Let's go to Chicago
Matt Curtis on visiting the windy city
Saturday 31 July 2021
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Stepping off Chicago’s public transit system and into downtown felt like a fever dream. As I cross one of the many bridges that span its iconic Chicago River, I pause for a moment to take stock of my surroundings. Skyscrapers towering around me reflect a cobalt sky, while a breeze whipped up from the adjacent Lake Michigan brings a chill to my hands and face. I’d wanted to visit the aptly named Windy City for many years, and could scarcely believe that I’d finally arrived.
It had been a bumpy landing. The pilot warned us as much over the intercom as the plane jolted and weaved among the turbulence. “It’s just like the rides at the state fair,” said a stewardess with a smile, my pale grey face giving away my anxious disposition. I smiled back, thinking about how I never used to ride the rickety attractions at fairgrounds, and in this bumpy moment I felt conviction in my past choices.
Things didn’t improve much in the terminal, my card declining while attempting to purchase a coffee to help stave off the jet lag the nine hour flight would inevitably bring. My phone goes off in my pocket. It’s my bank. Apparently someone is trying to use my debit card at the Chicago O’Hare Airport branch of Starbucks. “It’s me,” I cry down the line with exasperation, aware that I also needed to purchase a train ticket so I could get to my hotel. Thankfully, after a few minutes they relinquish, and unblock my card before I’m on my way, espresso in hand.
By the time I’d checked in and dropped off my luggage I felt exhausted. I needed a restorative, and so made a beeline to the nearest hostelry. Settling in at the first decent-looking bar I find, (the now sadly closed Public House) I order a plate of tacos before lazily browsing the draught beer list. It’s then I have my first “holy shit” moment of the trip, as among the taps of Budweiser and Miller Lite I spot the iconic Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust. Here in the Midwest it’s a beer that set the blueprint for many modern, pale and hoppy beers. It’s delicious. I have three before making my way around a few tourist spots until tiredness sets into my bones, and I decide to call it a night.
The next day I am up and at ‘em. Full of beans (literally, after two coffees from the excellent Intelligentsia) I jump on the “L”—the colloquial name for the transit system—and head out of downtown. I’m the only customer as I arrive at legendary beer and metal bar Local Option just after opening. “This would probably have made a better evening destination” I consider, as I slurp down yet another Zombie Dust, before gleefully hopping to my next spot, Pequod’s Pizza.
Being a party of one I’m able to skip the lunchtime line amassing outside and am sat straight at the bar. Here I order what the restaurant calls a “personal” pizza: a 7” Chicago-style deep dish on which I opt for a topping of onions and sausage. To wash it down, Bell’s Oberon, another delightfully citrus-led, refreshing wheat beer that’s a joy from first sip to my last. Despite its diminutive diameter the depth of the pizza almost defeats me, but not quite. Still, I have to practically waddle to my next destination: Forbidden Root, a brewpub housed in a stunning former movie theatre on the city’s west side.
So began an afternoon of brewery-hopping. At the aforementioned Forbidden Root I’m treated to a range that spans contemporary hazy, juicy IPAs to a range of beers flavoured with different herbs and botanicals. A dark beer brewed to mimic the digestif Fernet Branca is a particular highlight.
Later I arrive at Off Color, where head brewer John Laffler immediately says he needs my assistance making a video for social media. Suddenly I find myself (well, my arm) on camera, pouring beer into a glass every time Laffler and his colleague ring a bell, as they attempt to mimic a popular internet cat meme. Their beer is the real star though; funky, not quite sours using a mesmerizingly tasty house yeast that creates beers unlike any others I’ve tried. Simple, and yet complex at the same time.
At Pipeworks (literally in the building next door to Off Color) I drink deep of some serious IPAs; beers of extreme clarity and precision, with names like Ninja Vs. Unicorn and Lizard King. Although West Coast in nature, it would probably be more accurate to refer to these as “No Coast” as they are distinctively Midwestern in style. Perhaps a little less bitter in the finish, but still incredibly defined in terms of fruity hop flavours. Half Acre, too, makes beers very much in this vein. But they taste different enough in that it’s relatively simple to tell their beers apart from those at Pipeworks.
I encounter this again when I visit Whiner Beer Co. on the South Side. Like Off Color the brewery makes mixed fermentation beers such as saisons and funky barrel-aged stuff that doesn’t quite fit into any category, but they are very much their own. This is inherent among all the many breweries in Chicago; each feels unique, but together they form a beer culture that is potentially one of the most expressive, and most exciting I have experienced anywhere in the world, let alone in the US.
And the people here take this in their stride. They are relaxed, they are friendly, and they want you to have a good time. Despite the city’s size you won’t feel the intensity of New York or LA. This is the Midwest, and they live slowly here, but also to the fullest—especially when it comes to the enjoyment of good food and drink. The four days I spend here pass in what feels like an instant, my dream ending, and leaving me longing to one day return.
COVER PHOTO: Ryan Arnst (Unsplash)
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