Tastings School - Beer nirvana of the Midwest

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Beer nirvana of the Midwest

Chicago is a beer lover's paradise. Mark Peters gives us a whistle stop tour of some of the city's best bars.

I hardly knew beer till I knew Chicago.

Before moving here three years ago, I liked beer. I had enjoyed the Sam Adams tour in Boston, and occasionally sampled a great beer bar or two, like Buffalo, New York’s Pearl Street Grill & Brewery or The Moan and Dove, a beer haven in Amherst, Massachusetts.

But Chicago has been the site of my beer education – a city-wide university offering a multidisciplinary Ph. D. in hops, yeast, and malt.

Through frequent attendance at the following bars, I learned my bocks from my amber ales, Three Floyds from Two Brothers, and an IPA from a double imperial IPA. I’m still working on my ability to tell a stout from a porter blindfolded, but that may just be a lesson to avoid blindfolds.

So if you’re in Chicago for a day, or a week, or a couple weeks, here are the beer highlights, with apologies to Quencher’s, Rock Bottom, Bar on Buena, Delilah’s, and The Local Option – great bars that would have been included if the space and time for this article were as vast as the landscape of Chicago beer.

HOPLEAF 5148 N. CLARK STREET Owner and founder Michael Roper – who is either the Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan of Chicago beer, depending on who you ask – founded Hopleaf in 1992 and continues to demonstrate the power of a bar with a specific vision: “To serve really good beer and really good food to adults where they can talk without a lot of distractions.” Though it has a little German, a little British, and a whole bunch of American craft beers, it’s the wide selection of Belgian ales for which Hopleaf is known.

With 45 draught lines and more than 150 bottled beers, visitors may be too dazzled to notice what’s not at the Hopleaf: ie.

televisions, children, or any bad beers at all. By not catering even a nano-inch to the Miller Lite drinker – Roper dismisses “Irish pizza sports bars” that are afraid to offend anyone – Hopleaf patrons must drink good beer or go elsewhere.

CLARK STREET ALE HOUSE 742 N. CLARK ST.

Clark Street Ale House opened up 15 years ago in downtown Chicago, at the site of the old Stop & Drink, which operated for 50 years. Owner Adam Ellis says he aims for a “classic Chicago bar” with widespread mahogany, brass lamps, old murals, and classic beer signs adding to the atmosphere. CSAH is a great place to watch people or dogs, since pooches are allowed. As for beer, there’s a smattering of the country’s great craft breweries, with an emphasis on regional Midwest heavyweights such as Goose Island, Three Floyds and Two Brothers.

THE MAP ROOM: A TRAVELER’S 1949 N. HOYNE Laura Blasingame and her husband Mark founded The Map Room with two notions in mind: creating “a great good place” (as inspired by Ray Oldenberg’s book of the same name) that can be the “anchor for a community,” while also celebrating their love of globetrotting. As Laura says: “Beer fits well with both ideas.” They strive to represent “all the great beer nations”: Belgium, Germany, England, Japan, and – as we all know by now – the United States.

For its 26 taps, the Map Room aims for 26 different styles, or failing that, a wide diversity of styles, including beers that are fun to compare. A good example of this is the Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet and De Dolle Dulle Teve (nicknamed “Mad Bitch”), two Belgium tripels that show two beers of the same style can be as different as a bulldog from a poodle.

GOOSE ISLAND 1800 N. CLYBOURN AND 3535 N. CLARK Luckily for Chicagoans, this craft brewery seems to be everywhere in the windy city, but the best places to drink beers like Honker’s Ale and 312 are at the brewery’s two restaurants in the northside neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Lakeview – the latter is a one-minute walk from Wrigley Field.

You can expect two things from Goose Island’s beers: variety and authenticity.

Brewmaster Greg Hall says that even though being authentic can make the brewing process more complicated and expensive, he will go that extra mile – for example, making sure Kolsch beers are made with the proper Kolsch yeast. As for variety, Goose Island introduces a new beer every single Thursday, so when you ask Goose Island employee, “What’s new?”, they will always have an answer.

Even more answers can be found on the astoundingly informative brewery tour.

PIECE 1927 W. NORTH Beer and pizza are nothing new, but this Wicker Park microbrew/pizzeria, co-owned by Cheap Trick axeman Rick Neilson, “takes each up a notch,” as employee Chance Stockman says, pushing folks far beyond the realms of pepperoni and Bud to the wild worlds of banana pepper-topped pizza and Moose Knuckle barley wine.

I ask assistant brewer Andy Coleman about my personal favorite – Cap’n Kickass – a “huge American IPA” that makes other amazing IPAs seem tame. With 17 medals at beer competitions – Piece has a hell of a resumé, but allow me to add this praise: If I were on death row, the beer and pizza at Piece would be my last meal.

THE LONG ROOM 1612 W. IRVING PARK Founded by Clark Fowler and Jason Burrell in January 2000, the accurately named Long Room has an origin that may rival Spiderman’s radioactive spider.

Bartenders Fowler and Burrell were writing a guide to Chicago’s best bars, a Zagut’s-type book that would tell everyone the best spots for a date, martini, pool game, etc. Through compiling Jason and Clark’s Night on Chicago, the two wondered why they were writing a book when they had just created a blueprint for the perfect bar.

The Long Room became the product of this “shared moment of clarity” in which they “set out to become a neighbourhood bar that happens to be a great beer bar, rather than a destination beer bar.” Mission accomplished, and unaccomplished, because it has become both. With no games, no pool table and no television, The Long Room is a haven for real human interaction, plus some tremendous beers that run the gambit of styles, such as Belgian Brasserie Ellezelloise Hercule Stout and Three Floyd’s Pride and Joy.

SHEFFIELD’S 3258 N. SHEFFIELD Dating from the 1930s, this notable Lakeview bar got even more notable when the Beer School Bar premiered in June 2008. Run by Phil Kuhl, this bar-within-thebar provides a “safe refuge” for those of us who prefer good beer to noisy mayhem, while allowing an already top-flight beer bar to get top-flightier and to sponsor beer events like the recent Sierra Nevada event that featured beers such as Chico IPA and Brown Saison. It held a party to correspond with Dark Lord Day – the beer holiday in Munster, Indiana, which is the only day Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout is sold. American education gets a bad rap, but Sheffield’s emphasis on American beer and beer education can make even the cynic shout: “USA! USA!” Getting there Lots of useful travel information on the website www.gochicago.com