The Hop Review's Best of Chicago 2017
Twenty-seventeen was a...year.
We conducted 30 interviews with industry folks in 8 different states and three different countries. We DETOUR'd to over a dozen different breweries,a cross seven states and countries. We profiled the design efforts of 24 different breweries across the globe. We hosted our second annual 'Ultra Fresh' Chicago Craft Beer Week event, showcasing less than five-day-old beer from 24 local breweries. We teamed up with Big Foot Media to create a mini documentary of the making of an ultra fresh Hop Butcher beer. We drank several hundred beers (plenty of them being really fantastic new pale ales). We saw the opening of several long, long-anticipated Chicago taprooms. We witnessed brewery concentrated portions of the city acquire destination-worthy nicknames, like West Town's "Chicago Brewing District" & Ravenswood's "Malt Row." We traversed the globe, welcomed the addition of several new contributors (writing & photography), collaborated with fellow beer fanatics, met more great folks in the industry we now call friends, saw the NEIPA take over, and even witnessed an upside-down bottle become a fixture on some brewery's cans. And...The Hop Review turned five!
All in all, it was a good year for beer. Which is a good thing, considering the world of 'craft' often provided much needed respite from many of the not-so-great, just plain bonkers, things happening outside of brewery doors, this year.
We take a quick look back at some of our 'bests' and other favorite moments and items this year in the world of beer–with a decidedly Chicago focus.
THE 17 BEST CHICAGO BEERS WE DRANK IN 2017
Goodbye Blue Monday Oatmeal IPA [Begyle], SqueezIt NEIPA [Corridor], Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout 2017 [Goose Island], Prairie Madness IPA [Hailstorm], Galactic Double Daisy Cutter DIPA [Half Acre], Humanimal Stasis: Heavy Gem Series DIPA [Half Acre], Unwind Your Mind DIPA [Hop Butcher for the World], Extended Family BA Saison [Hopewell], Eroica Farmhouse Ale [Lagunitas], Glow with the Flow APA [Forbidden Root], Double Charlatan DIPA [Maplewood], Tygrisku Wild Ale [Marz], Bourbon Barrel Aged Gingerbread Imperial Stout [Moody Tongue], Norman 1943 Wild Ale [Pollyanna], V.S.O.D. BBA Stout [Revolution], Fast Food Saison [Whiner]
THE 17 BEST BEERS WE DRANK OUTSIDE OF CHICAGO IN 2017
Hunter: Hazelnut Vanilla Stout [18th Street – IN], Rex Apiary Biere de Miel [Beavertown/Jester King – UK/TX], Passionfruit Milkshark IPA [Bellwoods – CAN], DDH Pale Southern Passion Citra DIPA [Cloudwater – UK], Pahlay'Ahlay APA [Fair State – MN], Animal APA [Fort Point – CA], Doom BA DIPA [Founders – MI], Maple Bacon Coffee Porter [Funky Buddha – FL], Smashed Grabbed & Hop Dusted Sour IPA [Jolly Pumpkin – MI], Asterisk DIPA [Melvin – WY], Fortunate Islands IPA [Modern Times – CA], Your Mom on French Toast Imperial Stout [Pigeon Hill – MI], Amarillo Fog DIPA [Platform – OH], Ibex Cellar: BA Pumpkin Ale [Schlafly – MO], Drunken Vigils Imperial Stout [Southern Pines – NC], Carried Away APA [Temescal – CA], Lazurite IPA [Warpigs – DK]
MOST READ INTERVIEW ON THR
When Chicago natives Dave Dahl and Kevin Lilly used to meet at their local Bucktown hangouts like The Map Room in the mid-90s, it was often to discus their shared computer engineering careers. Fast forward a couple decades, and the pair who cut their teeth brewing at Metropolitan Brewing had turned those after work conversations into a discussion of beginning their own brewery. After locating a vintage loft in Pilsen, Dahl and Lilly got right to work converting the century-old space into their now open taproom and brewery. It's no surprise that with the backing of the neighborhood, and a solid lineup of to-style beers on draft, they're gradually winning over more craft beer fans. And the fact that their THR feature was our most read of 2017 reflects just how down-to-earth and respected guys are in the community.
