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A Beer Lover’s Guide to Chicago

Trappist beer, brewed by Trappist monasteries in Europe, are available right here in Chicago.
Trappist beer, brewed by Trappist monasteries in Europe, are available right here in Chicago. | © Philip Rowlands / WikiCommons
Visitors and locals alike in the Windy City have no shortage of options when it comes to enjoying delicious brews. In recent years, Chicago’s craft beer scene has boomed, inspiring new distilleries and breweries, and an ever-expanding range of events. This guide features places and experiences every beer enthusiast should try in Chicago.

Friday Night Flights

When a city full of craft breweries decides monthly beer festivals don’t cut it anymore, it’s a good sign that there are rivers of delicious beer worth tasting. In 2017, the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild partnered with Choose Chicago to create a brew festival series dubbed Friday Night Flights. Between June and September, beer lovers can attend any (or all) of six tasting events around the city. A different neighborhood hosts each event on a summer Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (rain or shine).

Paying a slick $15 ahead of time (or $20 at the door) gets you 10 delicious three-ounce gulps of local drafts. Some events boast more than 10 Chicago breweries in attendance, which means there’s plenty to try. Want a sneak peek? This year’s opening night event in Lakeview features 28 unique breweries, including Revolution, Dovetail, Haymarket, Half Acre, and Greenstar. Just be sure to leave room for the hearty food available from regional favorites like Big Star and Smoke Daddy.

Try tons of unique brews at Chicago's Friday Night Flights events throughout the summer. © Danielle Griscti / Flickr

Morton Arboretum Craft Beer Festival

Who says botany and beer don’t pair well? The Morton Arboretum combines the two with finesse at their annual Craft Beer Festival. For the fifth year in a row, both members and nonmembers can plop down onto the grass, under the trees, and around the flowers while enjoying ales from 45 different breweries in and around Chicago. This fest also features cask beers, which are developed with a slightly different fermentation process than regular brews, giving them more robust flavors and aromas. Since they’re available in limited quantities, it’s recommended that true beer enthusiasts purchase VIP tickets in advance. (VIP ticket holders get into the event an hour earlier than regular ticket holders.)

Anyone with a sweet tooth might also want to try a Beer Float: a scoop of ice cream topped with some craft beer. This year the band Euphoria will play everything from pop and R&B to rock and country live for attendees. A final perk? While you have to be 21 to enter, you don’t have to drink. Designated driver tickets are only $15 and include complimentary water and soda. Smart!

The Morton Arboretum is home to gorgeous foliage and a delicious craft beer festival. © willowbrookhotels / Flickr

Ravenswood on Tap

Recently, the stretch of Ravenswood Avenue between Balmoral and Irving Park has been affectionately labeled “Malt Row.” As one might expect, the title alludes to the many breweries and distilleries that popped up along Ravenswood Corridor in recent years. There are now six, and each is a featured pub at the summertime Ravenswood on Tap festival. Along with a few other local breweries, those from Malt Row present Chicagoans with their best brews, ciders, and spirits (KOVAL Distillery will be there, and they specialize in vodka and whiskey).

There are food truck vendors, new musical acts every hour, and local artists selling crafts and goodies as well. The entrance fee is only a $5 suggested donation; the $35 pre-sale package includes a stainless steel tumbler and four drink tickets, good for one beverage each—plus, you get to skip the ticket line when you arrive. The even better news is that if you can’t make it to the fest, Malt Row is still there during the week, with plenty of glasses to fill.

Dovetail Brewery, part of Ravenswood on Tap and Malt Row, likens beer making to a fine art. © Kurman Communications, Inc. / Flickr / Derivative from original

Fountainhead

Take a break from the raucous festivals for a moment to soak in the many bars and restaurants around the Windy City with extensive beer menus. Not only does Fountainhead in Ravenswood boast a spectacular food menu, but their beer and whiskey lists are also some of the lengthiest in Chicago. No longer do patrons have to travel to Belgium for a Westmalle Tripel Trappist brew. Not in the mood for Trappist beer? There are over 20 beers on draft from around the country and countless varieties in bottles and cans from around the world waiting to be tasted.

Fountainhead also offers gluten-free beers and an enormous cider list, plus lambic brews, double IPAs, sour ales, and barley wine, to name a few additional categories available. There’s something for every beer lover at Fountainhead—and upscale American cuisine to boot.

