Chicago’s craft beer scene has expanded so rapidly in the last five years that you would be hard-pressed to find a truly accurate list of every brewery in the city anywhere on the internet. There’s simply been too much rapid growth and turnover. Not every project to get its doors open has kept them open—one brewery opened commercially in 2013 and officially closed its doors and sold off its equipment later in the same year.
And even if you could list every one, the new class of Chicago brewers challenges the conventions of commercial brewing projects. There are guys like Spiteful Brewing, operating 2.5-barrel brewhouses barely larger than your garage-based homebrewing operation, and yet their beer is available as far away as Central Illinois. There are large homebrewing collectives you can hire to produce a beer for your wedding or party. There are beer-related projects for nearly any situation one can imagine, from the lowliest lawnmower beer to fusions between craft beer and gourmet cuisine.
It’s a rough estimate, then, when I say I’ve counted about 29 “currently operational” brewing projects in Chicago today. That doesn’t include any of the half dozen or more that are preparing to open in the near future. It sure as hell doesn’t include the suburbs—that would be adding another dozen breweries or more.
So which places are truly indispensible? Where must craft beer-hungry tourists in Chicago visit while they’re in town? All is revealed in Paste’s Craft Beer Guide to Chicago. Check out the map at the bottom of each page for destination locations.
With so many to choose from, which are the best to actually visit? Here are five absolute must-sees.
1. Half Acre Beer Company
You could say that Half Acre is a model of Chicago’s craft beer success. In the mid-2000s, the city was a dreary place for local beer. Goose Island (pre-Anheuser) was one of the only real standouts. That changed with the arrival of Half Acre, which began its ramshackle operation with all its beer contract-brewed in Sand Creek, Wisconsin. They started conservatively in 2006, with an amber lager of all things, before embracing Daisy Cutter Pale ale, the west-coast hop bomb that has become a mascot of Chicago beer in general. In addition to their still FREE tasting room, they finally opened a dedicated tap room in 2013, and it’s always packed. Go for anything hop-forward. When it comes to pale ales and IPAs, Half Acre is Chicago’s gold standard.
2. Revolution Brewing Company
Revolution began its life as a fantastic brewpub and has expanded its operations with a production facility to become one of the larger brewers in Illinois within the space of a few years. The brewpub in Chicago’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood is still a fantastic place to visit, mixing upscale gastropub cuisine with a very well-balanced line of always-solid brews. Their canned Anti-Hero IPA is one of Chicago’s best year-round brews, and their barrel-aged special offerings are heady and intense. A typical trip to Revolution will involve a crispy pork belly sandwich, bacon fat popcorn (yes) and a finely crafted saison—and none of those elements will outshine the other.
3. Haymarket Pub & Brewery
If Revolution is a little more fancy, Haymarket’s brewpub is a little more blue-collar, at least on the food side of things. Here, it’s all about rotisserie chicken and sweet potato tots. But when it comes to the beer, Haymarket has carved themselves out one of the city’s best niches—American/Belgian fusion brews. They make some of the best Belgian pale ales and IPAs you’ll ever have anywhere, marrying the very best of hop-forward American brewing with the subtlety of Belgian tradition. They make almost no concessions to those who aren’t into craft beer—you’re either there for the product or you’re not. The opening day lineup was something like three IPAs, four Belgians and a porter. That’s a brewery with no confusion about its identity.
4. Dryhop Brewers
It’s a very new entry, Dryhop just opened in 2013, but they made quite a splash in their complete and total commitment to the full sensory experience of beer and food pairing. The restaurant/brewery has conceived all its dishes with beer in mind since day one, pairing dishes such as mussels, poutine and shrimp-sausage sandwiches with beers that currently include a “wheat IPA,” “India pale saison,” “vanilla honey milk stout” and “Chicago common.” Everything here is about the interplay between these interconnected philosophies.
