Raise a Glass
Beer lovers and wine aficionados alike have plenty of venues to sample their drink of choice thanks to the recent explosion in local craft breweries and niche wine sellers
In the suburbs, the cup truly runneth over.
For sippers of the suds, these are heady days, and grape aficionados are luxuriating in a wine lover’s paradise. Wine shops, wine bars, taphouses and microbreweries abound, and even grocery stores are stocking their shelves with premium vintages and handcrafted brews from around the country and the world.
These local wine retailers and breweries are riding the crest of a national wave. Wine consumption — mostly driven by the refined palates and greater earning power of the Baby Boomers — has skyrocketed by 75 percent since the 1990s, while the babies of the Baby Boomers — the Gen Xers — can’t get enough of craft beers, spurring sales to double in the past half decade.
Just what is the cause of all this interest in imbibing? The reasons are many, but one thing’s for sure, it doesn’t look like the local love for the vine and hops is going away any time soon.
A NEW GENERATION OF BEER
Man vs. Internet, Midwestern Death Metal and P-2 may sound like the latest punk rock bands pervading the American music scene, but they are actually the nomenclature of a far friendlier and more convivial culture — craft beer. In fact, if you look closely enough, there’s probably a craft brewery that just recently opened or is planning on opening in your neighborhood.
Unlike a mass-market brewery, craft beer producers focus on smaller batches with an emphasis on flavor and innovation. “Craft beers are more flavor-forward,” says Ike Orcutt, head brewer at BuckleDown Brewing in Lyons. “It’s an art with long roots.”
Open since December, BuckleDown is one of more than a dozen craft breweries across the western suburbs sharing its own unique take on the malted beverage. The brewery sources hops from Michigan, Oregon and Washington state to create Belgian-inspired hoppy beers.
According to the Brewers Association, there are now more than 2,500 breweries in the U.S., nearly all of them craft breweries. An additional 1,600 are in the planning stages. By contrast, only eight existed in 1980.
Despite the proliferation of breweries in the western suburbs as well as the city, Chicago is under served compared to other parts of he country like Portland, Denver and San Diego. “There’s a lot of breweries in the West and East coasts, and the volume of those are starting to come into the Midwest,” says Jason Ebel of Two Brothers Brewing Co. in Warrenville. “California has 220 breweries in the state. We have about 70. The trend is coming this way.”
“Beer is cooler now than it has ever been,” says Tim Marshall, head brewer of Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville. “There’s a lot of attention on it right now.” Marshall learned the craft at Rock Bottom Brewery in Lombard and Warrenville before striking out on his own two years ago. His line-up includes a pilsner that has 8.5 percent alcohol and robust India pale ales that continue to draw people into his taproom tucked into an industrial corner of town.
“IPAs are super trendy right now,” says Marshall of a brewing style that relies on lots of hops for its bitter, malty taste. “People tend to buy more of our stronger beers here.” Solemn Oath also produces limited-edition beers such as Hexafoos, an American farmhouse ale which pairs nicely with pad thai. Going into summer, Marshall keeps things seasonally relevant by focusing on beers that are lighter in color and drier on the finish.
Other savvy entrepreneurs from the western suburbs are taking advantage of beer’s renaissance as well.
“Craft beer is something people are really looking for these days,” says Brett Semenske, founder of Imperial Oak Brewing in Willow Springs, slated to open in mid-May. Situated on a bike trail along the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the brewpub will feature an outdoor seating area where visitors can imbibe on imperial strength beers that have been aged in barrels from distilled spirits. Because the brewpub is making smaller batches and not distributing its beers, its approach to brewing is more experimental. For example, Semenske, a former chemistry teacher, has aged beer in an oak barrel previously used for gin. The beer not only takes on the flavor of the spirit, but the wood as well.
The image of beer has changed as drastically as its permutations. With its higher concentration of ingredients; infusion of spices such as coffee, chocolate or chili peppers; and aging in barrels of oak, cherry or maple wood, beer has been elevated from being marketed by girls in bikinis to a creative art that considers flavor profiles and pairings with food, says Ebel who founded Two Brothers Brewing 17 years ago with his brother Jim after a foray into home brewing.
