Look What's Brewing
With the western suburbs having become a hot spot for the fast-growing craft beer phenomenon, we take you on a tour of the area’s best breweries, brewpubs and beer tasting destinations
It’s been over two decades since Jim and Jason Ebel brewed their first keg of Two Brothers Ebel Weiss in March of 1997. It rolled out the doors shortly thereafter (see Q&A with founder Jason Ebel below to find out where it was first poured) and the suburban Chicago brewing scene was forever changed. Beer in 1997 wasn’t a local thing — it was “owned” by one of two cities or maybe someplace in Germany or Mexico. Beer wasn’t a fresh thing — it was a commodity, sitting on the shelves to be purchased a six pack at a time. Beer wasn’t a seasonal thing — your light beer tasted the same no matter what, be it summer or winter. And a “fancy” beer meant maybe you splurged on a couple bottles of Sam Adams.
Since then, we’ve all learned a thing or two about what “beer” can actually be. People approach their drinking choices vastly differently than in the late 90s. Beer fans have no shortage of locally brewed beer, plenty of places to drink it (and different ways — have you been to a pour-your-own beer bar yet?) and plenty of places to buy it. The core of craft brewing remains the same, though — small batches, quality ingredients, creative concepts and a streak of independence that runs as long as Route 59. (Quicker, though.)
Nowadays there are dozens of breweries and brewpubs in the area. From tiny little basement operations all the way up to major players like Solemn Oath, Mikerphone, Pollyanna and — yes —Two Brothers, you’ve got no end to your fermented selections. Allow us to help narrow down some of the best, brightest and most interesting.
Penrose Brewing Company, Geneva, www.penrosebrewing.com
When we tell you that Penrose — usually associated with Belgian-inspired brews and a growing array of hop-forward options — also brings the funk, I promise you, in craft beer funky is a good thing. This starts with Penrose’s series of Wild beers, which numbers up into the 20s at this point — each one different and unique in its own way. The most recent has spent some time in oak barrels with peaches sourced from Michigan, for example. Others have included plum, red grape and blackberries.
Second, Penrose takes that wild, funky adoration to a new level with its surroundings. On a few brew days the brewery utilized a “coolship,” a fancy word for a big pan that helps the pre-fermented beer cool and collect wild yeasts that naturally float around in the air, especially in more rural areas and near rivers, where airflow is pushed along by the current. Penrose then lets those beers mature, age and ferment with the natural yeast to create deliciously complex, sour, tart and, yes, funky taste.
Finally, you can’t be the funkiest brewery without a beer fest, can you? Penrose hosted the inaugural Celebration of Funk earlier this year, as some of their favorite brewer friends pumped out the most innovative wild and sour beers around. Those friends included other top tier beer producers like St. Louis’ Perennial, Indiana’s Three Floyds and Chicago’s Marz and Off Color.
Most Innovative Brewery
Noon Whistle Brewing, Lombard, www.noonwhistlebrewing.com
It’s not just the beers that make Noon Whistle the most innovative brewery in the ‘burbs. I mean, the beers definitely set the tone, including a series of tart, lip-smacking Berliner Weiss beers (appropriately called Smack) and the low-bitterness hazy IPAs have seen beer fans line up for cans and growler fills at the Lombard brewery (which, thanks to the address, could also win for Best Brewery Next to a Whirlyball). Beyond that, Noon Whistle was so dedicated to getting the aromas of its beers into the olfactory passages of their customers that they literally changed Illinois law to allow for pull-top cans to be sold in the state. Now, when you pick up a four pack of one of Noon Whistle’s Gummy IPAs, the whole can gives you the widest of widemouths so you can get all the dry-hopped scents coming off the top of the brew.
Perhaps it’s things like this that prompted Planters nut company to reach out and ask for a peanut-centric brew . . . which generated a ton of buzz for the company, thanks to the world’s first peanut IPA.
Best Beer Names
Solemn Oath Brewery, Naperville, www.solemnoathbrewery.com
I love this Naperville brewery for being a second-wave craft beer pioneer, having opened in mid-2012. I love the hop-forward beers, the Belgian-inspired brews, the newfound liking for hazy IPAs and the wonderful can artwork. I am happy to have Solemn Oath lead the way when it comes to beer festivals like Oath Day and Viking Oktoberfest, and beer releases like the recent series of Goldmund Stouts.
