The Chicago beer scene has experienced explosive growth in the last two decades, thanks partly to the rising popularity of craft beer. Chicago’s brewing community has it all, from the biggest names in the country to tiny experimental upstarts.
Whether you want to explore the downtown beer scene or venture out to the suburbs, you’re sure to find an exciting range of Chicago breweries. With more than 200 breweries in The Windy City and its diverse neighborhoods, we hand-picked the best Chicago breweries to visit.
What is a brewery?
A brewery is an establishment that brews and sells beer. The first tangible proof of beer brewing comes from the Sumerians around 4,000 BCE.
Brewing beer in America begins with the first settlement communities Dutch and English settlers established in the early to the mid-17th century. Their breweries were largely based on the rudimentary styles and techniques used in continental Europe at the time.
Dutch settlers quickly noticed that the terrain and climate of modern-day New York were just perfect not only for brewing beer but also for growing two of beer’s most important ingredients, hops and malt. A quick look at New Amsterdam’s 1660 map shows that the area had more than 26 taverns and breweries, a clear sign that making and selling beer were all the rage in the early American colonies.
Along with the early rise in beer popularity, distilled spirits and other alcoholic drinks also gained importance. By the turn of the 18th century, several non-beer alcoholic drinks overshadowed commercial beer production and selling.
From the 1650s through the Civil War, not much changed for the American beer industry. In fact, beer brewing and consumption remained a local affair for the most part of this period. Beer transport was difficult and bottling was quite expensive.
In the 17th century and 18th century, almost all beers produced in America were kept in wooden kegs, from which they were also served. Although numerous small breweries dotted all of America, it was quite common for households to make their own beer. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other founding fathers of America had their own at-home breweries.
The first commercial brewery in Chicago –Haas & Sulzer Brewery – was established in 1833 by German immigrants. It was bought by William Lill and Michael Diversey in 1841 and was soon renamed Lill and Diversey Brewery. Also called Chicago Brewery, it was known for making English-style porters, cream ale, and pale ale.
Lill and Diversey Brewery experienced massive success. By 1861, it had a workforce of more than 75 employees and produced around 45,000 beer barrels each year. The next brewery to enter Chicago’s beer-making scene was James Carney’s, which was established on a plot between Wabash Avenue and State Street in 1840.
Today, Chicago has well over 200 breweries, most of which are microbreweries and craft breweries.
What is Chicago’s beer culture like?
The beer culture in Chicago is well-established and ever-evolving. That doesn’t surprise beer aficionados much given that the Windy City plays host to 4 of the fifty fastest-growing breweries in America today. When you crunch the numbers, Chicago accounts for ten percent of the annual growth in craft breweries.
What’s more, figures from the Brewers Association show that Chicago has the largest concentration of top-performing craft breweries in the nation. This fact doesn’t come as a big surprise, considering that Chicago is America’s #1 when it comes to the number of breweries.
As of writing, Chicago houses around 219 breweries – the majority (150) are nestled in the suburbs, while the rest (79) are found within the city’s central business center. That means it edges over Denver, Seattle, and San Diego with 158, 153, and 150, respectively.
Even more fascinating is the fact that the city has seen its number of breweries more than double in less than a decade. This uptick took Chicago from the 5th position with only 62 breweries in 2013 to having an enormous lead over Los Angeles, New York, and other heavily populated cities in America.
Chicagoland not only houses some of the top-performing and fastest-growing breweries in the nation, but it’s also the city where some of the best beers are found.
What is special about Chicagoland Breweries?
Whether you’re making a pit-stop at the Windy City on your way elsewhere or are visiting Chicagoland for a few days, there is plenty to love about the Chicago brewery scene. What’s so special about Chicago breweries?
– Chicagoland has terrific beer
When you think of Chicago, your mind probably wanders to deep-dish pizza or hot dogs. But the city’s beers are also memorable. We’re going to stick our neck out here and say that no other city in America can beat Chicago’s beer.
Here you will find a dizzying range of the world’s best beers all in one city. For instance, if you haven’t tasted authentic German beer, you gotta run to Chicago and have a sip of this world-beating brew.
The city also offers an array of unique and exciting beer styles that will knock your socks off. From Daisy Cutter and Alpha King to Bourbon County Stout and Anti-Hero, Chicagoland breweries sure know how to whip up the best-sounding and most heavenly-tasting beer.
– Chicago breweries make superb event venues
Whether you’re planning an after-hour corporate event or organizing an off-site meeting, Chicago breweries offer unique venues. Ditch the standard reception halls and board rooms for these brewery spots and your guests will talk about your meeting/event for a long time.
What’s more, Chicagoland breweries provide a range of complementary activities that help promote networking and team building, such as beer tasting, cocktail classes, brewery tours, and much more.
– Chicagoland is America’s number one beer city
If that seems like a bold statement to make, we have numbers to back up our claim. Chicago is the #1 city in America for a number of breweries, outperforming popular beer destinations like Denver, San Diego, Portland, and even Seattle to clinch the first spot. Did you know there are over 200 (and counting) breweries within the city limits?