“Beer is a flavor-complex beverage that can enhance your experience with friends and food,” says Ebel. “You’re seeing white-tablecloth restaurants having a substantial beer list. The quality has elevated people’s expectation of what beer can be. There’s a huge shift about what craft beer can do.”
It can even help raise funds. Two Brothers is brewing a special beer for the 75th anniversary of the Warrenville Fire Department. All proceeds from Engine No. 1 — a Kolsch style with a very pale color that should appeal to a wide audience — go to the Hundred Club of DuPage County, which supports local firefighters and police officers who have been injured or killed.
Craft brewers pride themselves on forming strong connections to their communities and customers. They often use locally sourced ingredients and form partnerships with local restaurants and farmers to suggest complimentary beer and food pairings. Have a palate for super savory food? Accentuate those spices with a hoppy beer.
The desire to create a handcrafted product to share with others often transcends the beer itself and seeps into the designs of the taprooms. At Penrose Brewing Co. in Geneva, founder Eric Hobbs used salvaged lumber from a Wisconsin barn to build handmade tables, tap handles and even funky beer-glass carriers that cradle a flight of beer. He also enlisted his father-in-law to create the facade on the taproom front door from torn-down wood found in Champaign, IL.
After three and a half years of planning, the brewery has been open only a few weeks. The air is redolent of hops, punctuated by the cacophonous hums of a bustling business. He and partner Tom Korder formerly of Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, will focus on beer that is simple, clean and traditional, with the base of most beers coming in at 4 percent alcohol.
“We have a handcrafted process,” Hobbs says. “We tweak constantly and want to improve all the time.” All this in an effort to evoke a personal connection with their customers.
Hobbs works the taproom like a mayor at a local ribbon-cutting ceremony, welcoming visitors with a handshake and leading them on tours. To the couple perched on iron and reclaimed wood barstools sipping their Belgian ales — dark one for him, light one for her — he says, “I want to taste beer with you and share the story.”
IN THE SUBURBS, WINE IS BOOMING
Two decades ago, when Alixe Lischette opened Cabernet and Company, a charming boutique wine shop in Glen Ellyn, local full-service liquor chains dominated the marketplace — there was, in fact, only one other independent wine seller within driving distance of her newly-painted doors. For Lischette, fresh from an extended stay in New York City where there was hardly a neighborhood without its own wine store, the move was a gamble, but she was excited to take the chance.
“I had been traveling to Napa/Sonoma since the mid-70s,” she recalls. “And I’d seen popular taste there shift from French and Italian to smaller California wineries that were producing some first-class wines. I thought that wine lovers in the suburbs would appreciate a boutique wine shop with the focus on customer service and selection.”
Her hunch was right. Since the 1970s, when big California vineyards aggressively marketed lower-quality jug wines labeled “Chablis” and “Burgundy,” Americans had been gradually developing a taste for better, more expensive wines. Young California winemakers had made the decision to elevate production standards, initiating more efficient cultivation techniques and becoming more sensitive to terroir — the French concept that geographical soil and climate conditions profoundly influence grapevines and the resulting wines. In 1976, a blind tasting panel in Paris championed two Napa Valley varietals — Stag’s Leap Cabernet and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — over premium French vintages. It wasn’t long before Baby Boomers with more expendable income and refined tastes were upgrading their palates. Sales of jug wines dropped by half as good wine became associated with an upscale lifestyle. In the suburbs, premium wine went mainstream seemingly overnight, and from Oak Park to St. Charles, the doors of wine shops began to open.
The wine boom was on.
“In the past few years I’ve seen a tremendous surge in interest in wine,” says Julie Balsamo, owner of the Downers Grove Wine Shop, which has been in business almost as long as Cabernet and Company. “New stores are opening and there are many more tastings and wine events. And I see people educating themselves about good wine.”
Indeed, easy accessibility to education has helped to fuel the boom. Consumers hungry for knowledge are boning up on wine books, consulting critics, doing online searches and trading information on social media, taking wine classes, and attending local wine dinners and tasting events.
“It used to be,” notes Bruce Jaroski, wine director of Malloy’s Finest in Naperville, a full-service store that functions as a boutique shop, “people would walk in and ask about red or white. Now they want to know what sub-region in Mendoza a certain Malbec comes from.”
