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The Beer Thinker: Tapping Lincoln Square

I am no beer expert. I do love to drink beer, many different kinds of beer, at all hours and under any conditions. I love trying new craft beers, and the fact that an exciting new craft beer scene is brewing (yep, I said it) here in Chicago has me just about bursting out of my skin.

I will admit, not that I need to after saying all that, to being a beer nerd. But, a beer expert I am not. I say this so that you know I'm not the guy who can accurately delineate every flavor of a particular beer from first taste to finish, or who can analyze the difference between the way one beer pours versus another, or who learns something valuable from a beer's head, or lack thereof, when poured.

I am the guy who still sometimes calls craft beers "microbrews," a habit which I think marks me as the 40-plus-year-old uncool guy I am.

However, I think I'm fairly representative of the modern beer drinker, someone with an abundance of interest and a distinct lack of formal beer education and expertise, but who knows what he likes, and will make the effort to seek it out rather than drinking Bud or Miller (except at the ball game, though even at The Cell and Wrigley these days, a craft beer lover doesn't have to slum it if he doesn't want to).

I say these things not in defense. There are plenty of beer experts out there - they don't need me. I say these things mainly just so you know where I'm coming from when I tell you what I did with my weekend.

This past Saturday, I took my enthusiastic, un-expert beer-drinking self, along with Brother Mike (not a beer-brewing monk, just my brother) to the first-ever Lincoln Square Winter Brew at the Dank Haus on Western Avenue, an event we apparently were incredibly lucky to get into, as it not only sold out but created an after-market demand for tickets (an increasingly common occurrence with craft beer events these days).

I was a little bit surprised at the diversity of the crowd - not the racial diversity because just about everybody was white - but that the crowd of more than 500 appeared to be close to 40 percent women. You go, girl. And though one local brewer observed in the Center Square Journal this week that half of the attendees probably have beer blogs, I got the sense that there was a broad mix of experts, eager drinkers well-informed about the local scene, and complete newbies. It was a well-behaved group, too, given that everyone spent four hours tossing back tastings of generally high-alcohol brews.

Those tastings were available in two different sizes, but it seemed like the vast majority of people were opting for the two-ouncers (cost: one ticket, or basically $1. Tix were available in rolls of 10 at the door or in advance, in addition to the $10 entry fee).

For the most part, however, those two-ounce tastings were being poured very generously, coming out more like four ounces or larger.

The Winter Brew brought together five local brewers presenting an interesting range of backstories:

Revolution Brewing - The one brewpub restaurant on the list. Started by former Goose Island (and Golden Prairie) brewer and Handlebar impresario Josh Deth, Revolution may have the longest list of brews among these five brewers, though Half Acre is catching up. The brewpub opened in 2010 amid great fanfare, and is set to open a new production facility on Kedzie north of Belmont.

Metropolitan Brewing - One of the landmark operations of the post-Goose Island craft scene, Metro was founded by Doug and Tracy Hurst in 2008 on the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor. Often mentioned in the same breath as its neighbor, craft distiller Koval, Metro is a production brewery by dint of not having a retail storefront or restaurant, but it does offer brewery tours.

Half Acre Beer Company - Either ingeniously or fortunately timed its evolution from a contract brewer to one with its own production facility in Chicago in early 2009. It also smartly chose to open a brewery in a neighborhood, North Center, with abundant foot traffic and a rapidly growing bar and restaurant scene that helps feed a Lincoln Avenue storefront where customers can get their growlers on.

5 Rabbit Cerveceria - Billed as the first Latin American-owned craft brewery in the U.S., 5 Rabbit has been turning out beers with culturally distinctive ingredients like ancho chilies and dulce de leche. Currently based on the Northwest Side, but reportedly planning a new facility on the South Side, 5 Rabbit also is known for having gained the involvement of nationally-known, Chicago-based beer expert Randy Mosher. 5 Rabbit, needless to say, is the only local brewery whose name derives from Aztec mythology.

