Beer and wine

San Diego Brewery Ballast Point Comes to Chicago

Photo by Marcin Cymmar.

Earlier this summer, California brewery Ballast Point opened a brew pub in the West Loop at 212 N Green St. It’s the brewery’s second venture outside of its home state; the first was a Virginia brew pub that opened in 2017. In addition to an expansive lineup of Ballast Point beers, customers can purchase R&D beers produced in the three-barrel brewing room that sits, enclosed in glass, at the front of the building. For craft beer fans, the unique opportunity to test these small batch beers will assuredly be a major part of the brew pub’s draw.

When I first checked out the brewery in June, brewing manager Keith Faust was using the brewing system to work on a New England-style session IPA, “A Passing Haze.” Reflecting on the brewery’s first locally brewed selection, he said,

It was a huge hit and went extremely fast. We already have a new batch of it in the tanks that should be ready in a couple of weeks. This beer is low in AVB yet huge in flavor. The beer is hopped exclusively very late in the brewing process, which gives it a very juicy hop character with little to no bitterness. Flaked malts make up over 30% of the grain bill, giving the beer a very soft mouthfeel that plays well with the juicy hops.   

Photo by Marcin Cymmar.

Since then they’ve also tapped a “brut” style IPA. Of that beer, Keith said,

This new style utilizes an enzyme that makes all the available sugars fermentable by the yeast, resulting in a very dry and crisp beer that is deceptively light for its 7.0% ABV. This beer is citrus forward with tropical fruit notes and a light and refreshing body.

Ballast Point is most famous for its Sculpin’ IPA, so it’s unsurprising that they would choose to experiment within the IPA style. The easy-drinking approach matches the season, and I’m interested to see how they change things up for fall and winter brews.

From the timeline on the exterior windows facing Green Street, to the nautical artwork by resident artist Paul Elder that adorns the interior walls, Ballast Point uses the space to tell its story to a new, Midwestern audience. Inside, the many seats around a rectangular bar allow bartenders to tell Ballast Point’s story themselves. When I ordered a California Amber Ale, for example, the bartender informed me that it was the first beer that Ballast Point made. Faust relayed the full story to me:

California Amber is the modern-day version of Ballast Point’s very first brew in 1996, Ballast Point Copper Ale. It’s the first beer we won any major awards for (back-to-back gold at ‘1 GABF and ’02 World Beer Cup) and is one of our crew’s favorites. It’s an English ESB-inspired beer, but with an American twist. Four types of malts give it a bold complexity, and our proprietary yeast strain lends it a fruity madeira-like richness. However, it’s the American hops that give this ale a distinct bite and floral aroma.

Photo by Marcin Cymmer.

While Ballast Point’s story is well-told, it’s not necessarily unique. Like so many other American craft breweries that opened their doors a generation ago, it started humbly. In its case, it was a small group of home brewers whose startup brewery grew with the craft beer movement. Then, it was purchased by Constellation Brands in the run from 2012 to 2015 that saw so many craft breweries, like Chicago’s own Goose Island, purchased by the large breweries that they had long juxtaposed.

This combination of craft beer history and big beer cash explains how Ballast Point can genuinely espouse a home brew, DIY ethos while also opening a state-of-the-art R&D brew pub in one of Chicago’s hottest neighborhoods. This home brew narrative is most evident in the Roots to Boots Program, though which Ballast Point employees can try their hands at their own beer recipes. Some Roots to Boots beers turn out so well that they become mainstays. In fact, the following beers on the Chicago draft list came about because of the Roots to Boots program at Ballast Point’s Little Italy R&D Brewery in San Diego:

  • Bonito Blonde
  • Sea Rose Cherry Wheat Ale
  • The Commodore American Stout
  • Russian Imperial Stout
  • Manta Ray Double IPA

So far, the combination of small beer attitude and big beer money seems to be working in the West Loop. Young professionals in business casual attire steadily filled the place during the hour and a half or so that I was there. Most were clearly there for the beer, although enough ordered food that the menu may yet become part of the draw (if you happen to stop in, I recommend the Bavarian pretzel). If the beer and food don’t do the trick for some, perhaps the recently opened rooftop deck will seal the deal.

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