OAK PARK, IL
The many layers of Wild Onion Brewery
HOW A 20+-YEAR-OLD BREWPUB STAYS RELEVANT IN THE GROWING CRAFT SCENE
BY THR CONTRIBUTOR JOHN DOESSEL
My night began by boarding the CTA Green Line at State and Lake. A quick trip later, I found myself in the quaint downtown sector of Oak Park for a visit to a newly-opened brewpub dubbed the Wild Onion Tied House. I was there for something I’ve always wanted to do, but somehow never have.
A beer dinner.
Before the beer dinner began I grabbed a spot at the bar and ordered a pour of Hop Slayer. An 8.0% Double IPA. This West Coast, caramel-colored, largely-transparent, bitter-as-hell hop bomb was a needed respite from the opaque, yellow NEIPAs that I and so many others have been drinking lately.
Then, I grabbed my place at the table, and so did a fella across from me. His name was Mike.
It would find out that my seat choice was a good one.
Mike [Kainz] is the man responsible for all the beers we’d be trying throughout the evening: The Brewmaster at Wild Onion.
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never done one of these things before. I was familiar with the concept, but not the intricacies. Regarding the Tied House, I also didn’t know much. I knew about their popular IPA–Misfit–due to its heavy Chicago shelf presence. And I knew about Drago–their BA Russian imperial stout–having had it at FOBAB (and its recent high ranking in THR's blind stout tasting).
But, I was eager to learn more.
More specifically–how does a relatively small, 20-plus-year-old brewery, founded in the small Chicago suburb of Lake Barrington stay relevant in the always changing world of craft beer?
To begin, a brief history on Wild Onion... It opened in 1996 in Lake Barrington, Illinois. In 1997, Mike Kainz brewed their first beer, an APA called Paddy Pale Ale. While subtle by today’s standards, its hop profile was quite aggressive at the time (and it's still served on draft at both brewpub locations). In 2003, they opened their first brewpub, in Lake Barrington. In 2010, they started canning and distributing throughout Chicagoland. And in 2017, they opened a second brewpub in the western suburb of Oak Park, which was where I found myself eagerly awaiting the kickoff to the beer dinner. At The Wild Onion Tied House.
Enough talk, let’s drink. (And eat).
Their inaugural beer, Paddy Pale Ale, appropriately played part in the night’s first course.
Radio Free Pils (5.0%)
Radio Free Smoked Chicken Empanada
w/ Paddy Pale Ale Smoked Chimichurri
The liquid component was Mike’s self-identified favorite. A beer you can have a few of. One that I enjoy, but never go wild for. It was a pilsner by the name of Radio Free. An easy-drinking, classic style that ignites the obligatory Reinheitsgebot conversation amongst Mike and I. A traditionalist and perfectionist, he calls out the clarity of Radio Free like a proud father. Which naturally leads to a discussion of the NEIPA craze. The way he views it, “Some of the edgier, trendy beer styles are exciting in that they awaken different parts of the palate. Balancing drinkability and innovation is an ever-evolving challenge, but certainly keeps our job as brewers fun.” Well said. Aside from Radio Free, every other beer on the menu violated the “German Beer Purity Law.” Next course...
Double Dip NEIPA (9.5%)
Foie Grilled Cheese: Foie Gras, Smoked Aged Cheddar, Smoked Gouda, Fontina on Brioche w/ Spanish Chorizo
Placed in front of me was a hazy, egregious offender of Reinheitsgebot called Double Dip. It’s a New England-style IPA. Wild Onion's first, checking in at a cool 9.5%. Yikes.
In looking over the evening's menu this was one I was most looking forward to. How would their first foray into the style taste? How would it look? 9.5%?! Hearing Mike’s appreciation for traditional brewing practices made me even more curious. This beer flies in the face of all of them. Despite my preference for dryer takes on the style, I enjoyed this. Sweet, with a slightly thin mouthfeel that quickly succumbs to a boozy, burning finish. In discussing the new trend, and experimental side of Wild Onion, Mike mentions his litmus test: “If a customer orders a second beer of ours, the we’ve done our job.” I would've. Next course...
Apollo Russian Imperial Stout (6.5%)
House Made Belgian Tripel Sausage
w/ House Made Sauerkraut & Brown Mustard
The beer component of Pairing #3 was something I’d never heard of. What Wild Onion refers to as a “small beer”... Apollo is an offspring of Drago made from the same base stout, aged for 3 months in second-use Drago barrels. The result is a very sweet, ever-so-slightly boozy stout clocking in at a manageable 6.5%. Given its origin, I, perhaps wrongly, judged it against a traditional BA Russian Imperial Stout. And while I appreciate the process, squeezing as much life out of the barrel as possible, I was left wanting more. Intriguing nonetheless. Next course...
Drago Braised Short Rib & Risotto
w/ Roasted Root Vegetables & Drago Demi Reduction
The evening ended, fittingly, with the 2017 iteration of Drago. Served alongside a short rib drizzled in Drago reduction, the pairing was a decadent finale. Drago chocolate cake and Drago ice cream followed. For a beer not labeled as such, it was enjoyably vanilla-heavy. And it was incredibly boozy for being “only” 9.2%. Sip after sip...after sip, the glass dwindled to a few sludgy drops.
And like that, it was over.
After running the gamut, I was surprised by how well Wild Onion pushed the envelope stylistically, offering on-trend beers as well the tried-and-true. A liquid smorgasbord of BA stouts, pilsners, NEIPAs, Belgians, DIPAs, and even a style I'd never heard of–a “small-beer.” All beers of which were a notable departure from that original APA brewed over 20 years ago.
Which answers my original question, How does a relatively small, 20-plus-year-old brewery, founded in the small Chicago suburb of Barrington stay relevant in the always changing world of craft beer?
The answer? Always change.
Tied House photos provided by Wild Onion.
Lake Barrington photography by Jack Muldowney.
Authored by John Doessel, contributor for The Hop Review. John is a writer currently living, working, and drinking in the great city of Chicago. Beers of choice can be found on his Instagram at @jdoessel. And he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.