Chicago

These Chicago Brewpubs Are Upending the Category

Inside craft beer’s Windy City glow-up.

Ørkenoy
Photo courtesy of Ørkenoy

From the taperebá-infused ales of Brazil to seaweed-spiked lagers from Japan, craft beer has steadily grown into a full-fledged global phenomena throughout the 21st Century. Here in Chicago, however, it just hits different. More specifically, it pairs different—and we’ve got the Michelin stars to prove it. 

Back in 2016, the now-shuttered Band of Bohemia in Ravenswood became the world’s first brewpub to nab the coveted culinary prize. Until then, the celestial distinction had been amassed exclusively by places where pairings fall squarely under the purview of wine. Yet the Windy City currently boasts a total of three unabashedly beer-fueled Michelin stars while no other city on the planet features a single one. And not just that, but new genre-defying craft ventures continue to open at a rapid clip. So, what gives?

Well, first and foremost, you need to credit the audience. Chicagoans exhibit no hesitation when it comes to viewing beer as a perfectly reasonable alternative to wine. Even across some of the city’s highest-end eateries, it’s never seen as ‘lesser than.’ At restaurant row pioneer Girl & The Goat, Michelin-starred Elizabeth, and two Michelin-starred Oriole—to name but a few—a curated supplement of suds is offered to accompany award-winning tasting menus and the most well-heeled of clientele hardly bat an eye.

This isn’t a new development, either. Craft beer has been part of the culinary conversation for well over a decade, according to local experts. “It’s my opinion that we all have the talented brewers at Goose Island to thank for bringing beer back to the table,” says Eric Hobbs, chief of operations at Naperville’s Solemn Oath Brewery and a part of the opening team at the Solemn Oath’s freshly unveiled (and stunningly handsome) Still Life taproom in the heart of Logan Square. Before making it big out in the ‘burbs, Hobbs served as a market manager for Goose in 2008—three years before they were acquired by multinational brewing giant AB InBev. 

“Back then, we started focusing a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources developing and refining our line of Belgian-Inspired beers—Matilda, Pere, Jaques, Sofie, Juliet, and so on,” he recalls. “We would ‘sell’ by sharing stories of Belgian brewing tradition, and highlighting how well these styles paired with food. Restaurants were all in, and beer dinners became all the rage.”

Goose Island Head Brewer Greg Hall assumed an active role in the process—not only promoting the pairings at culinary hotspots throughout town, but also personally hosting tastings. In front of attentive diners he would recount fond anecdotes of Belgian journeys; forays into food and beer that helped inspire what was being served on any given evening. He would be accompanied by onsite chefs, each prepared to delve deeper into why these particular beers worked so well with their designated dishes.

“As the success of beers like Matilda and Sofie started to take off, entire wholesale and retail marketing campaigns were developed around ‘Brewed for Food,’ with shelves designed to display beer in the produce and cheese sections of grocery stores,” adds Hobbs. “Everything was elegant, from the display rack to the photography and language used on signage. It looked and felt like high-end wine, and it was wildly successful.”

Eventually, Hall would take the connection a step further, opting specifically to hire brewers with proven culinary backgrounds. “Greg loved the idea of introducing a chef’s mindset to brewing.”

Suddenly it wasn’t so strange to see creatively minded pros making the transition from the kitchen to the brewhouse. Afterall, the two were never really that far separated to begin with—in its most laudable renditions, brewing is merely a (decidedly awesome) form of cooking. Just like the best chefs are the ones meticulously minding ingredients, so, too, are the best of brewers. 

“I actually came from the fine-dining world, myself,” says Trevor Rose-Hamblin. The head brewer and co-founder of Old Irving Brewing in Irving Park left an impressive kitchen gig at the late-great Michelin-starred Moto Restaurant to follow his passion for making beer. “We opened in 2016 with an eye on being a cut above in our approach to pub cuisine. Ever since, we've collaborated with some celebrated chefs in the city on different beer recipes. I think the heart of Chicago is in its food—whether it's arguing about who has the best pizza, Italian Beef, or Chicago style dog, or who’s leading the way in culinary innovation and excellence, it only makes sense that the world of high cuisine would eventually meet with beer.”

Fusing the two is not for the faint of heart, however. It requires countless hours and untold manpower tinkering with recipes and machinery. Not to mention the audacity to experiment with ingredients and flavors that might ultimately fall flat. “I [left the chef world] because I wanted a more sustainable work-life balance,” Rose-Hamblin admits. “That didn’t really happen—but at least I don’t work as late anymore.”

When Forbidden Root opened five years ago in West Town, it branded itself as a first-of-its-kind botanic brewery. In addition to the barley, hops and yeast common to virtually all beers on earth, the team here (which included a self-styled “rootmaster”) leaned into a world of wild adjuncts. Some early standouts from the fermenters included a pale ale made with wildflowers and a wheat ale brewed with strawberries and basil. While these eccentric offerings might have floundered in cities with less adventurous drinkers, here they’ve been thriving. To wit, the company is about to expand into a new location in Ravenswood—the very space that once housed that first ever Michelin-starred brewpub.

“I was never really super into savory beers, but the Strawberry Basil Wheat won me over,” notes Dan Cohen, a Chicago-based beverage professional and avid beer fan. “I find it easy drinking, not too sweet, and it has a subtle basil flavor that works for me on a warm day. It’s the sort of stuff that just plays well here, because it’s also food friendly. And Chicagoans’ expectations have never been higher for elevated cocktails and beers to enjoy before, during, or after their meals.”

Ørkenoy
Ørkenoy | Photo by Jim Vondruska

And local brewers are meeting those expectations by crafting liquids that emphasize culinary techniques. At Ørkenoy in Humboldt Park, for example, it’s not uncommon to sip on suds built on cold-smoked malt, a process borrowed from cured and preserved seafood, or incorporating “cheffy” flourishes such as toasted fennel, foraged marigolds, and wild currant leaves. It mimics the operation’s Scandinavian approach to food preparation while the decor inside stretches that association further still: It’s got that nordic hygge on speed-dial, confirming that a certain degree of aesthetic upgrade naturally follows this kind of menu elevation.

But don’t be fooled by the fancy digs—a vested interest in interior design doesn’t mean this movement was born of something hoity-toity or pretentious. For Alisha Norris, inhouse cheesemonger for Marz Brewing’s sleek new Life on Marz Community Club, it’s just the opposite. The Bucktown offshoot’s style is clean, refined, and decked out with eye-catching art, but at its core, the vibe is no-nonsense Midwest. “I think what we're seeing is a confluence of a few things: Hometown pride—Chicago is home to some of the best breweries in the country—plus Chicago’s working class past, and the maturation of the city's culinary scene,” she contends. “Beer is in Chicago's blood, so why not show it the respect it deserves?” 

The fine folks at Michelin seemed to have taken the hint, awarding two stars to revamped South Loop brewpub Moody Tongue earlier this year. And as the scene continues to blossom in size and stature, it’s safe to say Chicago’s brewing future looks bright (not to mention hazy, hoppy, and roasty).

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Brad Japhe is a contributor for Thrillist.
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