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10 beers that changed the Chicago area

By guest blogger Steve Herberger

Stan hit on a thought provoking and fun look into modern brewing history with his “10 Beers that Changed America.” Some of us have different perspectives of the micro revolution, depending on where we experienced the new wonder of good beer. So Stan asked if I wanted to add my 10 Beers and opinions based on a midwest viewpoint, here are my thoughts, though I reserve the right to hedge based on failing memory over 23 years!

Please chime in, especially if you’re from the Midwest.

Spreacher cap1. Sprecher Amber (I believe was their start up brew) – the first Micro I remember hearing about in this area right around the time it opened in ’85. I can remember seeking out the brewery for a tour and purchases, parking in the lot of a closed factory close to where I*knew* the brewery was according to the map (pre-Internet and MapQuest), seeing a train blocking my route, crawling tentatively between 2 coupled cars and announcing, “There it is!” What a great tour and great beer – supplied by Randy Sprecher himself.

2. Goose Island Honkers Ale – from its first intro at 1800 Clybourn to distribution around the world. I was there too, when they opened in ’88 – what a grubby looking neighborhood the Clybourn corridor once used to be. Thanks to GI, it’s now one of the most busy retail areas in Chicago.

3. Bell’s Amber – because it’s their flagship brew and started a mini-revolution of local brewers who brewed for themselves and their customers, not what the market dictated.

4. Capital Garten Brau – the original Helles from Kirby, and what tha’ – lager from a micro?!

5. Alpha King – 3 Floyds. No matter other opinions, I personally think this started the “extreme” trend — at least in hop-bombing.

6. Gray’s Oatmeal Stout – A world class stout from a small micro that’s still going strong after 20 years or so.

7. Mad Hatter – New Holland Brewing, the start up brew from a brewery that continues to produce outstanding products. (A tie with Michigan Brewing who landed the Celis White rights and recipe).

8. Riverwest Stein Beer – Lakefront Brewing, a cross between the upstart Bell’s and Capital’s recognition of the local heritage. Not to mention the Klisch brothers small pilot brewery on Milwaukee’s Northeast side that grew into a larger micro that hasn’t lost its roots in home-brewing. I remember my first taste of the Steinbeer from a tap at the brewery – man, what nectar.

9. The Bitter End Pale Ale – Cask Conditioned/Real Ale from an American micro? In a small Chicago suburb, no less? You betch’a!

10. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout – I have to give the nod to this because it highlights the progression, evolution, and advancement of what’s becoming a world class brewery right in my own back yard.

Runners up – The previously mentioned August Schell Pilsner because its discovery got me interested in good beers that could come from small, regional breweries – in 1984 those were becoming near to extinct. And I’ll even nod to the New Glarus Belgian Red, if for no other reason than it beat its peers at their own game – can’t argue that, not to mention the success and other great beers from the Careys since 1993.

14 Responses to 10 beers that changed the Chicago area

  1. beerinator July 6, 2007 at 10:22 am #

    I think Bell’s Oberon had a much bigger impact on Chicago’s beer scene than Bell’s Amber.

    I also feel that the list seems slightly less centered around the Chicago area and a bit more centered around the Mid-west in general (maybe this is the intention, but the title is misleading?). I really can’t see how Riverwest Stein Beer or Grey’s Oatmeal Stout have affected Chicago’s scene much (not trying to say they aren’t good beers).

    After talking to the Ebel’s about how they never really wanted to brew a pale ale, I don’t think I would use that beer necessarily to describe a change in the scene. They’ve only been doing it for four or five years now of their 10 in business. I do think that their Bare Tree Weiss Wine could make a good addition though, since it was the first commercial of that style that I ever saw.

    As I’m reading it now you appear to be talking about the Midwest, but maybe the title has gotten me thinking about a different area. I think to keep the focus on Chicago, you would have to include a few more mentions from Chicago area breweries. I mean we do have Piece and Flossmoor, two award winning nationally recognized brewpubs nearby!

  2. Stan Hieronymus July 6, 2007 at 10:28 am #

    Jon (and Steve),

    Probably my fault for making the head Chicago (at least I typed area). Steve didn’t have anything to do with the head.

    But, what the heck, maybe this will just broaden the discussion.

    Although Goose Island Bourbon was the beer that launched a thousands barrels nationally, the trend kicked into a new level when Flossmoor Eclipse won the Experimental Beer category at GABF.

    And then Todd Ashman began his push for wood and barrel to have its own category.

  3. SteveH July 6, 2007 at 10:44 am #

    I think Bell’s Oberon had a much bigger impact on Chicago’s beer scene than Bell’s Amber.

    I went with the Amber because it was the flagship beer of Bell’s, no success with the Amber — no Oberon to follow.

    And yeah, I meant it to read more midwest than Chicago directly, wanted to cover a wide range because there’s so much around here!

    To the 2 Brothers, I was pointing out their courage to step into the commercial cask ale business — a pretty lofty undertaking in an area where few understand Real Ale.

