CHICAGO

By Pete Brown, Like New York, Chicago has the power to make you marvel at its very existence.

When you walk its streets, they whisper of greatness. The soaring buildings make you feel special, privileged to be here. It’s not a coherent feeling – immediately you’re questioning its reality, remembering who you are and what your life is like, and there are always homeless people to remind you that any gilded city has its troubled underside.

But that doesn’t stop the cityscape pumping it out, a constant wave of awe and seduction, soundtracked by Gershwin within your head, and the constant peal of sirens without. It’s created by humans, but superhuman in scale: you see glimpses of Gotham around every corner, partly thanks to DC shooting its movies here while Marvel takes New York.

Chicago certainly has a heroic reputation for drink. People here have an easier attitude to alcohol and are proud of their drinking prowess. From dive bars to restaurants, the tables are always full.

But until recently, the Second City lagged behind most other major cities in the US when it comes to a thriving craft beer scene. A few years ago, Chicago noticed this. Now, if you sit at the bar in a legendary pub like the Map Room (1949 N. Hoyne Ave, www.maproom.com) you’ll soon be engaged in conversation by a local aficionado insisting that this is the best city for beer in North America, bar none.

While I can’t quite agree that it’s there yet, it’s great and inspiring fun exploring the case for the defence.

For nearly thirty years, Chicago has been synonymous with Goose Island, the craft brewing pioneer that was bought by Anheuser Busch in 2011, and is therefore, according to America’s official definition, no longer a craft brewer. More on that later.

But having such a brewing behemoth in town has a ripple effect. Some brewers who learn their draft with Goose Island go on to smaller things, and there’s now a thriving microbrewery and brewpub scene driven often by Goose alumni.

Beyond that impressive downtown core, Chicago sprawls north and south along the shore of Lake Michigan and inland, reaching for the plains of the Midwest. Pub-crawls are only really possible with Uber, or its more appealing new competitor, Lift. Each chosen destination seems to be ten minutes away from the last no matter how you plan it.

A good place to start is Logan Square, west of downtown. This is Chicago’s answer to Dalston in London, or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg – the formerly run-down, scuzzy bit that’s now gentrifying faster than the rest of the city and is currently synonymous with hipsters. Across the road from where the L-Train rumbles between the upper storeys, amid a flurry of Mexican restaurants and grimy bottle shops, stands Revolution (2323 N Milwaukee Ave https://revbrew.com/)founded by former Goose brewer Josh Deth in 2010. As well as the mandatory range of pale ales and IPAs, Revolution has a refreshing exploration of traditional styles such as Kolsch, English style golden ale and even mild. These show that ‘balance’ is not a dirty word, and that American brewers can create tasty beers below 5% ABV. The pizza is great too.

Further north is Half Acre (4257 N Lincoln Ave, www.halfacrebeer.com), just down the road from new cider bar the Northman (4337 N Lincoln Ave, www.thenorthman.com). Half Acre’s Gone Away IPA won silver at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014 and is revered as one of America’s best IPAs, but again, the full range is far more varied stylistically.

More experimental are Off Color (3925 W Dickens Ave, www.offcolorbrewing.com) founded by former Goose brewer John Laffler and his business partner Dave Bleitner, and Forbidden Root (1746 W Chicago Ave, www.forbiddenroot.com) a brewery and restaurant in which revered beer writer Randy Mosher is one of the partners.

Both these breweries have an experimental approach to ingredients – Randy’s title is ‘alchemist’ – and in each case you feel you’re in the presence of someone who really understands flavour on a deep level. Even the most unlikely sounding beers (Off Color does a beer with graham crackers and Forbidden Root one that uses the botanicals that create FernetBranca) are thoughtful and intriguing rather than brash and sensational.

But no beery tour of Chicago is complete without a visit to the new taproom at Goose Island (1800 W Fulton St, www.gooseisland.com). In a space carved from the heart of the brewery, beers as flavourful and experimental as any in town constantly rotate. The vast acreage of the barrel warehouse nearby, where stouts are aged in bourbon casks and fruit beers aged in wine barrels, proves that in this case at least, the big nasty corporate is heavily investing in good beer rather than compromising it or watering it down.

I’m sure they have their reasons, and if you’re just after good beer, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see how the big money is being spent. But if your definition of craft beer means you can’t drink anything owned by a macro brewer, well, they say a principle is worthless until it cost you something, and Chicago offers plenty of alternatives, on every scale. Finally, this larger-than-life drinking city has a beer scene that lives up to its needs.