Chicago’s craft beer scene has expanded so rapidly in the last five years that you would be hard-pressed to find a truly accurate list of every brewery in the city anywhere on the internet. There’s simply been too much rapid growth and turnover. Not every project to get its doors open has kept them open—one brewery opened commercially in 2013 and officially closed its doors and sold off its equipment later in the same year.
And even if you could list every one, the new class of Chicago brewers challenges the conventions of commercial brewing projects. There are guys like Spiteful Brewing, operating 2.5-barrel brewhouses barely larger than your garage-based homebrewing operation, and yet their beer is available as far away as Central Illinois. There are large homebrewing collectives you can hire to produce a beer for your wedding or party. There are beer-related projects for nearly any situation one can imagine, from the lowliest lawnmower beer to fusions between craft beer and gourmet cuisine.
It’s a rough estimate, then, when I say I’ve counted about 29 “currently operational” brewing projects in Chicago today. That doesn’t include any of the half dozen or more that are preparing to open in the near future. It sure as hell doesn’t include the suburbs—that would be adding another dozen breweries or more.
So which places are truly indispensible? Where must craft beer-hungry tourists in Chicago visit while they’re in town? All is revealed in Paste’s Craft Beer Guide to Chicago. Check out the map at the bottom of each page for destination locations.
With so many to choose from, which are the best to actually visit? Here are five absolute must-sees.
1. Half Acre Beer Company
You could say that Half Acre is a model of Chicago’s craft beer success. In the mid-2000s, the city was a dreary place for local beer. Goose Island (pre-Anheuser) was one of the only real standouts. That changed with the arrival of Half Acre, which began its ramshackle operation with all its beer contract-brewed in Sand Creek, Wisconsin. They started conservatively in 2006, with an amber lager of all things, before embracing Daisy Cutter Pale ale, the west-coast hop bomb that has become a mascot of Chicago beer in general. In addition to their still FREE tasting room, they finally opened a dedicated tap room in 2013, and it’s always packed. Go for anything hop-forward. When it comes to pale ales and IPAs, Half Acre is Chicago’s gold standard.
2. Revolution Brewing Company
Revolution began its life as a fantastic brewpub and has expanded its operations with a production facility to become one of the larger brewers in Illinois within the space of a few years. The brewpub in Chicago’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood is still a fantastic place to visit, mixing upscale gastropub cuisine with a very well-balanced line of always-solid brews. Their canned Anti-Hero IPA is one of Chicago’s best year-round brews, and their barrel-aged special offerings are heady and intense. A typical trip to Revolution will involve a crispy pork belly sandwich, bacon fat popcorn (yes) and a finely crafted saison—and none of those elements will outshine the other.
3. Haymarket Pub & Brewery
If Revolution is a little more fancy, Haymarket’s brewpub is a little more blue-collar, at least on the food side of things. Here, it’s all about rotisserie chicken and sweet potato tots. But when it comes to the beer, Haymarket has carved themselves out one of the city’s best niches—American/Belgian fusion brews. They make some of the best Belgian pale ales and IPAs you’ll ever have anywhere, marrying the very best of hop-forward American brewing with the subtlety of Belgian tradition. They make almost no concessions to those who aren’t into craft beer—you’re either there for the product or you’re not. The opening day lineup was something like three IPAs, four Belgians and a porter. That’s a brewery with no confusion about its identity.
4. Dryhop Brewers
It’s a very new entry, Dryhop just opened in 2013, but they made quite a splash in their complete and total commitment to the full sensory experience of beer and food pairing. The restaurant/brewery has conceived all its dishes with beer in mind since day one, pairing dishes such as mussels, poutine and shrimp-sausage sandwiches with beers that currently include a “wheat IPA,” “India pale saison,” “vanilla honey milk stout” and “Chicago common.” Everything here is about the interplay between these interconnected philosophies.
5. Lagunitas Brewing Company
They’re still not open, with constant setbacks that have made the opening perpetually “a month or two away,” but it sounds like this opening will finally be coming for real in May. When they do, the country’s sixth-largest craft brewer will have an absurd top capacity of 1.7 million barrels per year in their Chicago brewhouse, which will dwarf every other brewery in the state combined. Chicagoans who have already been able to attend special pre-opening parties in the massive, 300,000 square foot space confirm that this opening is going to be worth the wait. And just about everyone agrees it will be great to get freshly made batches of Hop Stoopid or Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ in Chicago, not to mention all the new local brews Lagunitas will likely introduce. This opening will change the Chicago craft beer landscape forever.