2017 CHICAGO BREWERY OF THE YEAR
When you're one of Chicago's most beloved breweries, among the dozens that now exist, you know you're doing something right. And since inception in 2008, Half Acre Beer Co. has been just that. From their countless pale ales, to lagers, to sours and stouts and even a budding barrel-aged program – it's almost as if 'HA' can do no wrong. This year also saw the genesis of the brewery's Heavy Gems series, a limited release collaboration series with Tired Hands Brewing – and nearly each of those offerings was worth a visit to the taproom alone. Pair that with Half Acre finally opening up its Balmoral Avenue facility doors to the public, and you know things will only get better for the famed brewery on the North Side. Plus: Big Hugs. Chicago can never get enough Big Hugs.
Runner-up: Maplewood Brewery & Distillery. Twenty-seventeen was a big year for Maplewood, the Logan Square brewery tucked away down its namesake street. And they've come a long way since they were once 'Mercenary Brewing.' They signed on with Great Central Brewing Co. to leverage their product reach, at the West Town contract brewer. There, they've been able to greatly increase production for growing craft favorites like Juice Pants series, Crushinator, and Brownie Points – as well as make more of one of the city's best (and most underrated) pale ales: Charlatan. Plus, they put the finishing touches on their over three-year-anticipated taproom which finally opened just before the end of 2017. Oh, and they make whiskey and gin, too.
BEST NEW CHICAGOLAND BREWERY OF 2017
The concept of On Tour Brewing was first mentioned a little over a year ago, right about the time that folks first started asking themselves, "Really? Another brewery in town?" Thankfully for Chicago drinkers, OTBC pushed on–somewhat under the radar–becoming the first new taproom to open its doors in 2017, in early January. We spoke to founder and Chicago native, Mark Legenza, at the end of 2016. At the time, the former golf pro/turned homebrewer/turned brewery owner gave us an inside perspective on the challenges of building a production brewery complete with a beautiful taproom from the get-go. And, how he returned to his home city of Chicago, after years in Denver, to complete his passion project. Since January, all On Tour has done is quietly craft some of the city's best pale ales, porters, and stouts; toy plenty with rye; win two GABF medals for Bocks; make a barrel-aged Scotch ale that will knock your socks off; and be named 'Very Small Brewing Company of the Year' at the Great American Beer Festival. We're eager to see what's next for the brewery in '18. We're guessing people across town will start paying more attention.
Runners-up: MORE Brewing Co. & Saint Errant Brewing. For two breweries that only entered our radar in May of this year, they both sure have made quick names for themselves. Villa Park's MORE Brewing Co. only opened it's slick brewpub in July–only to go on to win Gold and 'Best in Show' at November's FoBAB for it's line-inducing stout, BA Karma. For Saint Errant, all they've done is win over just about anyone who has been fortunate enough to sip their creations. The brewing pair, who currently call Mikerphone Brewing's space home, went from homebrewing in Northcenter to packaging into 750mL in the span of a few short months. We suggest you keep an eye on both breweries in '18.
BEST SUBURBAN CHICAGO BREWERY
As soon as Jerry Nelson's off-shoot brewing project, Hubbard's Cave, started hitting shelves around Chicago, you knew big things were about to come. Not long after did Nelson's brewery Une Année announce a move from their outpost on Hubbard Street in West Town to a planned space in a strip mall just north of the city in Niles, Illinois. And while the new space is actually a bit smaller and harbors very little curb appeal from Golf Road, it sure does pack a punch once inside. Immediately, your trip proves well worth it, with a plentiful lineup of Belgian-inspired beers, hazy IPAs, decadent stouts, and arguably some of the best sours in all of Chicagoland. We can only assume that by this time two years from now, the brewery will have expanded down the strip mall into at least a couple of it's neighboring storefronts. Well, we can hope so at least.
