Chicago has always been serious about beer. The first time the city's residents took to the streets was during the Lager Beer Riot of 1855, provoked by new (and nativist) temperance legislation. Today's Chicagoans certainly have no cause for rioting: the city hosts a sizable cohort of first-rate craft brewers.
Still, the burgeoning beer scene in contemporary Chicago hasn't quite reached the fever pitch of the mid-19th-century, when waves of immigrants from Germany and Ireland brought with them a powerful thirst and old-country brewing know-how. The conditions were perfect: the nation's grain came through Chicago, and the city also had access to Lake Michigan's free water. Breweries proliferated. But competitors in Milwaukee and St. Louis were successfully shipping beer to Chicago even before the Civil War, and those out-of-town breweries fought ferociously for every customer. Beginning in 1919, Prohibition eroded brand loyalties among customers, and local bootlegging—the infamous Al Capone years of the 1920s and early '30s—handicapped Chicago breweries for the brutal post-Prohibition free market and outside competitors' national advertising. By the time of World War II, Chicago brewers were stumbling along; by the late 1970s, the city that had once been home to more than 60 commercial breweries had none.
Despite a few attempts, no brewery succeeded in Chicago until 1995, when Goose Island Beer Company, which had operated a beloved brewpub since 1988, began bottling its own brew. Its immediate success was startling: Chicagoans were eager for a hometown beer. Goose Island wasn't alone for long. Three Floyds Brewing—though technically in Munster, Indiana, just across the border from Chicago—is frequently rated among the top craft breweries in the country for its hop-heavy beers. In the western suburbs, the always eclectic Two Brothers Brewing Company has just celebrated its tenth anniversary by releasing a kriek (sour cherry) beer called 10, the first in a new line of beers in the Belgian lambic style, fermented with wild yeasts.
Chicago also boasts a few of the greatest beer bars in the country. Standouts among the city's wealth of brewpubs include the Map Room and the Hopleaf. In fact, some of the city's best beer is available in bars only: the house drafts at Piece Brewery & Pizzeria and suburban Flossmoor Station Brewery are as complex and creative as those of the best American craft breweries.
GOOSE ISLAND BOURBON COUNTY STOUT ($20 for a 4-pack)
This is a tour de force, a beer that pours like motor oil and looks like Elizabeth Taylor's hair with dark brown highlights. After 100 days in bourbon barrels, it has an explosive nose: smoke, dark chocolate, espresso beans, vanilla. The 11 percent alcohol level is well disguised by a smooth, round body and a finish that lasts for several minutes. Let it almost reach room temperature: if drunk too cold, it tastes like an alcoholic chocolate shake. (That reminds us: this beer makes a phenomenal ice cream float.)
GOOSE ISLAND HONKER'S ALE ($8 for a 6-pack)
The beer that dominates Chicago's tap handles, Honker's Ale is a supremely well made English bitter with an extra wheelbarrow of hops thrown in. Its toasty malt background is brought into focus by a backbone of citrusy hops. Honker's Ale is what beer geeks call a session beer: the alcohol level is low enough that you can drink a few without losing it.
GOOSE ISLAND MATILDA ($10 for a 4-pack)
Goose Island's painstaking tribute to Orval, the great Belgian Trappist beer, is brewed with actual Orval yeast. Matilda has a deep golden color and a warm nose of tangerine, honey, and cloves. Its mouth-feel is lacy, delicate, and light. An extraordinarily pretty beer, Matilda is an American-brewed Belgian that competes with the originals.
THREE FLOYDS ALPHA KING ($9 for a 6-pack)
Three Floyds is famous for its exuberant embrace of hops, and Alpha King, the flagship pale ale, has gorgeous, sharp-edged hop character. But its secret is its ample and surprisingly dense malt body, which brings the flavor into perfect balance.
THREE FLOYDS DREADNAUGHT IMPERIAL IPA ($16 for a 22-oz. bottle)
The id of Three Floyds Brewing, the Dreadnaught IPA hits the palate with an onslaught of hops: fruity, piney, and astonishingly bitter. But the Dreadnaught, whose alcohol level approaches 10 percent, also has a sumptuous, nearly viscous texture and a redemptive layer of malt that sweetens the finish.
TWO BROTHERS DOMAINE DUPAGE ($9 for a 6-pack)
A bière de garde, a style that's brewed in northern France, the Domaine DuPage has a creamy mouth-feel crowded with fresh, sweet malt and a very bready taste—somewhere between that of a biscuit and that of a multigrain loaf. It's not flashy, but it's an excellent food beer and emblematic of the brewery's commitment to overlooked beer styles.