5. Lagunitas Brewing Company
They’re still not open, with constant setbacks that have made the opening perpetually “a month or two away,” but it sounds like this opening will finally be coming for real in May. When they do, the country’s sixth-largest craft brewer will have an absurd top capacity of 1.7 million barrels per year in their Chicago brewhouse, which will dwarf every other brewery in the state combined. Chicagoans who have already been able to attend special pre-opening parties in the massive, 300,000 square foot space confirm that this opening is going to be worth the wait. And just about everyone agrees it will be great to get freshly made batches of Hop Stoopid or Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ in Chicago, not to mention all the new local brews Lagunitas will likely introduce. This opening will change the Chicago craft beer landscape forever.
The Beer Bars
6. The Map Room
Styling itself as a “traveler’s tavern,” The Map Room is one of the only bars in the country where one is going to run into a dictionary on a pedestal as a piece of furnishing/decoration. And yet, despite that snobby affect, it really has more the feel of a neighborhood dive—a dive that just happens to serve one of the city’s best curated beer lists. There’s a little something of everything in its 30 or so taps—local brews, hard to find American special releases, Belgian classics. For someone new to beer, it represents one of Chicago’s best ways to experience it all. They even operate an ongoing “beer school” program that teaches the ins and outs of beer styles, “the nuances of beer and its appreciation.”
Map Room and Hopleaf are often mentioned in the same breath as among the city’s best beer bars, but they have very different aesthetics. Where Map Room is cozy and worn-looking, Hopleaf is sleek and modern. They have what may be the city’s best overall beer list, and certainly its best selection of Belgians on tap, with 20 or more at any given time. At the same time, the bar is also a gourmet kitchen and restaurant, renowned for its beer-steamed mussels and continental European dishes. Last time I was there, I spent half an hour chatting with a confused pair of Australian tourists eager for a taste of American craft beer, and they were not disappointed.
8. Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar
Compared to the first two, Maria’s isn’t terribly well known. Once a dingy neighborhood liquor store on Chicago’s south side Bridgeport neighborhood, it’s one of its better kept craft beer secrets today. From the outside, it still looks a little shady, but inside there’s a wonderful little craft beer bottle shop where one can often find special releases that have sold out in most other stores in the city. Walk around back and you’ll find the city’s least snobby craft beer bar, a dark, divey place where people simply drink, have fun and try new brews. You’ve got to love the beer menu chalkboard, which proclaims “Shitty Cheap Beer” as $2 every day. I once asked what that meant. “It’s whatever cheap beer I buy from the gas station,” explained the bartender. You’ll probably want to stick with the craft stuff.
9. Local Option
If you’re a metalhead and a craft beer geek, this is probably the only bar you’ll ever need in Chicago. Local Option takes its rock music just as seriously as it takes its beer, which is to say really seriously. They pair a wide selection of brews with a food menu that randomly combines Cajun cuisine with a variety of tacos. It’s also easy to forget that there are half a dozen Local Option beers on tap, which are brewed off-site in collaboration with other local breweries. Truth be told, it’s a bit of an odd place. You really have to experience Local Option for yourself.
Honorable Mentions: Bad Apple, Fountainhead, Quenchers Saloon, Bangers & Lace, both SmallBar locations.
Chicago Brew Bus
The Chicago Brew Bus, believe it or not, is a bus that can transport one to places where brews are either created or served. For around $60, they’ll haul you around town and take you on tours of breweries such as Goose Island, Haymarket and Atlas Brewing Co. That price includes the beer, naturally. They also organize large-scale pub crawls and rent private party buses for people wanting to turn their brewery touring experiences into a private affair.
Please note, you can stop at just about any of the large Binny’s Beverage Depot locations in the Chicago area if you’re looking for a big package store/booze supermarket. Most of them carry excellent selections of local brews, and a few even have tap rooms in the store itself. In addition, here are a few smaller shops worthy of your attention.
10. Capone’s Liquor
It honestly looks like most other corner liquor stores upon first inspection—crammed and not particularly “crafty,” but once you see what’s on the shelves you’ll forget about all that pretty quickly. This is one neighborhood liquor store that genuinely cares about stocking the freshest and newest-possible selections from Chicago’s local craft brewers.
11. Bottles and Cans
Just a few blocks down Lincoln Ave. from Half Acre is another of Chicago’s best overall liquor stores. Clinically sterile, it’s like shopping for beer in a secret warehouse where only the product matters. One look at the section of local 22 oz and 750 ml bottles will show you why it’s hard to beat them in terms of overall selection.