Runner-up: 18th Street Brewery. The candidates for this slot are so plentiful, its almost a crime to select just one. But, for the sake of our list, we had to bite the bullet and do just that. And our choice: the rapidly expanding 18th Street Brewery of Gary/Hammond, Indiana. While many will argue whether Northwest Indiana should even be considered as suburban Chicago, no one will argue the product coming out of these two facilities are anything but impressive. From the crushable pale ales, to the ridiculously rich stouts, to the Sour Note Brewing side project... to the pub grub and even the artwork on the labels, everything from '18th' is well considered. And this year saw their beer lineup go from great to somehow greater – with the addition of several new canned offerings, and their first full year in their large Hammond taproom. Pretty good for 'a brewery from Gary.'
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD STRETCH FOR BEER
The Ravenswood Corridor and surrounding area is home to some of Chicago’s best and most diverse craft beer options. Once a turn-of-the-century hub for industry, this stretch of road is now a mosaic of creative businesses and artisans intertwined into a uniquely residential backdrop. With a bevy of breweries (and a renowned distillery) planting their roots in the Ravenswood Corridor, it truly has become Chicago’s Malt Row. Count some of the accolades of these neighbors – ’No. 5 Best New Brewery’ by USA Today [Dovetail], ’First Michelin-Starred Brewpub’ [Band of Bohemia], ’Best New Brewery 2013’ by Chicago Magazine [Begyle Brewing Co.], ‘US Micro Whisky of the Year Runner-Up 2017’ by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible [KOVAL Distillery] – it’s easy to see why spending a day wandering the corridor would be time well spent. Plus, recent taproom openings at Half Acre & Spiteful have truly made this North Side stretch the best in town.
Runner-up: West Town's Chicago Brewing District. The name says it all. Anchored by Chicago stalwart Goose Island, the newly dubbed 'Brewing District' now calls Great Central Brewing Co., Finch Beer Co., On Tour Brewing Co., and All Rise Brewing neighbors. Plus brandy distillery, Rhine Hall, is down the block. Oh, and Forbidden Root is a short walk north as well. Block off an entire Saturday or Sunday to tackle this district.
BEST NEW TAPROOM
This is easily the toughest category to call for 2017. But as soon as Metropolitan first shared a snapshot inside their new taproom space along the north branch of the Chicago River, we were revving to get in for a pint. While the move to their new brewing space in Avondale had long been made public, it wasn't until this past fall that things really started to fall into place at the massive century-old former tannery. And we're sure glad that Metro was able to swing open its doors just before the bitter cold and shorter days set in early October. While maneuvering your way through the active construction site from Rockwell Ave. may make you question if you're on the right path, rest assured the final destination is more than well worth your trek over crushed gravel. We suggest going just before dusk to catch the river views in daylight and under moonlight. All with a pint of Haus Helles in hand of course.
Runners-up: Spiteful Brewing & Maplewood Brewery and Distillery. This year might very well be referred to 'The Year of the Taproom' in Chicago, with long anticipated openings from standouts like Off Color, Alarmist, Goose Island Clybourn, & newcomers Great Central, Lo-Rez, Jolly Pumpkin and On Tour. But, we have to give the nod to Spiteful and Maplewood. Both have waited three plus years to open their public spaces, since first hinting at the possibility of such. And thankfully for us drinkers, they managed to open the same weekend in December. Chicago drinkers all around – rejoice!
BREWERY TO WATCH IN 2018
Marz Community Brewing
Even though we gave Marz the same nod in this piece last year, we really think that 2018 will be the year that this Bridgeport brewer gets more than its fair share of attention. On the cusp of opening their own taproom on the South Side, the brewery that 'Ed Marzsewski built' [Maria's Packaged Goods, Mash Tun Magazine] has already been quietly upping their canned production, and steadily growing their barrel-aged program. Couple this growth with their already top shelf recipes and packaging, and 2018 is shaping up to be the year of 'Marz' in Chicago.
