Let's face it. When it comes to microbrews, most of us don't have a clue what we've been drinking all these years. Sure, we may know the difference between lagers and ales, but where do doppelbocks fit in? And what's a lambic? In a selfless effort to promote beer knowledge across Chicago, my friends and I spent the entire summer driving from one microbrewery to the next. Pint after pint, we sampled some of the best beer the region has to offer in order to report back on these top tours. We figure the rest is up to you. Think you're ready to squander summer's last hours in a dark warehouse surrounded by mash tuns and beer geeks? If so, you'll learn all you ever wanted to know about beer and taste some truly excellent brews in the process.
Bring it on: Help make the most of your trip with these five drinkin' tips.
1. Call ahead to check tour times before making the trek. 2. Ask plenty of questions when tasting. Getting chatty with brewers usually leads to extra pours. 3. Write down the names of beers you like best. After the fifth or sixth sample, you tend to forget. 4. Reward your designated driver. A variety six-pack to enjoy at home is always a nice thank-you. 5. Go back for more. With seasonal beers, there's something new to try each month.
Bring it home: Once you've got a taste for area brews, you'll want to find them closer to home. Stock up on favorites at Sam's Wines and Spirits or Binny's Beverage Depot. Or head down to a local pub that pours regional microbrews all year-round. Sheffield's, Map Room, Hopleaf and Village Tap are all excellent choices.
Goose Island Beer Company
Tours: 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday (while it's still open)
Cost: $3; includes pint glass and samples
Distance: accessible via the North/Clybourn Red Line stop
Come back: In winter to try the cask-conditioned stouts
Whether you're a serious student or just want a few rounds of the good stuff, Goose Island tours are bound to please. By far, they are the most organized and in-depth in the area. Join the other folks milling about on Sunday afternoon and a knowledgeable brewmaster will guide you along the path of enormous brew kettles and fermentation tanks. These guys are experts, so throw your toughest questions at them. They may launch into the chemical properties of Lake Michigan water, but they always bring the point back to how it affects the beer.
Expect to spend about 40 minutes "in class" before treading the well-worn path to the bar for a brewer-led tasting. There, you'll find the likes of every-Chicagoan-should-know it Honkers, the new 312 Urban Wheat, Oktoberfest and Christmas Ale in the proper seasons, and other ales, like India Pale Ale and Nut Brown Ale.
Lakefront Brewery, Inc.
Tours: 3 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 3-8 p.m. Friday; 1-3 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $6; includes pint glass and samples, plus coupon for one free beer at area businesses
Distance: 85 miles north/ two-hour drive
Come back: In autumn for the delectable Pumpkin Lager
Hands-down, Lakefront is the place to go to get your drink on. Five dollars pays for a hit-or-miss tour, a pint glass and four wooden tokens, each good for an eight-ounce pour. You'll be able to choose from the likes of the new Cattail Ale (brewed in keeping with the bare-bones Bavarian Purity Law of 1516) Organic E.S.B. (flavored with organic German Perle hops) and the amber-colored Cream City Pale Ale.
Still thirsty? Knock back a couple more in the barroom where all tours begin and end, and be sure to grab a Free Pint coupon on your way out. A list of downtown pubs will honor the voucher with a Lakefront draught. Hooligan's on Milwaukee's east side is an easy choice with its tasty pub fare and more than 30 microbrews to sample. The folks at Lakefront know their city, so hit them up to see what's going on around town. With all that Milwaukee has to offer, you'll have no trouble turning this hour-long tour into an all day event.
Three Floyds Brewing
Tours: Whenever you ask for one
Cost: free; $5 pints available to sample
Distance: 40 miles east/ one-hour drive
Come back: In winter when the Dark Lord arises!
Hobnob with the less-than-corporate employees (read: beer-lovin' volunteers) at this Munster brewery, open to the public 4-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon-5 p.m. Saturday. Tours are little more than a quick look-see around the warehouse, but a handful of dedicated regulars will make it worth your while. Find them at the "bar," a square hole cut from the side wall. These friendly folks get paid in beer to run errands for the bosses and show you around the joint.
You'll want to lay down a fiver for a pint of your own. Try the Alpha King, Three Floyds' flagship beer described as a "hop lover's cult beer," with its Centennial, Cascade and Warrior hops. A handsome sit-down bar is in the works, but after a series of delays, nobody's holding their breath for opening night. With luck it will shape up in time for winter season, when people arrive from all over the country for a taste of the Dark Lord. This legendary Imperial Stout boasts several awards, as well as a walloping 13 percent alcohol by volume rate.
Two Brothers Brewing Company
Tours:1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays
Cost: free; includes samples
Distance: 40 miles west/ one-hour drive
Come back: When homebrew supplies run low.
These guys run a different kind of beer racket, providing traditional handcrafted beer styles that larger microbreweries sometimes skip. Call ahead to book a tour and you'll likely be treated to a private look-around with one of the brothers. Their facility is small, which means you are up close and personal with the equipment at all times. In addition to the basics of fermentation, filtration and packaging, these guys will cover any topic you bring up. Want to know more about Abbey-style beers made famous by Belgian monks? No problem.
Tours last anywhere from 20-45 minutes, and you'll get the chance to sample from Two Brothers' roster of brews that include The Bitter End, Ebel's Weiss and Prairie Path Ale. Aspiring brewmasters take note: An attached homebrew supplies store sells all the barley, hops, and yeast you'll need to brew and bottle your first batch. Two Brothers will tell you what you need to get started.