And this new knowledge has shattered old barriers. “The stereotypical image of the wine drinker as an effete snob swirling his glass and haughtily expounding on vine density, maloactic fermentation, and the calcareous marl in the soils of Bordeaux is long gone,” says Sean Chaudhry, owner of the Hinsdale Wine Shop in Hinsdale and The Cellar Door in Downers Grove with a laugh. “Wine has become democratized. It’s not for elitists anymore.”
“It’s no longer a beverage that’s only enjoyed at the fanciest restaurants or reserved for the wealthy,” adds Mike Mantonte, master sommelier and manager of Vin Chicago in Naperville, a retailer that specializes in premium wines. “Good wine doesn’t have to cost a fortune, so it can be enjoyed by all.”
And just who is pulling the corks on all these bottles? The Baby Boomers are by far the most likely to buy wine — especially premium wine — but Millennials, now in their 20s or 30s, are rapidly catching up. Their tastes, however, are different — sweeter styles like Moscato and Zinfandel-based red blends are all the rage.
“Our younger customers are buying more and more wine,” says Jaroski. “It wasn’t that long ago that they were coming in for beer. What’s interesting is that their buying and taste habits have been nurtured by craft beers, so they’re interested in trying new wines from smaller labels or lesser-known regions.”
Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales at Binny’s, agrees. “Younger wine drinkers want to explore. They’re not hung up on the old traditional rules, traditional food and wine pairings, or wine critics and their scores. Yes, they want to learn, but they’re also more of a ‘drink what you like’ kind of crowd.”
Of course, where consumers go, retailers follow. The result has been a proliferation of wine stores — one or more in almost every suburb, making it very easy for consumers to find excellent wines. Existing chains like Armanetti, Foremost, Sav-Way, Malloy’s Finest and Binny’s Beverage Depot have responded by hosting tastings, hiring passionate and knowledgeable wine consultants, and offering broad selections, from $7 table wine to bottles priced at hundreds of dollars. Smaller boutique shops — which typically showcase lesser-known regions and vintners or ultra-premium bottles — abound, as do wine bars and wine-based restaurants, where customers can pair food with various varietals or sample wines by the glass. Also riding the trend are upscale grocery stores, like Standard Market, Mariano’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, which cater to wine lovers with well-stocked wine sections or in-house wine shops.
The outcome of all this competition hasn’t been a “War of the Rosés,” but a boon to wine drinkers. “To keep our customers happy,” says Lischette, “and to keep our business going, we have to continually improve our selection, our knowledge and our service. We’ve developed relationships with a lot of people so that we know their tastes and their palates.”
“Most importantly, it’s about the friendliness of the shop and if there’s someone there to connect with,” adds Jeffirs. “Anyone might try a Daily Deal or Groupon once, but they won’t go back if it was a hollow experience.”
The past few decades have also seen the rise of suburban wineries like Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Fox Valley Winery in Oswego, and Galena Cellars Winery in Geneva/Galena, which specialize in producing handcrafted varietals sourced from estate-grown, single-vineyard Illinois grapes like Chambourcin, Chardonel, and Seyval Blanc. Other local winery-restaurants, like Cooper’s Hawk in Burr Ridge and Naperville, source grapes from many different growing regions to blend their own proprietary wines.
Christina Anderson-Heller, Lynfred’s marketing director, ascribes the popularity of Illinois-grown wines to the vogue of culinary tourism and the exposure offered to visitors to the wineries. “Now all 50 states have bonded wineries and local wine is becoming a norm,” she points out. “As more locals visit newer viticultural areas such as the Finger Lakes region (upstate New York), Michigan, and Wisconsin, we see a lot more vested interest in Illinois wine and the culture that surrounds it.”
For those new to wine and experienced oenophiles alike, local tasting events have probably contributed most to inspiring the suburban wine boom. Most wine retailers — from boutiques to superstores — sponsor weekly tastings of a few open bottlesor, like Mainstreet Wines in LaGrange, hold more extensive varietal- or region-based tastings. Some of the bigger chains, like Binny’s, Sav-Way and Malloy’s Finest, host biannual events showcasing hundreds of wines. The biggest of these galas is hosted by Mainstreet in the spring and fall, where over 250 wines are open for tasting and winery representatives are on hand to pour samples and answer all questions.
