The Chicago Brewing District Is One of the City's Best-Kept Secrets

July 17, 2019

By Sarah Freeman, July 17, 2019

For over a year I regularly traveled the quarter-mile stretch between Grand Ave and Lake Street on Chicago’s West Side. I lived north of Grand while my boyfriend lived due south, just past Lake. During that time, I saw the broken-glass-and-gravel-covered street connecting our two apartment buildings transform from that kinda-sketchy, kinda-smelly strip next to the dump into the Chicago Brewing District. Yes, Chicago has a brewing district. It came to be only two years ago, when representatives from each of the nearby breweries joined forces and coined the name. While it might not be located along the city’s prettiest bit of real estate (as part of their efforts to turn the area into a destination, the breweries regularly organize neighborhood cleanups), but, thanks to the breweries that call it home, this forgotten corner of Chicago is getting a new life.

Metric Coffee

There are six breweries that make up the Chicago Brewing District. Five of them have taprooms open to the public, and all are very much within walking distance from each other. If you’ve read any of my other neighborhood guides, you know that I believe a good beer crawl rarely starts with beer. In this case, it starts with coffee and pastries on the western edge of the neighborhood. Metric Coffee is in its own burgeoning destination—it sits across the street from a brandy distillery and next to a motorcycle shop. Most of Metric’s warehouse is dedicated to the roastery, with a glass-encased corner carved out for the cafe, which sells its dangerously potent nitro cold brew alongside the usual coffee shop assortment of muffins, croissants, and scones.

Great Central Brewing

One of the most interesting facts about the Chicago Brewing District is that, from the outside, it may look like six breweries make up this neighborhood, but in fact nearly a dozen breweries produce beer here. “What sort of sorcery is this?” you might ask. Great Central is a contract brewery that not only produces its own pilsner and hefeweizen, but also brews beer for Begyle Brewing, Maplewood Brewing, Cruz Blanca Brewery, Illuminated Brew Works, and Twisted Hippo. Basically if a brewery is too small or just doesn’t have brewing equipment of its own, it can come to Great Central to brew. The customers reap the benefits in the form of 24 taps—a surprising number of which are dedicated to IPAs—in a large taproom filled with games, from giant Connect Four to ping-pong.

Goose Island Beer Company

Maybe you think you know Goose, just because you’ve seen Green Line at the airport bar or 312 at the baseball game, but the cool thing about the Fulton taproom is that it’s the place to get your hands on limited-release beers on draft as well as rare barrel-aged bottles. Right now, I’m all about Cinco Mas, a Mezcal Mule-inspired pale lager that’s flavored with fresh ginger. Grab one, then snag a pair of protective Aviator glasses and head behind-the-scenes for a brewery tour. Here, you’ll be treated to more beers—some of which are never released to the public—at the brew deck bar.

On Tour Brewing

If you are familiar with On Tour, it’s probably for one of two reasons: The brewery was named Very Small Brewing Company of the Year and Very Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. The brewery also acts as the setting of a beer-focused episode of Netflix’s Easy. Its founder Mark Legenza has also been one of the loudest voices in support of the Chicago Brewing Districts revival, and his brewery is spearheading the first Chicago Brewing District Street Festival in early August. It’s the neighborhood darling, attracting visitors from near and far to sample its award-winning maibock and doppelbock. In case you’re ready for more food by this point in the crawl, the brewery regularly hosts food trucks, such as Ofrenda and the Five Squared pizza truck, outside its garage-style taproom.

District Brew Yards

If you’re one of those people who, like me, gets easily overwhelmed by new technology, you might be a bit taken aback by the newest addition to the Chicago Brewing District. District Brew Yards is a three-in-one brewery equipped with a pour-you-own beer tap system that lets you taste your way through 40 different beers with the waive of a card. The main players here are Around the Bend Beer Co., Burnt City Brewing, and Bold Dog Beer Co., each with their own wall of taps dedicated to rotating beers. There’s also a fourth wall, reserved for beer brewed in collaboration with local homebrew clubs. “We can be a lot smaller and more successful with this model than we would have had to have been with the old, sort of traditional, 1990s model,” says John Saller, who runs Burnt City Brewing with his brother Ben. The model allows each brewery to produce smaller batches of more experimental brews, such as Burnt City’s Li’l Sparky Meyer Lemon Grisette, which pairs very will with the house-smoked brisket and collard greens.

All Rise Brewing Co.

All Rise is the counterpart of Cobra Lounge. Situated in the rear of the ten-year-old rock club, the brewery opened in 2015. Personally, this is my least favorite of the breweries in the neighborhood. I’ve found its beers often harbor off-flavors and skirt the rules of style. However, when it comes to atmosphere, there’s nothing like Cobra Lounge, complete with its dive bar vibes driven home by the illuminated “BEER” sign and motorcycle suspended from the brick walls. (For those keeping score, we’ve hit five breweries. The sixth, Finch Beer Co., is located kitty-corner to Great Central but it’s taproom is not open to the public yet.)

Kaiser Tiger

What other beer bar can claim a bocce ball court and curling area as its alter-ego? Kaiser Tiger also holds the title for the West Loop’s biggest beer garden, which isn’t saying much because it’s one of the few beer bars in a neighborhood that’s mostly filled with trendy restaurants. Sitting on the far west edge of the West Loop and southeast corner of the Chicago Brewing District, it acts as the sausage-filled final stop of this particular beer crawl. Inspired by German beer halls, Kaiser Tiger specializes in beer and bacon—as in you can drink a Dovetail Lager while eating a bacon-wrapped bacon, pork, and Lagunitas IPA sausage. Because if you’ve made it this far, what’s a little—or a lot—more beer? 

Photos by Jim Vondruska

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