12. The Beer Temple
With a name like that you know they mean business, and to visit their website, you immediately get a confirmation. Their long-running video tasting notes series has pushed well past 200, and the owner conducting them is no amateur beer blogger—the guy is a certified Cicerone. How can you not love that? This is as geeky as it gets.
Three Standout Beers You Have To Drink
While you’re in Chicago, make sure you either pick up these specific year-round beers. These are some of the brews that define the city.
Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
An undeniable classic, emblematic of Half Acre’s entire brewing philosophy. Very West Coast, dank, piney, citrusy, the kind of pale ale you would undoubtedly call an IPA if you were tasting it blind. Available everywhere in 16 ounce cans.
5 Rabbit Cerveceria, 5 Vulture
I will daresay this beer is underrated even in Chicago itself. Playfully labeled as an “Oaxacan-style dark ale” by Chicago’s Latin-themed craft brewer, it essentially melds the character of a brown ale or light porter with roasted ancho chiles. There are plenty of chile beers on the market, but few are this thoughtful and subtle in their presentation. The chiles stalk the background, reinforcing the beer’s dark fruitiness and adding a lingering spice note. It begs for a plate of enchiladas.
Anything from Pipeworks Brewing Co.
It’s hard to say what will be available from Pipeworks at any given time, but if you see one of their bombers at the beer store, snap it up post-haste. They’re not exactly subtle, but nobody in Chicago does big and brash quite like these guys. Their imperial IPAs and huge imperial stouts are not to be trifled with. They made such a huge, immediate impression that they beat out 1,900 worldwide breweries to be named Ratebeer’s #1 new brewery in 2012. That’s an honor worth bragging about.
Chicago Craft Beer Week
A lot of cities have craft beer weeks, but how many of them are 11 days long? Chicago’s is! It may not make a lot of sense, but none of the local beer fans are complaining. Craft beer becomes incredibly visible during this annual event in mid-May, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. Participating bars all across the city offer specials, and most highlight the city’s hometown breweries. There are too many festivals and tap-takeovers in this week to list individually. It’s the city’s greatest annual celebration of spectacular beer.
The Chicago Beer Festival
This festival based out of Chicago’s Union Station train depot deserves a mention for its scale. It’s proven popular and sustainable, a bit more of an “entry-level” fest but certainly helpful for people wanting to explore a greater variety of craft brews. Plus, you can take the train in from the suburbs and never leave the station.
The Hard Stuff
Chicago’s craft distilling movement has followed closely in the wake of its beer community, and the two are intrinsically linked. The number of distilleries within the city limits is now pushing double digits—here are a few of the most promising.
13. Koval Distillery
The biggest and most varied distillery in town, they make a surprisingly wide array of products, including six different whiskeys, eight liqueurs and three other spirits. There’s nowhere else in Chicago to get 100 percent oat or millet whiskey, it’s safe to say. A big, local success story.
14. Chicago Distilling Company
New kids on the block, their bar/distillery fusion opened only a few months ago in Logan Square. They’re just making the basics for now—white whiskey, vodka and gin—but their warm, inviting bar space has already made them a hot location.
15. CH Distillery
Pioneers of the “distillery bar” concept in Chicago, they do both food and drink, with a focus on clear liquors. Key lime gin, limoncello, rum and peppercorn vodka are all available.
Fill Your Belly
They already appeared on the beer bar list, but Andersonville’s Hopleaf is almost as well known for its food as it is for its beer. They lean toward the classical and European—mussels, braised rabbit, duck breast and Flemish stew are all common entrees. There’s no place better for a beer-centered dinner date, assuming you have time to wait for a table.
17. Pleasant House Bakery
Directly next door to Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, this is the definition of delicious convenience. “British food” might not sound like the most appealing description, but their “royal pies” are divine, with flavors like curry chicken or steak and ale. Imagine the best pot pie you’ve ever had. These are better.
18. The Publican
The Publican features fine but rustic dining with an eye toward history, complemented by one of the city’s best beer and wine lists. Describing itself as “an homage to beer, pork and oysters,” it offers dishes such as Wagyu beef tongue and Moroccan fish stew.