“Tastings are an excellent way to let wine lovers, new and old, discover what appeals to their particular palates,” says Nancy Sabatini, director of wine education and sales at Mainstreet. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, I hate white wine’ and then they go to a tasting and try a Sancerre or an unoaked Chardonnay and love it. It’s all about education.”
As for the future, the boom shows no signs of abating. More stores are opening and existing ones are expanding. It seems more than likely that wine will remain one of the suburbs’ favorite quaffs for a long time to come. Even Starbucks is adding varietals from Prosecco to Cabernet to its nighttime menu.
“Wine is here to stay,” says Lischette with a broad smile. “I don’t see anyone putting a cork in it.”
Local wineries and tasting events offer opportunities for wine lovers to cultivate and refine their palate. Following is a sampling of places and events to try various wines.
Binny’s Beverage Depot
Regular Saturday tastings; larger tasting events;
Arlington Park “Taste at the Track” in June
Cabernet and Company
Regular tastings; biannual
“Wine Thing,” spring and fall
Downers Grove Wine Shop
Regular weekly tastings
Festival of the Vine
September 5-7 in Geneva
Fall Festival of Wine
November, sponsored by
the Hinsdale Wine Shop
Weekly in-store tastings;
biannual galas spring and fall
Malloy’s Finest Wine and Spirits
Regular Saturday tastings; biannual
tasting events, spring and fall
Naperville Wine Festival
Peterson Wine Cellars
Seasonal wine tasting series
May 31, downtown Oak Park
Acquaviva Tasting and Wine Bar
214 W. Main St., St. Charles, 630 513-6770
Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants
510 Village Center Drive, Burr Ridge, 630 887-0123
1740 Freedom Drive, Naperville, 630 245-8000
Fox Valley Winery
5600 Route 34, Oswego, 630 554-0404
477 S. Third St., Geneva, 630 232-9463
15 South Roselle Road, Roselle, 630 529-9463
TAPPING INTO A TREND
Niche breweries give beer lovers plenty of options.
Lyons. Homebrewers turned pro. Try Fiddlesticks, a light-color Belgian IPA. Partners with local restaurants on Thursday nights to provide food.
Church Street Brewing
Itasca. Heavenly Helles named Best Lager by Chicago Magazine. On Industrial Drive, but named after the street it was supposed to be located on.
Downers Grove. Family friendly, outdoor sidewalk seating and full restaurant menu. Try Pale Ale, full of big hop flavor. Also in West Dundee.
Lombard. Beer geeks without a tasting room. Get a growler of Cruise Night to go. Enjoy at home.
Rosemont. A replica of the legendary beer hall in Germany. Stop by for seasonal specials.
Aurora. Offers full restaurant menu. Try Urban Tumbleweed, a German Hefeweizen with banana and clove flavors.
Imperial Oak Brewery
Willow Springs. Steps from a forest preserve. Ask for Farmer’s Daughter. You won’t find it anywhere else. This brewpub does not distribute its beer.
Villa Park. Cool neighborhood lounge that offers its own craft beer as well as guest beers.
Nevin’s Brewing Co.
Plainfield. Delivers its spent grain to farmers to use as feed for livestock and compost for vegetable soil. They then purchase the livestock and vegetables to make food on their menu. Try Nevin’s Contentious IPA.
Geneva. $10 tours: Buy a tour of the brewery and get a glassful of beer — yours to keep when you finish that last sip.
Rock Bottom Brewery
Lombard. Family friendly, located in Yorktown Center mall. Full restaurant menu. Try the White Ale, which boasts a hint of orange peel and coriander.
Naperville. Beer geeks flock to this off-the-beaten-path destination for its limited-edition releases. Buy your buddy a drink on its infamous board.
Geneva. Swedish tavern with full-service restaurant. Voted Best Brewery in Kane County.
Two Brothers Brewing
Warrenville. The granddaddy of Illinois craft brewers. Two restaurants: Tap House is family friendly and serves sustainable and local food; Roundhouse, Aurora, offers more elevated pub fare in a 157-year-old building. Try intentionally tart sour beer.
Urban Legend Brewing
Westmont. Open limited hours Thursdays–Sundays. Colored flags flying above brewery denote what style of beer is brewing.