But what I really love is this brewery’s talent for naming beers that, once you hear them, could only be Solemn Oath releases. Beers like Punk Rock for Rich Kids, Butterfly Flashmob and Snaggletooth Bandanna are wonderful breaks from yet another beer named with a hop pun or simply called “Pale Ale” or “IPA.” It is even better that the beer inside remains top quality, with Lu Kolsch taking a medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Fest.
Breweries with the Longest Lines (and How they Earn Them)
TIE: Mikerphone Brewing, Elk Grove Village, www.mikerphonebrewing.com and More Brewing, Villa Park, www.morebrewing.com
Those lines showing up hours in advance of beer releases in Elk Grove Village and Villa Park? Those don’t happen for every brewery. And yet, Mikerphone and More seem to have a reliable set of fans who love to wait patiently for a new, avant-garde, extreme beer to come out of the brewhouse.
Mikerphone sits just a touch west of Chicago, a little north of O’Hare Airport and in that most common brewery location — an industrial park. The location hasn’t stopped beer fans from showing up well in advance of opening hours in order to get a crack at owner/brewer Mike Pallen’s famously well-crafted beers that come packed with ingredients like maple syrup & coffee, peanut butter & strawberries, even condensed milk and cocoa nibs for a doughnut-inspired beer.
How do they earn this hype? Well, Mikerphone was getting attention even as they were still constructing the Elk Grove space after making beer at a couple of other Chicago breweries — online beer review site Ratebeer named them the Best New Brewery in Illinois of 2015. Not only that, the Chicago Tribune has called them “the hottest thing in Chicago beer,” while Draft Magazine described them as “white-hot.” Are you in line yet?
More Brewing, on the other hand, has its home in a significantly more residential part of Villa Park (just over a half mile from our next “Best” Brewery) and has had lines since day one for its much-lauded imperial stouts and barrel-aged options. Those lines are accommodated by the proximity to the Great Western Trail, which gives hundreds of beer fans a place to queue while waiting for award-winning beers like their Henna stout.
Hype honorariums? Well, brewer Shaun Berns was lining up beer followers outside RAM Brewing in Schaumburg where he brewed his famed Chaos stout prior to More, and the young upstart operation had only been open for about six months before being named Best of Show at FoBAB — the prestigious Festival of Barrel Aged Beers — in 2017 for their barrel-aged Karma stout with coconut, cinnamon and cocoa.
Best Ladies Night Out
Pollyanna Brewing, Lemont, and Pollyanna Roselaire, Roselle, www.polyannabrewing.com
In my experience (as someone who is not a lady), women want the same things from beer and their beer experiences as men do. Even though women are often pigeonholed as “light, fruity beer drinkers” women also love big hoppy IPAs, bold rich stouts and wild crazy sours. We all also love a night out in a great place to drink beer, and lots of options once we get there.
Which is why Pollyanna came immediately to mind — it’s one of the few breweries in the area to have two locations, with one focused on more straightforward craft fare (Lemont) and the other on the wilder, tart, sour stuff (Roselle), where you can run the gamut of beer flavors. Everyone wants a great view, which Lemont offers in the form of a space along the canal with a cool mezzanine overlooking the main floor (the building was originally built to be an Italian restaurant). And we all love plenty of great beer.
Pollyanna has become best known for its Fun Size series of stouts, which are rich with flavor in the new pastry stout style — laden with vanilla bean, cocoa, peanut and sea salt, sometimes kicked up with maple, coffee and even sugar cookies. For jet setters, the Fruhauf Oktoberfest beer is a wonderful little trip to Munich (bring your own dirndl and lederhosen) while the Orenda Belgian Quad and cranberry orange Berliner Weiss offer a little more challenge to the palate.
No matter which location you choose, the casual beer drinker can get an easy-going golden ale, kolsch or pale ale. Get tired of one spot? Head over to the other location (but make sure someone else is driving if you have had a couple of the Fun Size).
