The difficulty in choosing a favorite beer lies somewhere between choosing a favorite movie and a favorite child, with the answer inevitably becoming “It depends.” If I want something both flavorful and refreshing while munching on potato skins at an outdoor bar, I’ll grab an amber ale. On the other hand, if I’m drinking before noon because it’s tailgating season, St. Patrick’s Day, or my friend Dave is in town, then I’ll go with a coffee stout. Even when restricting the pool of beers to those brewed in Chicago, there are too many great options to choose one beer for all occasions. What emerges when breaking it down by season, though, is a Mt. Rushmore of Chicago beer (with a surprise fifth champion sticking out of the surface nearby).
Note: Here is a quick rundown of beer terms that I’ll be using for those who are new to the craft beer world.
- Malt is the grain used in the brewing process, and malt gives beer its color and flavor. Most of the time, breweries use malted barley. If another grain is used, like rye or wheat, it is usually indicated in the beer’s name (e.g. 312 Urban Wheat Ale or Cain and Ebel Red Rye Ale).
- Hops provide beer with its bitterness. Hops from different regions have different flavors; beers from the West Coast of the United States are known for a citrusy character, while European hops are earthier. A beer’s International Bitterness Units (IBUs) can tell you the hoppiness, and therefore the bitterness, of the beer.
- Alcohol by Volume (ABV) tells you the alcohol content in a beer. I recommend that you keep an eye on this, as a craft beer may have double or even triple the alcohol content of a typical American light beer.
In the Fall: Two Brothers Domaine Dupage French Country Ale
My uncle, paraphrasing a brewmaster at Anheuser Busch, says that beer is the bridesmaid and food is the bride—don’t outshine the bride. With its combination of smoothness and flavor, resulting from a perfect combination of hops and malt, Domaine Dupage is a versatile beer that will compliment nearly any meal without overpowering it. This versatility allows it to pair nicely with everything on your family’s Thanksgiving spread while also handling the massive swings in Chicago’s autumn weather.
Click here to see Two Brothers’ locations.
Keeping Warm: Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout
I typically go for a bourbon-barrel beer in the winter, but I make an exception for Two Brothers’ seasonal stout. I oftentimes feel that craft breweries overdo it with hops and inevitably overpower the malt. Two Brothers seems to have solved that problem with Northwind. By combining a lot of hops with a dark, complex stout, they’ve managed to create a heavy, complex beer that remains remarkably drinkable and balanced. It’s a perfect companion to keep you warm through cold, dark Chicago winters.
In the Spring: Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
While the craft beer market is oftentimes associated with India Pale Ales (IPAs), Chicago’s craft beer scene has some great beers in the broader pale ale category. This is great news for budding craft beer drinkers, as true IPAs can taste like a ground-up plant to the unaccustomed. History lesson: IPAs were the pale ales the English shipped to India; in order to last the full journey, the beers were loaded with extra hops as a preservative. Thus, IPAs are comparatively hoppy beers. In general, beers simply labeled as a pale ale have a noticeable, albeit moderate, hop character and a pale color.
Pale ales, particularly those with citrusy hops from the West Coast of the United States, remind me of spring. They’re crisp, clean, and the hops bring out the feeling of nature coming back to life without overpowering the palate. Chicago has several beers that fit this bill: Two Brothers Pinball, Goose Island Green Line, and Revolution Fist City, just to name a few of the most popular brews. For me, Daisy Cutter from Half Acre strikes the best balance of bringing out great hop character without compromising on drinkability. Plus, let’s be honest – the name and can design definitely remind you of spring.
Click here to see Half Acre’s locations.
Dealing with the Heat: Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale
When it’s warm outside, I tend to turn to wheat ales (if you prefer an even lighter-bodied Pilsner or Kolsch, I don’t fault you). Many of the most popular wheat ales balance the distinct wheat taste with citrus, as is the case with Blue Moon or Bell’s Oberon. Lagunitas puts a different spin on the wheat ale by throwing in extra hops. The result is a yummy and refreshing summer beer. At over 7% ABV, however, be careful if you’re drinking several of them out in the hot sun.
Blast from Seasons Past: Toppling Goliath PseudoSue
While Toppling Goliath is technically not a Chicago brewery, and the Cretaceous period lasted much longer than a season, PseudoSue is made in partnership with a Chicago institution in the Field Museum, so I’ll let it slide. It’s a well-made pale ale that goes down great when you feel the need to get off your feet during a day at one of Chicago’s signature attractions.
Find PseudoSue at the Field Bistro at the Field Museum.
One of my favorite aspects of craft beer is its versatility. Beer styles are so unique, and breweries differ so greatly in their interpretations of those styles, that there is something for everyone. The fun really starts, however, when you go beyond asking “What kind of beer do I like?” to “What kind of beer would I like right now?” This list goes to show that for any Chicago season or setting, you can be sure that there is a great Chicago beer to pair it with.