Francisco; and not too far from Lagunitas’ home digs at Petaluma, CA. No relation, though, to the long-standing Zephyr Golden Ale on the house menu at Flossmoor Station. It’s a special collaboration with Chicago bars The Publican and Big Star, and is a one-time batch of 200 kegs available only on tap.

Lagunitas describes the beer as “Brewed in the historic steam beer tradition (without refrigeration);” to use the un-trademarked term, a California Common. This is an American hybrid style of beer made in California for over a hundred years. While brewers tried to create the popular German lager style there, they had no access to cool caves or nearby ice for lagering, so they just let the brew ferment warm, usually in open fermenters. The lager yeast used and re-used for this beer adapted to these conditions, while hard-to-get German hops might be substituted by hardier local varietals, like Northern Brewer. This style of beer nearly died out except for Anchor Brewing, which trademarked the term “steam beer,” and used it as the cornerstone of their revival in the1960s and 70s. While Anchor Steam gets along with a sessionable 4.9% alcohol by volume, the Lagunitas beer adds more oomph with a 7.66% abv.

I got a chance to drink a pint on draft last Saturday, escaping the beastly heat and humidity thumping my local Farmers’ Market at the nearby gourmet deli, Zest at Lemon Tree Grocer. I had it before I knew what style it was supposed to be, so I picked up the malty and spicy smell and presumed I had a saison, an ale with a similar very warm fermentation. In the glass, it showed an auburn color, with a few bubbles feeding a thin head. I caught some unfiltered yeast in front with the first sip, but found it full of warm ale character. I had guessed the citrusy character came from Cascade hops, though some other reviews I read afterward claimed they were Nelson Sauvin (sorry, folks, beer geekspeak wanders in at times). The finish had a nice warming alcohol feel. Perhaps too much alcohol for the hot day I was drinking it in. If you're lucky enough to enjoy it in a friendly, air conditioned beer establishment, sit for just a bit longer before venturing outside in the hot summer air.

Despite being a collaboration with two bars, Zephyr is turning up on taps at several accounts. I’ve tracked it in Chicago at Jerry’s Sandwiches, the smallBars, Paddy Long’s, the Tribes Alehouse in Mokena, Front Street Cantina in Naperville, and Durty Nellie’s in Palatine, and  just to name a few. Beer Menus has many more current places listed, but always call a place with the listing to make sure it’s still available.

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    Mark McDermott

    Writer, trivia maven, fan of many things. I thought to learn all there is to know about beer as a way to stay interested in learning. It is my pleasure to bring Chicago's craft beer scene to you.

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