Best Mall-Based Brewery
TIE: 25 West Brewing Company, Bloomingdale, and Hopvine Brewing, Aurora, www.hopvinebrewingcompany.org
If the American shopping mall has become a symbol for suburban capitalistic indulgence, well, doesn’t it make sense to have a brewery there too? Two well-established west suburban malls — Fox Valley Center and Stratford Square — can both
lay claim to a brewpub on their footprint, which I consider as much of a statement on today’s American brewing scene as you can get.
Hopvine is the more established of the two, taking its place in an outbuilding just west of the Fox Valley Mall proper. The brewery got its start in a manner more sacred than most other brewing outfits — founder Doug Islay had the idea to get Hopvine off the ground after a conversation with his future brewmaster after a church service.
25 West is the fresh-faced young upstart and the newest brewery in the western burbs. (According to the Brewers Association, a new brewery opened about every eight hours in 2017.) It is run by the team behind nearby Jameson’s Charhouse. Located inside the mall proper, steps from the Round 1 bowling and entertainment center, they opened in early November — just in time to pour beers for the thirsty souls populating the Black Friday sales in the nearby outlets.
Best Date Night
Two Brothers Roundhouse Aurora, www.twobrothers.com
One part coffee shop and small-batch coffee roastery. One part microbrewery. One part spirits distillery. One part restaurant. One part music and comedy venue. One part beer garden. All this adds up to make the Two Brothers Roundhouse a destination that’s way more than the sum of its parts.
Previously known as the American Brewing Company, it has served as a brewery since the mid-90s and is probably still known to locals of a certain age as Walter Payton’s Roundhouse. Two Brothers moved all its “parts” into a building that dates back to the 1850s — which means it may be the most historic beer-making facility in the state.
Lunar Brewing, Villa Park
Ninety-nine percent of the time I forget that Lunar Brewing exists, which I think they’re perfectly fine with. Tucked into an anonymous little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront tavern near the Metra tracks in Villa Park is one of the oldest breweries in the area, having incorporated in 1996. The staff works on a tiny little system tucked into the back of the bar, and they still don’t have a website — just
a Facebook page.
Still, they power out small batches of fun beers, including the popular Jumping Cow cream ale (sometimes amped up with fruit flavors like raspberry and apricot) and Total Eclipse oatmeal stout. Lunar also offers up some of the most experimental barrel-aged brews I’ve ever seen at Chicago’s Festival of Barrel Aged Beers. There’s one aged in a Malort barrel to take on the famously abrasive flavors of the rough Swedish liqueur.
What Lunar is, mostly, is a friendly, beer-focused brewpub that’s as happy to host a pig roast or a potluck and pour you a pint of Moondance IPA as they are to pass a Belgian Westmalle triple across the bar — or a bottle of Bud.
Brewery with the Best “Rules”
Metal Monkey Brewing, Romeoville, www.metalmonkeybrewing.com
Many brewery origin stories start like this: “First, I got laid off.” After founder Dan Camp lost his day job he needed a hobby, which led to homebrewing, which led to joining a brewing club, which led to meeting co-founder Jason Janes, which led to the opening of Metal Monkey in 2016. Camp loves metal music, Janes is a monkey aficionado, put the two together and you’ve got Metal Monkey.
The brewery is known mostly for strong beers like Fonkey Mucker stout, Bikini Bottom pineapple sour, Simian Fever hibiscus wheat and a variety of barrel-aged Asmodeus imperial stouts in varieties like Mexican chocolate, coffee and maple. Make a stop at the taproom just off Route 53 and you’ll be telling your friends about their perfectly fair house rules, which include: Don’t be a Dick, No Hate, and most importantly: No Bon Jovi.
The Monkeys announced an expansion plan earlier this year which will bring more monkey-inspired brews to market, but don’t expect the rules to change once they add extra space.
Hop Butcher (For the World) Darien, www.hopbutcher.com
The team behind Hop Butcher (For the World) — you do get the Sandburg reference, right? — started their existence with a specific destination in mind for the brewery, given that they began releasing beers as the South Loop Brewing Company in 2013. After a trademark dispute a few years later, they learned they couldn’t protect the South Loop name, so they revamped themselves into Hop Butcher and the ensuing freedom to go crazy on hoppy beers has raised their profile significantly.