Runners-up: Saint Errant & Middle Brow Beer Co. We've already proclaimed our affinity to up-and-comers Saint Errant, but also keep an eye out for what's to come from former Zion-based brewers, Middle Brow. With rumors of an Armitage Avenue location in the works in a popular sect of Logan Square, things could get interesting...
5 BEST BREWERIES TO ENTER THE CHICAGO MARKET
Alaskan Brewing – The most-awarded brewery, from Juneau, finally makes its way to The Windy City to share its highly touted Smoked Porter, among others.
Collective Arts Brewing – Hamilton, Ontario's self-proclaimed 'Art + Brewing' platform crosses the border to instant acclaim to provide hazy IPAs, a spot-on porter...and goses. Lots of goses.
Odell Brewing – The stalwart from Fort Collins finally enters the Chicago market to line the shelves with its tasty Drumroll APA.
Perrin Brewing – Once Oskar Blues purchased Grand Rapids, Michigan's Perrin, it was only a matter of time until they snuck their way across state lines into Chicago. With them came black and blackberry IPAs, and that ridiculously awesome Vietnamese Porter.
Sun King Brewery – The pride of Indy had long been mentioned in beer nerd circles around the Great Lakes, but for most of its existence, the brewery's beers were only available in central Indiana. That all changed, and now we're blessed with Wee Mac, Osiris, and plenty of barrel-aged cans.
BEST TRIED & TRUE CHICAGO BEER BAR
Links is adored by many of Chicago's drinkers, but for some time still managed to slip under the radar when it came to naming 'Chicago's Best' beer bars. Well, if there was any doubt of that still, it was erased in 2017. The Wicker Park pub was named 'Best Beer Bar in Illinois' by craftbeer.com, as well as one of the best destinations for beer, by Eater. And with their constantly updated digital menu board of nearly 40 different drafts, you'll be all set to drink your way through the afternoon. Plus, they have Malört on draft, making this the perfect place to take your out of town guests looking to be surprised.
Runners-up: The Hopleaf and Quenchers Saloon. The pair of OG craft beer bars in the city will always be a part of the beer bar destination conversation. However, the latter of the pair, for whatever reason, doesn't always get enough consideration. But, we think both equally provided respite and top notch drinking choice this past year.
BEST CHICAGO BOTTLE SHOP
Strictly speaking, this is the best place to go in Chicago to drink 'Chicago.' With over 350 different packaged beers available to-go, and the biggest selection of Chicago breweries' beers, this is the go-to place for any local can or bottle. And while their cooler-only selection of packaged offerings doesn't feature too many large format gems, they make up for it with their 16 available draft pours – a draft menu that is constantly changing. Plus, 2017 saw the release of their absurdly impressive and comprehensive Beermiscuous Field Guide to Chicago breweries.
Runners-up: The Beer Temple & Bottles & Cans. Avondale's Beer Temple is just a few minute walk from neighboring Metropolitan Brewing, making it an easy pair of drinking destinations. Plus, the long respected beer store opened up a cozy taproom in their new space across the alley, this past fall. Meanwhile, Northcenter's Bottles & Cans hit its five year mark and continues to be the best place to concoct an impressive 'mix-6' anywhere in town. For that, we are always grateful.
BEST CHICAGO BEER FESTIVAL
This has been our pick for three years in a row now, and again we saw no reason to change it. As the kickoff event to Chicago Craft Beer Week, 'BUG' is still the best all around festival in town. A beautiful space in an under-appreciated neighborhood gets the attention it deserves, by the masses, every May...plus beer. And when the weather cooperates like it did again this year, there's no beating this venue. Head here for the city, and state's most impressive lineup–in one place–all year.
Runner-up: FoBAB. And again, this was our pick for runner-up last year. And while we wanted so selfishly to choose our own Ultra Fresh II for this, we just...we just couldn't pull the trigger. Each November, droves of the Midwest's and the country's beer nerds descend on the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers to drink the BA beer the nation has to offer. FoBAB is still the industry standard for barrel-aged acclaim, and snagging a medal here has shown to do wonders for its winners in the past. Such is the case with the winners 2017's categories.