Finch's Beer Co. - Like Metropolitan, another production brewery, located on Elston, north of Montrose. It was founded by marketing and branding expert Ben Finch of Killswitch Collective, who unlike many craft beer brewers didn't start out as a beer nerd himself, but recognized a hot business opportunity when he saw one. Finch built a huge retail distribution and tap list through aggressive use of social media well before it began rolling out kegs.

These brewers offered a range of samples to the Dank Haus on Saturday. I won't list all of them here, but I will list my favorites from the evening:

Revolution Barrel-Aged Black Power Stout - The program said it was aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels, and unlike some other bourbon barrel-aged beers I've had, I could really taste that charred-wood flavor (a good thing). Also, one of the only stouts I've had that promises a chocolate cake flavor and actually delivers.

Revolution Bottom Up Wit: - White beers are not always favorites of mine, as the coriander and orange flavor mix seems much the same to me from one wit to another, but this one seemed especially citrusy and wheaty.

5 Rabbit Vida y Muerte - This marzan (think Oktoberfest) Day of the Dead tribute had an overtly honey taste to my buds. I don't know if I specifically tasted the dulce de leche aspect that has been much advertised, but there were a lot of different roasty and sweet aspects to this beer, so maybe I did.

Half Acre The Chairman - This specialty brew honored the 20th anniversary of Lumpen magazine. I've seen Half Acre beers all over town, but not this specific one. Some of the early HA beers didn't seem all that distinctive to me, but I would seek this one out. I would describe it as very malty, with a little bit of a sweet or burnt flavor - maybe both? It was 9.5% alcohol by volume, but very sneaky about it.

Metropolitan Flywheel Bright Lager - I don't know if I know what a lager is supposed to taste like anymore and generally don't seek them out, but this was really nice - lightly hoppy and . . . I have no idea what else, but it made me feel the same way I feel when I eat something that's been made to order with really fresh ingredients. Kind of seems like what a Bud or Miller wants to be, but definitely isn't.

Finch's Threadless IPA - A collaboration with the T-shirt company, this was very hoppy and had a good bitterness to it, but also had a low level citrus taste going on that made it very refreshing.

There were plenty more beers on tap Saturday, and if I didn't list something, it's not because I didn't like it. There were two beers I actually didn't like, but won't name them because I had previously had them both on tap elsewhere, and both had tasted better at that point, so I'm wondering if they just didn't travel well for this event.

On top of the local brewery tasting - literally, one floor up on the sixth floor of the Dank Haus - The Square Kegs Homebrew Club, who co-sponsored this whole event with the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce, held its own free tasting of five different homebrews. The best idea Brother Mike had all evening - possibly the best idea of his life - was to head upstairs for the homebrew tasting before we went back down to visit the brewery tastings on the fifth floor. The homebrews were rumored to be tapped out just two hours into the event.

The club probably should have better advertised what was being sampled, but I can say without greater detail that I was impressed with what we had. The guy who made the Belgian IPA in particular deserves a gold star. These brews definitely didn't taste like somebody's basement or bathtub, and who knows, maybe one of them will end up on tap around town one of these days, alongside Chicago's current craft kings.

Beer Buzz
Some recent headlines from the local craft beer scene:

* Goose Island Stout Fest is coming up on St. Patrick's Day. Hope you already got tickets, because by the time you're reading this it could be sold out.

* The Tribune last week documented the competitive nature of the limited-release craft beer seeker.

* Chi Town on Tap has the latest on a new distribution deal for New Chicago Beer Company.

* Chicagoist has an interview with Square Kegs founder Rich Forsythe.


Dan O'Shea was thinking about craft beer way too much for someone who wasn't writing about it. Now, he's writing about it. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Brad Pausha, Square Kegs Homebrew Club:

Thanks for writing about our event. We appreciate all the support we have received. I am glad you enjoyed yourself and hope you can come to next years event.

And thank you for the complement on the Belgian IPA. It was the first time I made this recipe. Glad you enjoyed it!


Posted on February 3, 2012

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