Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Another Post Inspired By Chicago

Two thoughts on my recent trip to Chicago. I know, I've been accused of selling-out Wisconsin beer for Illinois beer before, so those accusations will be nothing new. But nonetheless, here they are:

1. Chicago beer is good, but like beer elsewhere, most of it is just pretty OK. Look, Goose Island is fine; but frankly I don't prefer most of their beer. It's just not my thing; I find most of it pretty boring and one-note. Occasionally I'm happy to have it, heck, might even voluntarily order it every now and then; but it's simple preferences and I don't really feel that Goose Island makes a single "must have" beer. Half-Acre is good. Metropolitan is good.

Even the new gleam in everyone's eye, Haymarket Pub & Brewery, is just OK. We went to Haymarket on Friday night and had a good selection to choose from - everything from a brown, a pale ale, a blonde, and a couple flavors of IPAs. If you aren't aware, Haymarket was started when the brewer from Rock Bottom bailed when Rock Bottom sold out to Gordon Biersch and decided to consolidate recipes in favor of a more "cohesive" nationwide experience. Of course, the slobber on Haymarket's knob is thick and sticky from local love. But hype is hype and the quality is there, even if there doesn't seem to be anything distinctive about the place.

Again, all of this is fine. Most beer is average. But, average today is significantly better than average even 5 years ago. We're lucky that here in Wisconsin we have a significantly greater proportion of "better than average" beer than the rest of the country. My only frustration (and the points of prior posts) is merely that it is shouting in a windstorm. In the long run, obscurity is a bigger problem than the occasional supply shortage.

2. Quality beer in Chicago is freaking expensive. Interestingly, Haymarket had multiple pour sizes and prices. For example, you could order 4oz, 12oz, 16oz, or 20oz of almost any beer on the menu. Which is great because you could try most beers for fairly reasonable prices. Our trip to The Publican and Bluebird was a little more expensive. In both locations, relatively widely-available good beer was around $9 per glass. Publican had one bottle for $62 (a gueze).

I don't see this as a bad thing. At a nice restaurant we don't blanche to see a $9 glass of wine, or a $62 bottle of wine. Why should high-quality beer be any different? Interestingly, as if to emphasize this connection even more, Publican advertises that all of its servers have completed the first level of the Cicerone program, a Sommelier-like certification program for beer. Indeed, our servers were able to provide reasonable recommendations, describe beers and styles, and seemed generally knowledgeable about pairings and presentation.

Do all restaurants need such quality?I can tell you that it can be frustrating when a server at a "beer restaurant" doesn't know what s/he is talking about. Is the Cicerone program even indicative of quality? Maybe, maybe not. Good questions that maybe we can play with in the comments. Nonetheless, having such expertise does demonstrate that these restaurants are taking their beer seriously. I'm not saying that restaurants here don't take beer seriously; not by any stretch. It's just an example of what is going on at the "front wave" of beer restaurants in large metropolitan areas.


  1. I know taste is subjective but I am surprised to see you say Goose Island is "just ok" I am not a big fan of their regular lineup outside of the IPA, but Matilda, Sofie, Juliet, Pepe Nero, the multiple varieties of Bourbon County Stout are all exceptional "must have" beers in my opinion. (again, subjective)

    I must correct you on the Haymarket thing, Pete Crowley didn't "Bail when Rock Bottom sold out to Gordon Biersch" as you put it. He had been planning this brewery for quite a while before that takes quite a bit of time to plan, finance, and open a brewery. The Biersch/Rock Bottom merger is far to recent to have any bearing on his decision to leave. I have only been there once, but thought the beer was good (IPAs and porter especially), and should only get better since they only started brewing on that equipment a month or two ago.

    on your second point about price, yes it's more expensive downtown....everything is. However you referred to two restaurants that for an appetizer and main course you're looking at $30-$50 per person already, so high beer prices should not be a surprise. There are plenty of other good beer bars that charge far less for food and beer, and maintain a high level of quality.

    Since you didn't mention them as good nor bad, I am not sure if you have tried Piece or Revolution Brewing in Chicago. I find them better than the "good" Half Acre and MUCH better than Metropolitan. Incidentally, what do you find good about Metro? They just make bland, easy drinking lagers to a much smaller version of Capital.

  2. In my opinion, even Goose Island's "special" beers are OK for their style. They're fine, but no different from say, Ten Fidy, Dark Lord, BORIS, et al (Bourbon County), or Hennepin, Bam, Saison DuPont (Sofie). Again, within the style, they are good, but they certainly have peers that are as good or better. I would argue that these styles are "over valued" in terms of "upper 5%" on the more general bell curve.

    I should have been more specific about Haymarket - the "leaving" was more correlative than causative. I didn't mean to imply that one was the result of the other.

    I fully admit that I "selected" two on the high-end. But, interestingly, as to the two, Publican was the far more knowledgeable and interesting experience. So, the point was more about the investment in knowledge more than simply price alone. For Publican, they seem to take beer seriously; Bluebird seemed to be taking advantage of a trend in the market. So, my point, perhaps more fully developed here, is that the training/knowledge does embed and demonstrate that commitment.

    I have been to both Piece and Revolution, but not on this past trip. Both, again, are good. Piece can be great, but certainly comparable to, say, Vintage Brewing here in Madison.

    Like you say about Metropolitan, they make good, easy drinking lagers. I would argue that they are not, however, bland. There are very few crafts out there working in the more subtle pale lager ouvre. So, like Capital, I see them as good; though unlike Capital, they have yet to have anything that's "great", but I'm willing to give them time and enjoy the lighter fare in the meantime.

  3. I completely agree about Publican. Their knowledge of beer and food, and their ability to explain to the consumer what Publican is "about" without sounding dickish, help make the place a fantastic restaurant.
    One of my trips their they did serve me a different beer from what I ordered; I was surprised by mild the taste of the supposedly "smokey" New Holland Charcuterye, but would not have caught the mistake. Someone other than the server had brought the beer out, but as soon as our server came back and asked how we were doing, she noticed the mistake right away. I've been to restaurants that clearly gave me a beer other than what I'd ordered but then insisted I was wrong, so this seemed like a very positive sign for their knowledge, not only of beer in general, but of their current and ever changing tap list.
    Amazing food too.

  4. OK, so by average you meant among the best in the style, that's where I was confused.

    I am glad that it appears the Cicerone program is working, I will continue to ask my local establishments to urge/require their staff to participate in it...if only for the emphasis on clean glassware.

    Can you point me to where I can get some better than average Wisconsin beer? I'll actually be in Madison on Saturday and would love to sample some beer that is better than the ones you discussed above.

  5. Dan said the magic word: "Revolution"

    Sounds like you've hit it once, but I'd recommend another stop. Best beer in Chicago.


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