Odds are, if you walk up to a random Chicagoan and ask about Malt Row, they’ll respond with a puzzled look. It’s a relatively new term, introduced in a May 2017 press release as a handy way for a business group in the city’s Ravenswood neighborhood to knit together seven breweries and one distillery that are clustered in a nearly four-mile, public transportation-friendly stretch. Regardless of the still-in-progress branding effort, few neighborhoods are more emblematic of contemporary Chicago than Ravenswood, an area that features the highest concentration of highly diverse breweries in Chicago.
A short stroll is all that separates Michelin-starred brewpub Band of Bohemia, which brews offbeat beers meant for pairing with food from Dovetail Brewery, which has a strict focus on classic continental European beer styles. It isn’t just the volume of breweries in the area that makes it a worthy destination. In many ways, Malt Row is the birthplace of the latest wave of the Chicago’s craft beer boom that was pioneered by the likes of Half Acre, which rolled out its first beer in 2007 and opened the doors to its Lincoln Avenue brewery a year later.
It had been nearly a year since the Malt Row press release crossed my desk and while I had visited about half of the area’s breweries, I hadn’t done an all-out bar crawl because, well, with two young boys at home, my days of bar crawls are largely over, unless I have a reason—assignment to write about the area, if you will—to get out and explore the area.
Band of Bohemia
There’s no clearer example of how craft beer has evolved than Band of Bohemia, a Michelin-starred “culinary brewpub” founded by Michael Carroll and Craig Sindalar, two veterans of Alinea, which regularly ranks among the best restaurants in the world. Located in a former 1920s warehouse that was home to an Oreo cookie factory, the restaurant is a massive, funky, chic industrial loft that’s been broken into distinct areas: a kitchen complete with a chef’s bar, a long bar with the brewery tucked behind it, coffee bar with views of the fermenting tanks and dining room broken up by curved, high-backed booths.
I pony up to the bar and take a look at the beer menu that’s markedly distinct. Each of the five beers on offer are meant to be paired with food. “I like bruja,” the bartender says, pointing me to a red wheat ale that’s made distinct thanks to the additions of orange zest, chicory and roasted beets. He offers a sample of Noble Raven Ale, a good, but unremarkable Hallertauer hopped ale, and Indian Pale Ale, an Indian-tinged cardamon bomb that’s brewed with coriander, cloves, star anise, roasted grapes and kaffir lime. I’m still sipping the samples when my friend Ben arrives. He orders the Jasmine Rice, a clean, jasmine rice-scented lager, and I try Bruja, an odd crimson-hued beer that’s surprisingly dry with an earthy note.
The food is the star at Band of Bohemia, it does have a Michelin star after all. But we have a number of stops to go, so we pay the bill and walk a little less than a mile to Dovetail.
Dovetail stands in stark contrast to Band of Bohemia. Whereas Band of Bohemia features over-the-top decor and offbeat beers, Dovetail features a spartan look: Brick walls, a bar made of reclaimed wood, wooden tables and no-frills beer that largely sticks to traditional German and Czech styles, along with the occasional Belgian-style beer. Aside from landjäger and Bavarian-style pretzels, there’s no food—you can bring your own or pick some up from the food truck parked out front—and beer comes by the one-third or half liter.
The brewery’s name stems from the dovetail joint, which is a symbol of quality and craftsmanship. The name fits. Dovetail is a reminder that for all of craft beers’ over-the-top beer names and flavors, beer doesn’t have to be overly complicated. The spot is decidedly uncool; beers are simply referred to by style, so there’s “maibock,” “lager,” “pilsner” and “hefeweizen.” We find a table, sit next to dog and imbibe a Vienna lager and hefeweizen, while munching a pretzel. Our friend Steve joins us after a short while and downs a crisp, clean pilsner. It isn’t flashy, but a welcome spot for a well-made beer.
Begyle Brewing Co.
Just one block from Dovetail, Begyle is a markedly different scene. It built its brand by being one of the first breweries to adopt the community supported brewing (CSB) model that enables people to sign up for six- or 12-month memberships that entitle them to a set number of growler fills, discounted merchandise and beer purchases, and access to exclusive events. It also hosts a beer yoga class on Sundays. The result is a brewery that has built a relationship with a neighborhood filled with 20- and 30-somethings.
