Beer Culture Shock — An Angeleno In the Windy City
Beer is intrinsically tied to the region it was brewed, but one of the best things about the modern beer world is you don’t necessarily have to travel to experience what far-flung beer cultures have to offer. You can journey around the world from the comfort of your barstool. Of course that’s not a real substitute for actual boots on the ground in an exotic locale as I discovered recently on a rare (for me) beer trip to Chicago.
I knew that Chicago was one of the best beer-cities in America, but I was ill prepared for just how impressive the beer scene is. I was also surprised by how similar Chicago is to my home of Los Angeles, and I think a look at the two metropolis and their very different beer-scenes can reveal some paths that L.A. should take to continue to mature its beer culture.
Here are a few aspects of the craft beer scene in Chicago that I found most striking.
Beer is everywhere
Chicago is a drinking town, there’s no doubt about that, but for every neon sign I saw advertising Old Style and Pabst, I saw a local craft beer neon to match. Revolution Brewing is ubiquitous in town, as is Lagunitas and, of course, Goose Island. Beyond just the volume of beer pouring in Chicago, I was struck by how integrated craft beer is. Ignoring for the moment the controversy over if Lagunitas is legitimately “craft” still, their market penetration in Chicago is impressive. There’s a good chance that, even if you stumble into a divey basement bar populated by grumpy old dudes there will be Lagunitas IPA on tap — or at the very least in bottles. Restaurants that billed themselves as wine-centric establishments still had six or eight taps of (mostly local) craft beer.
That last point in particular is important in relationship to L.A. While things have been improving as dining in Los Angeles has (finally) blossomed into a well-respected scene in its own right, far too often you’ll find hyped and exciting restaurants with deep wine lists and creative cocktail programs only paying lip service to craft beer. In L.A. the distributor-driven tap list is endemic, and the same unexciting half-dozen beers (Scrimshaw Pils and Downtown Brown anyone?) seem to be pouring at every hip new restaurant opening. Excuse the played-out term, but they know how to curate a tap list in the city, and wine bars, tony restaurants, and craft cocktail joints alike offered a handful of taps of local and interesting beers that were obviously chosen for maximum breadth of character and for matching with the food menu. Hell, even the natural history museum not only had a good tap list, they had several exclusive beers brewed just for the museum (and they were really, really good). It was refreshing.
Everything is in cans and everything is fresh
Cans are becoming more popular across the craft beer world, but it felt like there were more canned local brews in Chicago than bottles. It’s also worth noting that so many breweries from the midwest and east coast that we never see in California distribute to Chicago (lots of cans here too). Stepping into Binny’s Beverage Depot made me feel as overwhelmed as a craft beer newbie who had no idea what they were looking at. It was overwhelming in the best way, and I was soon laden with cans from Surly, Half Acre, and Pipeworks. I saw some amazing artwork on the cans (Pipeworks especially), and everything was so fresh. I don’t think I saw a beer over a month old on the shelves of any spot I shopped at.
There was a downside to the can-centric offerings though. Whenever I ordered a canned beer at a bar or restaurant — even at restaurants that are renowned gastropubs known for serious food and serious beer programs — I was just handed the open can. No glass. I got side-eye from the server about half the time I asked for a glass (hey, I like to smell the beer I’m drinking), and attitude from a couple of them. Even when I ordered a Surly Bender I had to ask for a glass, and that beer says “beer for a glass, from a can” right on the can!
People know beer
The beer scene is more mature and far more established in Chicago, and so many people I talked to had a high level of beer knowledge. From getting on-point pairing suggestions from the server at a douchey sports bar, to the pride that the corner liquor store owners took in their selection of craft beers, to the locals ordering beers from the Whole Foods bar before they did their grocery shopping, you didn’t have to find the beer-geeks to have a good chat about beer in Chicago. Chicagoans also seemed to have a great blend of polite Midwest demeanor and take-no-shit attitude that made many encounters enjoyable.
Los Angeles needs help to continue to grow and develope the beer scene, and I think beer culture in L.A. is in the awkward teenage phase. We’re struggling to establish our own identity and to earn respect for our local breweries, and we need some mentors and examples to look to (that isn’t just San Diego’s unrepeatable beertopia). Chicago, with it’s diverse and sprawling population, second city attitude, and welcoming spirit should be a model that L.A. brewers and beer-lovers look to as we grow.