A Whole World Beyond ORD

We’ve been to Chicago over a dozen times but have never left the airport. Our ‘visits’ were actually layovers to or from Europe. On one of these layovers, we did manage to go out of security to visit the sports bar at the Hilton to drink some Goose Island beer.

We knew Chicago was a good beer town and it was on our list of places we needed to visit. Lucky for us, opportunity knocked when our friend, fellow beer traveler and thebeergeek.com contributor Matt Venzke asked us to join him and Michelle in the Windy City the second weekend in May.

It’s a moon theme at Lunar Brewing

The Venzkes picked us up at O’Hare mid-afternoon on Thursday and we were off to explore the greater Chicago beer scene. Our first stop was in Villa Park, a dozen or so miles south of the airport. While we were still pretty close to civilization, the town had a real country feel.

We walked in Lunar Brewing to see a bevy of locals at the bar chatting with the bartender. Our foursome grabbed a high table on the opposite wall.

The beers at Lunar Brewing

Though Lunar brews their own beer, the first thing I noticed, after all the moon-themed stuff, was an impressive guest list. Of the nine, five were California brews that we can’t get in our neck of the woods. But I wasn’t in Illinois to drink beer from California.

There isn’t an official taster set at Lunar but the bartender was more than happy to give us a taste of any of the beers. After a few samples, I started with Batch 600 IPA, a very well-balanced IPA. Merideth’s beer trip began with Moonbeam Steam. I guess Lunar assumes that they fly enough under the radar to use the ‘S’ word. Moonbeam competed with Total Eclipse Stout as the best of the house beers.

We sampled six of the beers and while none knocked are socks off, all were very drinkable, save one. The one beer we didn’t care for was the Barrel-Aged Moondance, an IPA aged in Bourbon barrels. Admittedly, it had more to do with our lack of appreciation for strongly flavored barrel-aged beers than the quality of the beer.

No impressive signage at Two Brothers

Moving on from Lunar, we were off to Warrenville to visit Two Brothers Brewing. No relation to the 2 Brothers Brewing we recently visited in Australia, this Two Brothers was located in a very nondescript industrial park a few blocks from the highway. In fact, the location was so unassuming that the four of us had trouble deciding if it really was a brewery. The only indication of the contents of the building was a simple sign that stated “Tap House Main Entrance.”

The selection at Two Brothers

Shocked might be too strong a word but walking in I definitely did a “Wow.” It was a nice-looking restaurant whose beery secret was revealed by their giant beer labels adorning the walls. Looking for the bar area,  I glanced over to my left to see a shiny bar backed by stacks of glasses and a mirror walled. We sat at one of several high tables in the bar area and settled in.

Merideth enjoying her Ebel’s Weiss. Photo by Michelle Venzke

The beer that caught my eye was Cane and Ebel Red Rye. A big fan of Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye, any rye beer that says it is “assertively hopped” is one that I’m going to want to try. While only one percent less in ABV than Hop Rod (8% to 7%), Cane and Ebel had a much lighter drinking feel to it.

The star of Two Brothers was Merideth’s beer, Ebel’s Weiss. A traditional Bavarian-style Hefeweizen, Ebel’s Weiss had all the hallmarks a great Hefe. It’s deep golden color, huge clove and banana nose and taste had us dreaming of being back in our beloved Bavaria.

With the preliminaries over, it was time to get into Chicago. We parked the car at our hotel and took the subway into Chicago for some pizza and beer. Exiting at the Damen stop, we were at Piece (and peace) within a few minutes.

The taps at Piece

There were several highly anticipated brewery visits on this trip and Piece Brewpub was the first. I had heard many good things about Piece and I just hoped that it lived up to the hype. Walking in, my first reaction was dread as the place was packed on a Thursday evening. My dismay was quickly assuaged as the hostess told us the wait was going to be only twenty minutes. Armed with that good news, we headed to the bar to grab a beer.

I passed on the Bitburger, a beer I only drink at Frankfurt airport with Ute and Wolfgang as our traditional goodbye beer. Instead I selected Swingin’ Single, a Belgian-Style single. Again, Merideth was spot on with her first choice, Top Heavy Hefeweizen. A recent bronze medal winner at the World Beer Cup, Top Heavy was the second great American Hefe we had on the day.

Hmmm… pizza and beer at Piece

For my next beer I followed Merideth and ordered  a Top Heavy. Shortly thereafter, the hostess sat the four of us at our table. The pizza menu is pretty simple. There are three bases, plain, white and red, and a list of ingredients to select from. Since it was going to be hard for the four of us to agree, each couple, after much deliberation, ordered a small pizza.

By the time our chicken and artichoke heart pizza arrived, I was on my third beer, a Wack Job Double IPA. Big, malty with a great hop bite, Wack Job was the first beer of the trip that reminded me of home.

There’s something special about pizza and beer. It’s, for the lack of a better phrase, just plain fun. And that’s how I would describe Piece, just plain fun. And the beer is great.

A mellow evening at the Map Room

Not yet finished, we took a much needed fifteen minute walk to the Map Room, our first beer bar of the trip. Included on many ‘top beer bars in the United States’ lists, we found the Map Room pretty mellow on Thursday night. Well, except for the Black Sabbath music.

The huge bottle list was too daunting for my tired brain. And, despite never having had it on draft, I resisted the temptation to have Sierra Nevada Fritz and Ken’s Ale. My choice was Founders Double Trouble, another big malty hopbomb of a Double IPA. Merideth, showing her love for the style and also maybe better sensing it was time to wind down, ordered an I Beam Alt from Metropolitan Brewing.

As we drank our beer and sang along to Black Sabbath, I finally felt, for first time since getting up at 2am California time, that I could take a deep breath and relax.

Smarter minds should have prevailed at this point. We had already been to three breweries and the Map Room, and we were approaching 20 hours on the go. Smarter minds did in fact prevail for Matt and Michelle as they decided call it a day and head back to the hotel.

Revolution Brewing, the newest brewpub on the Chicago scene

But being intrepid beer travelers we are, we pushed on to Revolution Brewing, the newest brewpub on the Chicago scene. It was after midnight when we walked in the front doors and grabbed seats at the bar.

As we perused the food menu, Merideth ordered a Workingman Mild, a proper English mild coming in at 3.5% ABV.  Lucky for me, there was no Double IPA, so I ordered Anti Hero, the house-brewed IPA.

The taps at Revolution Brewing

Though we weren’t hungry, we were intrigued by the menu, especially of the meaty bits. We ordered the pork and ham plate, a porkalicious collection of porcine products. And someone on Facebook had highly recommended the bacon fat popcorn, so of course we had to have that, too. Popcorn drizzled with bacon fat, bacon and Parmesan, it might have been the most decadent thing I have ever eaten.

Approaching 1am, even we had to admit that it was time to call an end to our long day. We finished our food and beer and grabbed a cab back to our hotel. I went to bed very tired but quite pleased with our first experience beyond ORD. I looked forward to the next two days of the trip.

A Beergeek and his Douchephone