BEER STYLE OF THE YEAR
New England/East Coast/Hazy/DDH IPA
These cloudy, juicy, pale ales have made both friends and foes in the industry. We were in this same position last year, wondering how long this style might stick around. Well, another year later and the 'NEIPA' has done nothing but cement its place atop the craft beer nerd mountain. And as we very well documented here, here, here...and here, some folks see no trouble in waiting hours in line – from California to Chicago to the Northeast. While we find the willingness to toss out several hours of your Saturday standing in line for a pale ale a bit...foolish maybe, to each their own. Twenty-eighteen, what will you do to the hazy pale ale?
Runner-up: Pastry Stout. Last year we picked the 'stout' to fill this slot. This year it has been slightly tweaked to represent the popularity (or lack therof) of the niche style. Like its NEIPA cousin, like it or hate it, it looks to be staying for a while...
BEST REBRANDED BREWERY
It'd been a minute since anyone had heard anything new from born-again-again brewery, Finch Beer Co. But earlier this year, we began to see some of their new canned beers make their way into the market, and with a bold type + illustration focused look. Slap these new facades onto a lineup of new recipes, and some folks began talking about Finch again. The brewery that had long played the role of 'hometown brewery' more popular outside of Chicago is now starting to buzz once more, like they did a bit back in 2009. Well, with a fresh aesthetic and a fresh space across the street from Great Central Brewing Co. (in the former Like Minds space), we're hoping third time is a charm for FBC. And we can only guess 2018 will see bigger things for the West Town brewery. Including a taproom...
Runner-up: Begyle Brewing. While the Northcenter brewery didn't technically 'rebrand', they did introduce a brand new lineup of packaging, by way of 12oz 6-packs (core lineup) and 16oz 4-packs (limited releases) – the latter of which had a new look for Begyle altogether. We're seeing a lot of breweries make the shift from bottle to can, and Begyle is a shining example of its success in 2017.
BEER TRENDS WE ENJOYED IN '17
Single-hopped IPAs, Craft lagers, traditional brewing countries pushing craft boundaries (Germany, Ireland, Italy, the UK), Scandinavian beer invasion, single-hop IPAs, better dive bar beer lists, less pumpkin beers, less seasonal creep, more beer options, and the opening of long-anticipated taprooms.
BEER TRENDS THAT WERE OVERDONE IN '17
New England/East Coast IPAs, barrel-aging everything, wet-hopped everything, pastry stouts, Oktoberfests, waiting in line for 4-packs, waiting in line for NEIPAs, waiting in line for stouts, waiting in line for anything, bandwagon style jumping, collaborations.
BEER TRENDS TO WATCH IN 2018
A finer focus on malt, new packaging formats (19oz tall boys, wide mouth cans), national breweries pulling out of Chicago, the continued development of breweries' sour programs, a return to the classics (styles and breweries), keeping your fridge stocked with tried and true lagers, more use of lactose sugars, a further consideration for yeast, and... better beer writing and photography.
BEER CITY TO WATCH IN 2017
As Food & Wine recently suggested, Detroit just might be on the path to becoming America's next great beer city. While the days of Stroh's dominance of the state are long gone, their beer selection is expanding rapidly. With the recent opening of the city's Founders Brewing outpost–their only presence outside of Grand Rapids–Detroit is poised to make waves in 2018. And despite only having seven active breweries within the city's borders (Motor City Brew Works, Batch Brewing, Detroit Beer Co., Atwater Brewery, Eastern Market Brewing Co., Granite City & Brew Detroit [+ a Jolly Pumpkin taproom]), the Metro Detroit area's options are plentiful. Also, when you consider the burgeoning nano-brewery scene across the river in Windsor, Ontario, Detroit is on the cusp of a beer renaissance.
Runner-up: Minneapolis, MN. We happened to make it up to Minneapolis a few times this year, and were blown away by the city's beer culture and sheer options. Couple that with fantastic topography, location aside the Mississippi, a great sports culture and culinary offering, and you