Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday of the year. Yes, of course, I love the sparkling lights and candy cane lanes of Christmas. And yeah, I may be over twelve, but I still look forward to blowing out those candles on my birthday apple pie (What? Like that doesn't sound utterly amazing once you think about it.) But Thanksgiving will always hold a special place in my heart as a perfect sort of holiday. It seems to me that every other day of the year we obsess over the things we want, the things we don't have and the thing we long for. Thanksgiving is the one day that we set aside to show our gratitude for everything that we already possess in our insanely frantic, more is better, I need the latest version of last year's model, lives. I'm thankful for so many things in my life. Family. Friends. A good job and a warm home. Oh, and Chicago's local craft beer scene. Possibly not even in that order all the time. So in the spirit of the Holiday of Much Gratitude, I'm sharing with you all the top five things about Chicago's craft beer scene that make me brim with thanks.
The new guys on the scene
Above are only a few of the one zillion (or at least it feels like that) new breweries that have opened in the Chicago area lately. At times they remind me of a gaggle of teenage girls at a mall. It's difficult to keep up with all of them, let alone remember their names. Ale Syndicate. SlapShot Brewing. 18th Streeet Brewery. I could go on. And yes, some are producing better beer than others. But that's exactly what I find so exciting our Chicago craft explosion. The new guys arrive on the scene with all of the adrenaline and passion of a second hand suit wearing, mom's Volvo driving teenager, hoping to impress his prom date with his knowledge of The Walking Dead.. For every three mediocre beers, I discover that one special, sparkly gem that knocks it out of the park. Who knows which one will still be wowing me next year on this very day? Or which one will be nothing more than a distant memory of a beer that could have been? Only time will tell. But half the fun is in the journey. And I happen to like The Walking Dead.
The Old Crew
These are the breweries that have survived their first few years of business and have carved out their place in the Windy City's craft world. They're the twenty-somethings still eager to take the world by storm, but experienced enough to know that a balanced book and a niche in the market means a full night's sleep for a weary brewer. And well rested brewers make happy, hoppy and, above all, interesting beer. These breweries are my go-to guys in a well stocked bottle shop or local craft bar. Each has a unique take on the scene and yet, every once in a while, they are able to suprise me with their ingenuity and creativity. Spiteful Brewing's Messenger IPA was a well balanced hop fest of juicy, tropical, malty goodness and my favorite beer from this brewery to date (here's a link to my review. You know, if you somehow missed it the first time around.) Begyle Brewing is my family's "house beer." My brothers like them My cousins like them. Even my eighty year old mother likes them (she's a Belgian fiend so I'm always happy to keep her lubricated with something a bit more local.) You will always find a bomber or two in any of our fridges at any time. Unless we get together and drink them all. Which happens rather often, now that I think about it. And by now, I assume that you all know how I feel about Pipeworks Brewing. Every time I think I have them pegged (they are the Unicorn IIPA kings. No, they are the Jones Dog milk stout champs. No, they are the peppery saison saviors of the world. Jeeze Louise, what the hell are you guys brewing now???) While I sometimes worry that the brewers at Pipeworks aren't eating properly (I mean, Pastrami on Rye ale? Have you had your cholesterol checked recently?), I am confident enough in their whacked out abilities to always given them the benefit of the doubt. That's a trust that was earned.
In House Brewpubs
Not every great Chicago beer is bottled. And thank goodness for that or else we'd all just day drink alone in our own backyards every weekend. Places like Haymarket, Atlas and my latest favorite, DryHop, give all of us a reason to throw on our "outside jeans" and mingle with fellow beer geeks who aren't on FaceBook and Twitter. Plus these brewpubs have food! That I don't have to cook! And not just burgers or pizza, mind you. Food that you wouldn't mind ordering in font of your foodie geek friend (as you superiorly direct them away from their regular bottle of PBR and onto something a bit more, how shall I say, non douchey?) I'm especially thankful for the small pours at Haymarket and low ABV stouts at DryHop. Small pours on just about everything means that I can sample more delicious beers and make fewer tough menu decisions. And low ABV stouts are the perfect answer to what to drink on a Summer's night. Or Fall afternoon. Or with a plate of poutine. Because what exactly I should drink with my poutine has been a thorn in my side for simply ages.
Local Bottle Shops
It's nice to go where everybody knows your name. It's even nicer to go where they know your name as well as your favorite brewery. Sure, you can hit up the big liquor stores or a well stocked supermarket like Whole Foods for the latest releases. But isn't part of the craft beer scene supporting the little guy? And if the little guy knows his/her stuff backwards, forwards and upside down, all the better. In large liquor stores, you might get lucky and happen into a conversation with an employee with craft knowledge. Or you might get some jamoke who was hired last week because it just didn't work out for him at True Value. At a small, well edited local shop, I can pretty much guarantee you that you'll find a plethora of people who not only can talk beer with you, but are more than eager to do so. The places listed above are my local stores, with Fischman Liquors being my home away from home. I'm sure that each of you have your own local haunts. It's important to support our favorite small bottle shops for the same reasons it's important to support our local breweries. They're the people who make sure that you get amazing beer.
The Original Gangstas
In the beginning, there were the Originals. And they were good. It's not easy being the first of anything. You not only have to pave the way for the people behind you, you have to stay relevant so that you don't get left behind as those in the back rise. Half Acre, Revolution, Metropolitan and yes, even Goose Island (or at least certain aspects of Goose Island) are the Chicago Originals. They were brewing craft beer here in the City of Big Shoulder before most people who now drink craft could even legally buy it. Or in some cases, spell it. And today, they are all still going strong. I attended an amazing beer fest recently, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (a wonderfully magical fest where unicorns and buffalo pranced with rattle snakes while the sailors gave warnings and all the winos were Krispy.) It was a night of countless barrel aged wonders as far as the eye could see. In all honestly, it was a bit overwhelming as I checked out the list of offerings. So I took every opportunity I could to ask any brewer I could find what they were most excited to try that night. And without question, their answers included the words Revolution, Half Acre, Metropolitan (one of the only lagers offered that night) and the gorgeous sisters from Goose Island. When brewers speak, I listen. It's only polite.
So this Thursday, as you and your's are gathered around the table, try to remember that this is the one day we set aside to remember just how freaking good we all have it every other day of the year. There are people who haven't a warm bed to sleep in, a job to pay their bills and a friend to tell their troubles to. And most importantly, there are places that have no local craft beer to drink. Remember that as you hoist your pints of Local Hero and snifters of Lolita this holiday season. And give thanks for the good people of Chicago who made it all possible.