Around 60 new breweries, most of which are craft brewers, were established in Chicago in just the past five years. That massive influx of breweries speaks volumes about Chicago’s beer scene, especially from a historical context.
– Chicago suburbs and neighborhoods are brewery havens
Sure, the city’s downtown has some of the best breweries in the US, but the real magic happens in Chicago’s diverse suburbs and neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods in Chicagoland have one or a couple of breweries within a stone’s-throw of each other. That makes sense considering that Chicago is America’s beer capital.
The suburbs in Chicago are also full of superb breweries. If you don’t want to deal with the hustle and bustle of the city center, you can head to your favorite neighborhood and still check out a diverse selection of breweries, each with its own unique character, appeal, and charm.
– Chicagoland beer scene has far more just breweries
Chicago breweries are located in spots that offer much more to see and experience. The city plays host to some of the best pubs and restaurants in the US. Chicago’s nightlife and fine dining scenes are something to write home about, too.
Whether you love the taste of good beer or want to experience the city’s beer history firsthand, Chicago has got you covered. The Windy City has plenty of brewpubs, bars, taprooms, hot dog stands, and eateries dotting the cityscape.
– Chicago has plenty of homebrew clubs
Your beer tours don’t have to end at breweries. If you’re an avid beer fan who wants to explore homebrew clubs, you’re in for a special treat. Home-brewing has been a big part of the beer tradition in Chicago for many decades. Homebrew clubs like CHAOS and Square Kegs are sure to complement your Chicago brewery expedition.
– Chicago is home to a host of beer festivals
You might be surprised that beer festivals are held in Chicago nearly every other week. These festivals have become part and parcel of the Chicago lifestyle. The majority of beer festivals are held in Chicago breweries and center around exhilarating beer themes like barrel-aged beers, wood beers, etc.
– Chicago is home to one of the best brewing schools
Besides all the excitement you’ll enjoy when visiting Chicago breweries, homebrew pubs, and beer festivals, you can cap off your journey by heading to the Siebel Institute of Technology. It’s one of the most highly regarded brewing institutes in America.
What to look for in your next Chicago brewery experience
The Chicago brewery scene offers a nice blend of big players, microbreweries, craft beer companies, brewpubs, and a new breed of small upstarts. The experiences they offer are as varied as they’re diverse. Here are some important points to look for when planning your next Chicago brewery experience:
– It all comes down to having fun
If you’re willing to pay a pretty penny to tour Chicago breweries, the chances are high that you’re an avid beer enthusiast. Even so, the brewery tour should be fun and exciting. Being able to engage with master brewers, drink from the tanks, and get the fun facts about the brewery can take your tour to a whole new and exhilarating level.
– Experienced tour guides can make a huge difference
The guides can make all the difference when it comes to enjoying a pleasant Chicago brewery experience. Make sure the tour guide is knowledgeable, passionate, and engaging. It should be someone who knows the brewery like the back of their hand. Knowledge of beer styles, history, beer-making processes, and other insider nuggets of info can make the tour all the more enjoyable.
– Enthusiastic staff
Your Chicago brewery tour will be more exciting if the staff is engaging and enthusiastic about showcasing all the awesome stuff they have. After all, the most exciting part of any brewery tour is learning all about the cool toys and beer-making styles they use.
– Up-close experience with beer-making equipment
A brewery tour is never complete without getting an opportunity to see and get close to the master brewer’s best tools and equipment. You don’t want to see them behind a glass wall or on a projected video. You want to see and experience what’s happening behind the scenes of beer-making and get a firsthand feeling.
– Ability to sample some of the brewery’s best products
You will want to taste and savor some of the brewery’s best beer, especially new products, on your tour. This opportunity to sample products is the highlight of any Chicago brewery experience. This part of the tour is non-negotiable.
– Is the brewery pet or children-friendly?
When planning your next brewery tour in Chicago, determine in advance if you are allowed to bring your comfort animal or kids. The good news is that most Chicago brewery tours are pet and children-friendly. You will likely see kids at nearly all Chicago breweries you visit.
Be that as it may, it pays to remember that a brewery is a manufacturing facility with distillery tanks, moving components, and sharp stuff. While some tasting areas are far removed from the steaming barrels and tanks, others are in plain sight and within your children’s reach.
For that reason, we urge you to look for breweries with plenty of play space for kids, such as grassy patches, patios, and so on.
– Additional activities
Many breweries know that the tours are not all about beer. It takes more than that to get people to sign up for their tours, especially during weekdays. That’s why they offer a variety of additional activities to sizzle up your tour and improve the brewery touring experience.
What are the top favorite beers offered in Chicago Breweries?
Not only are some of the best breweries in the nation found in Chicagoland but they also offer some of the nation’s favorite beers. Here are the top favorites:
– Bourbon County Brand Stout
Made by Goose Island Beer Company, a Chicago brewery located in Lincoln Park, Bourbon County Brand Stout is touted (pun intended) as the best beer in the city. The 11.0% ABV beer doesn’t just look superb; it also tastes great with its chocolaty and cola notes. That’s partly thanks to the fact that the beer is aged in a blend of bourbon barrels.
– Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
Daisy Cutter Pale Ale is the work of Half Acre Beer Co., which opened in North Center in late 2009. The beer is a west coast-esque pale ale that’s rich, bitter, and sharp with notes of grapefruit and pine.
– Flywheel Pilsner Bier
Pilsner beer hasn’t gained much traction among American beer drinkers. Metropolitan Brewing is changing that with its sharp, crisp, and slightly bitter flywheel pilsner beer. Flywheel is finding its way into a growing number of IPA craft brewers.
– Top-Heavy Hefeweizen
The gold winner at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, top-heavy Hefeweizen is a creamy golden wheat beer with bright notes of cloves and fruit. It’s brewed by the Piece Brewery and Pizzeria on North Avenue.
– Ninja Vs. Unicorn
A product of Pipeworks Brewing Co., Ninja vs. Unicorn is an award-winning double IPA that delights your tastebuds with a bomb of hops. It’s slightly chewy and thick.
– Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner
Here’s another favorite pilsner beer that has become the talk of the town. Created by master-brewer Jared Rouben, this beer made by Moody Tongue is earthy, savory, and nutty to boot with a bit of a briny zing.
If you love the taste of Miller High Life, then you’ll love this tarty beer from Off Color Brewing at North Kingsbury. It’s been dubbed the “champagne of beers.”
– Malevolence Chocolate Caliente Russian Imperial Stout
If you’re after an inventive beer, you won’t go wrong with the Malevolence Chocolate Caliente Russian Imperial Stout. It’s a palate-sizzling blend of ancho chili and fudgy mocha aged in barrels.
– Anti-Hero IPA
If there’s one craft beer that’s loved by Chicagoans, it is Anti-Hero IPA from Revolution Brewing. The Avondale-based Chicago brewery annually churns out more than 82,000 barrels of this beer. It entices your taste buds with the sweetness of caramel and toffee, along with the bitterness of grapefruit and pine.
What are Chicago’s best brewing neighborhoods?
Chicago is considered the brewery capital of America. Nearly every northside neighborhood, a few southside ones, and numerous suburbs claim at least one awesome brewery. We’ve highlighted below some of the best brewing neighborhoods in Chicago.
– West Town and West Loop
The city’s western neighborhoods are home to one of the most prominent Chicago breweries: Goose Island. Not only that: the region’s vibrant industrial atmosphere is perfect for a new crop of upstarts that include a Mexican-themed cerveceria and botanical-influenced breweries.
– Downtown (plus the South Loop)
The downtown is best known for being Chicago’s tourist attraction and museums hub. It’s also where you will meet a burgeoning list of Chicago’s best breweries. The city’s center area, including the Loop and South Loop, is home to more breweries than any other part of Chicago.
– Lake View and Lincoln Park
These residential neighborhoods are prized for their scenic lakeside views and charming atmosphere. Add a series of amazing brewpubs and local breweries, and Lake View and Lincoln Park may as well be the hottest brewing destinations in Chicago.
– Bridgeport and Pilsen
You probably associate Bridgeport and Pilsen with Michelin-starred restaurants and fascinating histories. The neighborhoods also house an array of some of the coolest craft beer brewers. You can rest assured you’ll get an authentic taste of Chicago’s renowned craft beer scene here.
– Ravenswood Corridor
The area is called Malt Row, and for good reason. It’s Chicago’s hub for local craft beer. If you’re a big fan of craft beers, this is one neighborhood you must visit.
– Wicker Park and Logan Square
Wicker Park and Logan Square are some of the hippest neighborhoods in Chicago, and they boast some of the most terrific craft beer spots. Visit this area to catch the reasons for the hype.
– Beverly and Pullman
If you want to beat the crowds, you’re sure to find small and unique Chicago breweries in Beverly, Pullman, and other adjacent southside neighborhoods.
Tips to drink beer like an expert
If you didn’t know it already, drinking beer should be an art. Here are some top tips on how to drink beer like an expert:
- Pick your beer wisely – For a fuller body, opt for an ale, while stout will deliver a fantastic creamy taste. Porter beer is darker and rich; wheat and lager beers are lighter and crisper. If you fancy a hop-heavy brew, bitter beers should be your go-to.
- Pair with a nice meal – Salad and fish go with light beers, for instance.
- Use the right glass – Why drink the world’s best beer from a plastic cup, when you can use a specialized pint glass, mug, tulip glass, goblet, beer stein, pilsner glass, or Weizen glass?
- Do it the right way – You must first look and appreciate the color of the beer before smelling and then taste the beer.
- Pour it out the correct way – Always pour your beer down the side of the glass at a 45-degree angle.
- It is all about aromas – Lagers often have bready malt or tangy aroma. IPAs boast a wide array of notes, ranging from floral to pine aromas.
- Don’t leave your beer out to become stale and warm – Drink the whole bottle or can in one sitting once it is opened.