    Also, my picks are in no way meant to diminish the other good beer produced by these breweries. They’re just the ones that made initial impact on beer drinkers or launched the successes of the brewery.

    To pubs, as you said it’s more midwest, so I decided to stick to micros for wider impact on the population (Goose not withsatnding as they’ve become so successful as a micro as well as pub). Otherwise, we’d have to start a new discussion — and then bring in the closed pubs and micros. Tap & Growler anyone?

  4. SteveH July 6, 2007 at 10:46 am #

    PS — Thanks for the opportunity Stan. This, and the previous discussions, are great fun.

  5. Stan Hieronymus July 6, 2007 at 11:33 am #

    Isn’t Jaks Taps located where the Tap & Growler used to be?

  6. SteveH July 6, 2007 at 11:40 am #

    Stan — it is (though I just found that out), not sure how long it’s been open there — a sister-bar to the Village Tap I see…one of my favorite spots.

    I’m headed to Greek Town next weekend, may have to swing around the corner from Halsted to Jackson! Wonder if they still have the revolving door?

  7. Jeff Alworth July 6, 2007 at 1:56 pm #

    Come on, you gotta have New Glarus in the top ten–what about one of the lagers? Uff da? Their sublime Oktoberfest? You got Gray’s though, and that’s important. In my grad school days, I spent time at the UW Union tippling pints. It was the best beer outside Oregon I could find.

  8. beerinator July 6, 2007 at 2:34 pm #

    “I went with the Amber because it was the flagship beer of Bell’s, no success with the Amber — no Oberon to follow.”

    Well, I think if you are following that pattern, then it seems like you’re focusing on the brewery that might have changed the area and not the actual beer that changed the area. Oberon has definitely had a bigger impact on the beer world in the Midwest than Bell’s Amber. Just because Amber started it all doesn’t mean that it should get the credit for the success of Oberon too.

  9. Stan Hieronymus July 6, 2007 at 4:01 pm #

    This is an interesting one because I would argue the significant fact could be that a brewery that became well known for its assertive and more assertive stouts ended up with a wheat beer as its flagship.

    I forget the numbers, but last summer at the National Homebrewers Conference John Mallett was talking about how many brewing shifts a week – definitely over half – are devoted to Oberon. Higher in summer, but that makes sense.

  10. SteveH July 7, 2007 at 1:34 pm #

    Jeff — New Glarus made a bigger impact on Wisconsin than the rest of the Midwest. The Spotted Cow being the biggest seller around, but I can’t give them any big kudos other than for the Belgian Red for something that has made the beer drinking community sit up and take notice. And that’s not to say their beers aren’t good.

    Beerinator — I think the focus on a beer and a brewery is intertwined with an impact made on the burgeoning micro scene (back when). When Oberon was released we already knew to expect good things from Bell’s, so I don’t see that it made any more impression than Goose Summertime.

    If anything, maybe 2 Hearted should replace the Amber on my list, but if you read the Bell’s web site, they call the amber their flagship beer.

    To that intertwining — the same goes with Sprecher’s Amber, maybe the Black Bavarian. Was it that these were great, new beers, or just sort of novelty at the time because there were no micros in the area yet? I can’t say, other than that they launched the recognition of good beer to be found in the midwest.

  11. SteveH July 11, 2007 at 10:49 am #

    Late edit to No. 4 above, after some accidental research.

    “The first beer produced in June 1986 was Capital Brewery Garten Brau Pilsner.”

  12. KeilerDunkel July 18, 2007 at 7:49 am #

    I have to agree with Amber having more impact on the midwest than Oberon. Before Oberon (and earlier pre lawsuit – Solsun) had the buzz, Amber was everywhere. When I graduated from MSU in ’93 and moved to Chicago – the 2 beers that were everywhere were Bells Amber and Honkers ale and the Amber was all over lower MI as well.

    I can’t remember the stories why the Chicago brewing Co and Baderbrau shut down, but they both made wonderful beers.

    I would have to suggest adding the CBC Big Shoulders porter to the list. That was probably the best local example of the style at the time.

  13. Ryan October 16, 2007 at 5:52 am #

    I would also add as, at least a ‘honorable mention’, the now-defunct Pavichevich Baderbrau. Yes, Pavichevich Brewing has been gone for quite some time now, but there was a time when their beer, especially the wonderful aformentioned lager, could be found in many strategic beer joints in the city and ‘burbs, and I believe the quality of that product alno also helped bring an even greater appreciation to a wider beer audience, and influenced brewers to come.

    There weren’t, and still aren’t, that many craft brewers who make very good and honest lager beers around, but for anyone who remembers what Baderbrau tasted like when Pavichevich was churning it out (early to mid 90s), you’ll KNOW what I’m talking about!

  14. Stan Hieronymus October 16, 2007 at 9:28 am #

    Ryan – I agree. Pavchevich set a standard at the national level, and certainly wasn’t tiny (6,000 barrels a year).

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