Since the re-brand, they’ve brought out a parade of fan-favorite beers focusing on recipes ranging from bitter IPAs to juicy pale ales, along with some longtime favorites including a pistachio-flavored stout collaboration with Chicago’s DryHop Brewers.
It’s the hazy, juicy beers that get the brewery the most attention, though. In a sea of hop-happy beers (with no end to hop-punny names, either), it’s a little amazing how much variety Hop Butcher gets out of just a few styles. Scan the beer options and you’ll see a great array of IPAs, double IPAs and pale ales, all infused with ingredients like honey, pineapple, mango, coconut, raspberry and even sherbet.
That focus (more or less) is what’s earned the brewer nods from Thrillist as one of the top IPAs in the nation. Multiple publications in Denver sing their praises as one of the breweries to seek out at the Great American Beer Fest this year. One Wisconsin writer went so far as to call Hop Butcher “hop gods,” which in this hop-happy climate is no small endorsement.
Hop Butcher operates out of Darien’s Miskatonic Brewery, which could easily earn inclusion in this piece for, say, Best Use of Lovecraftian Imagery in Beer — both the brewery’s name and the beer names are all based around references to works by American writer H.P. Lovecraft. We’ll also give Hop Butcher a nod for Best Tap Handles — they’re covered in Viking runes that look random, but actually translate to beer ingredients.
Least Likely to be Patronized by Wheaton College Students
Dry City Brew Works Wheaton, www.drycitybrewworks.com
Wait, Wheaton’s got a brewery? Actually, two — an outpost of Emmett’s Brewpub is right around the corner from Dry City — but you could classify the response I get from Wheatonites when I tell them there’s a brewery in downtown as “general disbelief,” even from people who live right down the street.
At the beginning of the millennium, Wheaton College eased up on alcohol restrictions for its faculty, staff and graduate students. Drinking is, however, still prohibited for undergrads while in school. That said, I tend to doubt many of college’s students would make the trek to this tiny brewery anyway because it’s actually quite hard to find.
Once you make your way to the rear part of the building facing Main Street you find a nice compact tasting room pouring brews like Providence coffee milk stout, Light As the Breeze golden ale, and, for those who keep to Wheaton’s historically “dry” restrictions, a housemade root beer.
Best Brewery In a Basement
Belly Up Beer Company Western Springs, www.bellyupbeer.com
The thousands of breweries that opened across America this decade come in all shapes, sizes and locations. There are megabreweries like the Lagunitas plant on Chicago’s south side, neighborhood brewpubs, regional production facilities and breweries that serve the entire Midwest. And then there’s the tiny little brewery that makes a barrel of beer at time from a basement.
Belly Up is the brainchild of Joe Fornari, whose nanobrewery services the immediate area around his Western Springs home and beyond. Bottles of Howlin’ Hank IPA and Two Toed orange wheat beer make up the main output, and even though the operation almost coudn’t be tinier, the brewery still set itself apart in a different way in 2016 — it was one of the first craft breweries to sponsor a NASCAR driver at a Chicagoland Speedway race.
A Barside Chat with Jason Ebel, Co-Owner of Two Brothers Brewing
What stands out as the biggest change in the world of brewing? Well, you know, I have seen a lot. And when we started, the month that we opened in 1997, the only two other strictly production breweries in the state of Illinois closed — Chicago Brewing and Pavichevich Brewing. And so that left us as the only production brewery in the state for almost a year and a half. So back in those days, of course, it was just trying to get awareness of what craft beer was about, you know, flavors and beer, that sort of thing. Then in the early 2000s, it went to an understanding of [craft beer], and everybody rushing to try it. It was exciting . . . sort of the heyday, if you will. Now, it’s kind of come to the point where it’s hard to keep up with the all the new breweries. Every day I hear a new name. And I’m not saying that in a negative way. It’s just how far it’s come. It’s hard to keep up with everybody. It’s hard to set yourself apart now. Whereas before it was just getting anybody to hear your name. So it’s run a huge gamut in just 22 years. It’s really hard to pick one thing but the industry has evolved from being really esoteric to being really well accepted. But because it’s well accepted there’s a lot of players in the game now, so it’s just causing a lot of different challenges.