While Dovetail was busy with a few open tables, Begyle is a scene. Drinkers and dogs clog just about every conceivable place to sit or stand. We mull around for a while before we decide to congregate around a barrel topped with neighborhood flyers. Also unlike Dovetail, which offers gimmick-free beers without cutesy names, Begyle’s beers takes the opposite approach. They feature names such as Boat Shoes, a kolsch-style ale; Imperial Pajamas, a coffee imperial oatmeal stout; and Neighborly, a dry stout. We order a Boat Shoes; Thunder Buddies, a dry-hopped farmhouse ale; and Hey Now, a Chinook-hopped IPA.. Each of us is underwhelmed by our beers, so we decide to move on before finishing them.
Half Acre Beer Company
Half Acre opened its Lincoln Avenue brewery in 2008, making it one of the first production breweries to open its doors in Chicago in the most recent craft beer wave. Using equipment it purchased secondhand from Durango, Colorado’s Ska Brewing Co., It’s here where the brewery found its niche, when in 2009, when it released a special bomber it called Daisy Cutter. An American pale ale chock-full of dank, pine and citrus flavors, it was unlike anything else being produced in the area.
Daisy Cutter helped Half Acre attract a loyal following, and the brewery opened a tap room in 2012. Four years later, it added a kitchen featuring exotic burritos, such as Korean beer bulgogi or pineapple pork fried rice. In 2015, Half Acre opened a second location in the Bowmanville neighborhood a little less than two miles from the original facility. The move enables the brewery to focus on experimentation and mixed fermentation at this facility, while the Lincoln Avenue taproom remains a place to meet up with a friend for a drink or date night.
We arrive around 8 p.m. and it’s crowded, dark and loud. Gathering around a smaller-than-you-would-expect bar, I order Beer Hates Astronauts, a resinous IPA with notes of toasted bread, pineapple and orange, while Ben and Steve share Preen, a citrusy, earthy double IPA. Keeping an eye out for a table, we pounce as soon as we see a four-top open up for a round of burritos before heading to Spiteful.
A quick, seven-minute ride takes us to Spiteful, a tiny brewery with a loyal following thanks to its lineup that focuses on hoppy and dark beers, and accolades including a pair of 2015 gold medals at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers. The brewery is located next to Half Acre’s new location, which sits on a quiet residential and industrial stretch adjacent to the sprawling Rosehill Cemetery.
Fittingly, the taproom features an industrial look with a concrete floor, brick and cinder block walls and an attractive bar with a hickory top and an eye-catching base that features an array of stacked wood slabs. Compared to the hectic Half Acre and Begyle breweries, Spiteful is significantly quieter, likely thanks to its tucked-away location.
Given Spiteful’s focus, we try a couple variations of God Damn Pigeon Porter: The saccharine God Damn Maple Syrup Pigeon Porter and God Damn Chocolate Fudge Pigeon Porter, which brings to mind brownies or Tootsie Rolls. We also order a gose, which is one of the styles that Spiteful wasn’t able to produce when it was operating in a tiny 400-square-foot facility before moving to its current location last summer. After downing our beers, we head to our final stop.
Empirical’s tagline is “exploring the science of beer” and it emphasizes the “empirical observations” it uses to improve its beer. Empirical’s brewers regularly test new recipes on a one-barrel pilot system to explore styles, as well as to refine and improve its current recipes. It views its taproom as a laboratory where it can collect feedback from customers on its experimental recipes before they move to produce it on its 30-barrel production system.
The space is big and open, not too crowded, and filled with these so-called experimental beers: an American IPA called Comet SMaSH, a rauchbier appropriately dubbed Rauchbier and another American IPA referred to as No Coast IPA Mk. VII. I order Comet SMaSH, which is a bright IPA that’s grassy with a hint of pineapple. Ben orders Cold Fusion Nitro, a slightly sweet cream ale that’s on nitro and Steve gets Chromatic, an imperial red ale, which is citrusy and resiny. Empirical notes that it “takes beer seriously” and we decide the scientific approach works.