Trappist beer, brewed by Trappist monasteries in Europe, are available right here in Chicago. © Philip Rowlands / WikiCommons

BeerHoptacular

If there’s one thing to be said about BeerHoptacular, it is that it honors beer culture and the history behind the drink. Every fall, the event brings beer lovers, home brewers, and big names together to celebrate American craft ales. With over 150 different brewpubs represented, it’s impossible not to find old favorites and new blends. Since its inception in 2010, BeerHoptacular has become an autumn favorite for locals, and an excellent alternative to the copious Oktoberfest parties that saturate the city. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Oktoberfest! It’s just great to have options.)

Now in its eighth year, the event is bringing back its Homebrew Competition. Clubs or individuals who have experience brewing their own beer (or are eager to show off new skills) are welcome to enter for a chance to win the “BeerHoptacular Homebrew Club of the Year” title. Entrants have to use the 12 ounces of grain provided by BeerHoptacular and must produce six 12-ounce bottles for the judges. Outside of that, it’s anyone’s game. The fest tends to sell out, so buy tickets in advance (each entry ticket includes 20 drink tickets, each for a three-ounce sampling of a craft brew).

Brewing beer is a centuries old practice spanning cultures, countries, and palates. © Queensland State Archives / Flickr

Frost Fest Craft Beer Festival

When most people think “beer festival,” they think of hot summer streets and washing down hot dogs with cold brews. However, a little snow doesn’t stop Chicagoans from throwing one of the best beer festivals all year. Every February, the Northalsted Business Alliance, a nonprofit chamber of commerce organization, puts on the Frost Fest Craft Beer Festival inside a 4,000-square-foot (371.6-square-meter) tent. Yes, the tent is heated. Yes, beer is a great way to keep warm. With DJs spinning records, sponsors giving away fun swag, and ice blocks ready for carving, this is a winter festival unlike any other.

Frost Fest features a good mix of local beer makers like Revolution and 3 Floyds alongside national names like Virtue Cider (MI) and Sam Adams (MA). Patrons can choose to purchase tickets based on which sessions of the fest they’d like to attend (unlike other festivals that charge a flat fee for the entire weekend). Somehow, Frost Fest makes drinking beer even more fun; after paying $40, $35, or $20 for your ticket, you can sip happily, knowing a portion of your cost went to Hope For The Day, an organization based in Chicago that reaches out and offers help to individuals at risk for suicide. Win-win.

Beer is great in winter, especially since the snow acts as a natural cooler to keep brews chilled. © valkrye131 / Flickr

Festival of Barrel Aged Beers

Known as FOBAB, the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers has been in operation since 2003. As its name suggests, the fest celebrates the art of brewing beer, mead, and cider—specifically those that have been carefully crafted and fermented in wooden barrels. This is one of the larger events beer lovers in and around Chicago can attend, in part because it not only draws breweries from around the world but also because those breweries often show up with one-of-a-kind and extremely rare batches. It’s possible you could taste a beer at FOBAB you’d never be able to find again.

“Best Of” awards are also given to the most unique and delicious beers. For instance, in 2017, Illinois’ own More Brewing Company won the Best of Show Blue Ribbon for its BA Karma brew, and Cincinnati’s Listermann/Triple Digit Brewing won Gold in the Specialty/Experimental category for their Chickow! Brandy Barrel brew. Tickets for the event (which typically cost around $85) include 20 individual three-ounce pours. Drinkers are encouraged to eat a hearty meal before the event, as many of the brews featured have high alcohol contents. Also, only small concessions are available.

Barrel aged beer provides a more nuanced flavor than brews made in steel kegs. © jgagnon / WikiCommons

Brewery tours

Beer enthusiasts looking for inside scoops on up-and-coming sudsy creations should check out Off Color Brewing’s Mousetrap tap room in Lincoln Park. The tours often inform participants about new brews in the works at their facility. For even more unique beers and an up-close look at the fermentation process, tour 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and Taproom, the first brewery based in the U.S. to use direct influences and flavor profiles from Latin American cuisine. This brewery uses ingenious ingredients in their beers and has been known to offer samples straight from the barrel. These are just two of many options, so start here and then keep on walking. Or consult this list for some starter tips.

Off Color Brewing's Troublesome brew is actually a blend of two unique beers combined with coriander. © Four Brewers / Flickr