The very first barrel that went out was Ebel’s Weiss. Do you remember who bought that first keg off you guys? Oh yeah, I’ll never forget. John’s Buffet [in Winfield]. John Karwoski was the name of the owner. They’ve since closed. But yeah, he came the day before I kegged the first batch. I’ll never forget. He toured the brewery, and he’s like, “Can’t wait to get that keg.” I was like, “I’ll drive it over tomorrow.”
It’s a long way from that first barrel. Is there a point in your history that you can look at and say, “OK, I think we’re going to make it.” Yeah, I think when we moved facilities in Warrenville. We had our original production facility in a warehouse and we moved to the one we’re in now. We had been leasing for 10 years. Our lease was up, so we bought a building and opened the tap house in Warrenville. We had very mild expectations for what the tap room would do. We put in a new brewery with more floor space to expand. And when we opened the tap room in February of 08, people just organically started showing up and having a good time and enjoying the food as much as the beer. I think that was really kind of what set it off because we hadn’t really known what to expect. It was just going to be a little ancillary tap room and it turned out to be a real nice piece of the puzzle. That’s kind of when we went OK, I think this is going to work.
When younger brewers get the chance to bend your ear and ask for advice on getting started, what is the first thing that you have to offer them? To have realistic expectations and make sure you’re in this for the right reason. What I mean by that is, you know, if I wasn’t so stupid or stubborn — I’m not sure which — I would have quit years ago, because it’s hard work. I got in it because I loved making beer and bringing that product to people and watching them gather around a table and enjoy each other’s company with that beer. It’s a way to bring people together. The driving forces is that love of craft and that love of bringing people together. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and you know, just like any business, you’re going to have your ups and downs. And if you’re in it just for money or for some sense of glory because you made a great homebrew, it’s probably not the right reason. That’s one of the big things I like to tell people, because you know it’s going to be a long road. Especially now with such a competitive marketplace, make sure you want to get up every single day and do this because at first it’s pretty awesome. After 22 years, there better be something that still motivates you to get out of bed.
Is that part of the reason that you guys have branched out into coffee and spirits? Two Brothers has always had one foot in the brewing world and one foot in the beer distribution world — is it just kind of trying to make sure that you’re still engaged with everything? Well, part of it is that I love the challenge of something new. I love the opportunity to try new things and see how it goes. But I think if you look at what we do, it’s all about flavor and bringing people together, whether it’s coffee in the morning,beer in the afternoon, maybe a spirit cocktail or something to finish at night. It’s all about flavor and bringing this kind of complex craft product to market. So in a way I look at it as very tied in — but part of it is just that we love the challenge as well as the new opportunities.
Are you still able to get your hands dirty and strap on the brewing boots — or is there a more front office work for you these days? Well, sadly I don’t get to do the brewing very often but I’m still extremely active. I still write the recipes for all the new beers we make, because that’s something I just love. I’m in the distillery, the coffee roaster and the brewery every day, down on the floor with the guys. They tend to do it and I just tend to help guide it. But, yeah, I do miss that strapping on the boots. Once in a while I joke that, hey, I got into brewing to brew, but now I manage people. But it’s fine. It’s the evolution, right? I do still get to stay hands-on as far as writing recipes and talking about new products, whether it’s the coffee company or the spirits company or whatever. I still do sensory evaluation every day and all that. So very, very active. I love it.
Speaking of getting established, lots of people have sold their breweries to larger companies. Has anyone offered to write a check and say “we’ll take over Two Brothers from here”? Oh yeah, for sure. Nothing we’re interested in, but we have definitely been approached a number of times.
The most recent being years ago? Months ago? A year ago. You never say never, but right now, why would we want to? We’re having fun, we’re doing what we enjoy. The only person I have to report to is myself so that’s pretty cool. My brother and I get to make all the decisions. If somebody else owns the company, it’s not that way. We’re still 100% family owned and we love that. My son is 19. He’s in college, in business school, and can’t wait to come in on the family business. That’s awesome.
Karl Klockars, a former Wheatonite, Napervillian and West Chicagoan, is author of the book, Beer Lovers Chicago, and cofounder of guysdrinkingbeer.com. If you’re buying, he’ll have a porter or a pale ale please, and thank you.Edit Module