beer, History

Illinois: Right Here. Right Now.

From its German immigrants bringing their desire for and ability to brew lager, and the origin of powerful prohibition era organized crime families, to what is and isn’t a craft beer, Illinois has a deep history with beer.

In 1818, Illinois became the 21st state, and just 19 years later, Chicago was incorporated. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world at the time, and is now the third largest in the U.S. A major influence on its was the influx of Irish and German immigrants and it wasn’t long before these new residents clashed with the growing temperance movement that was sweeping the nation.

This first big clash started in the early 1850s. Disguised as prohibition, an anti-immigration platform was emerging, and Illinois had a staring role. As Maureen Ogle writes in Ambitious Brew:

Such was the case in Chicago after voters filled city hall with pro-temperance, anti-immigrant officials and the new mayor ordered a ban on Sunday drinking. The mostly native-born police force closed the city’s foreign-owned beer gardens, beerhalls, and taverns but turned a blind eye to “American” taverns that stayed open in violation of the law.

This ban inspired protests, which escalated into violence resulted in the Lager Beer Riot. In the end, the immigrants prevailed and it wasn’t long before the demand for beer quickly outpaced supply. And then, making things worse, the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed 19 breweries. But it wasn’t long before the brewers bounced back and Chicago quickly became a major player in the nation’s brewing scene.

Then came the Chicago Beer Wars of the roaring 20s, ushering in a violent era of organized crime that created mobsters such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.

From day one, Prohibition was not a widely supported cause. It was a war in its own right between rural Protestants and the nation’s urban (immigrant) citizens who were viewed as a threat. So, when prohibition came into effect, organized crime quickly stepped in to fill the void, resulting in powerful organizations that made a fortune bootlegging alcohol throughout the prohibition era. The organized crime speakeasy scene was so prolific during prohibition that at one point, Al Capone purchased more than 250,000 tapping heads from Anheuser-Busch.

With the repeal of prohibition, the state of brewing in Illinois remained status-quo for a few decades, with big nation breweries absorbing the smaller ones. Then came businessman John Hall in 1988 with a new brewpub, Goose Island. John Hall wanted to bring flavorful European beer to Chicago, and that desire has led to Chicago’s oldest brewing organization and eventually the next riot involving Chicago brewing.

When Goose Island first opened, they knew they had their work cut out for them. During the 1980s, the American public were not accustomed to the complex and flavorful beers typical of Europe. One of this blog’s collaborators was in Chicago when Goose Island opened:

I was working in Chicago when Goose Island opened, at the forefront of the great brewpub trend. It was a major event, beer people felt our day had come, although the brews at Goose Island and other brewpubs then were simple and straightforward compared to today’s

It didn’t take long for interest in Goose Island to establish a reputation of successful craft beer that allowed them to expand beyond the basics and continue their reach into brews with tradition and character. Their reputation of quality craft beer would continue for almost 25 years until March 28, 2011 when the company was sold to Anheuser-Busch, an event that quickly turned the wrath of the craft beer world onto one of its own.

One doesn’t have to look far to find articles about people up in arms over the Goose Island sale. While both good and bad opinions exist most trend to the bad, with the controversy boiling down to the definition of craft beer. According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewer is Small, independent and traditional. Because Goose Island is no longer independent, they no longer fit the definition, yet they still produce their own take on traditional beer, and their volume is up, but only to 2.1 million cases. Also, a review of the top 250 beers list shows Goose Island holding 2 of the top 15 spots, indicating that they are making coveted beer despite the controversy.

Eschewing all the controversy, this week, we are all in with Goose Island. From their stable, we will be sampling five different brews, 4 Vintage ales, and 1 Bourbon County.

Illinois Beer

Goose Island

Two of the most common brews available from Goose Island are their India Pale Ale, and the Honkers Ale. However with its purchase by InBev, these two lines are no longer brewed in Chicago, instead they are brewed by Anheuser-Busch in upstate New York. So we set our sights on some of their more interesting products that are actually brewed in Illinois.

The first beer we will sample this week is a beer called Sofie, one of the brews in Goose Island’s vintage line. Right from the start, this beer reminded me of champagne. It had a sweet and fruity smell with a very light body and a higher carbonation than most beers. One of the party classified it as “Looks and smells better than it tastes,” and another stated that “It would be great with spicy food.”

Illinois Beer

Goose Island Sofie

This beer, like the rest of the beers in the vintage line, seems to be marketed like a wine. The labels are clean and basic, and all use fonts that implies sophistication. The label for each brew in this series has a name, style and year, prominently displayed. In an era where the mass market beers are focusing on drink-by dates, it is nice to see a different kind of date on the label.

The next beer from the Vintage line that we sampled was the Pere Jacques. This beer was more caramel in color than the Sofie, and also had a sweet caramel smell to it. Tasting wise, this was the least-liked beer of the day, triggering comments like “Not into this” and “Tastes like burnt varnish.” Overall not an enjoyable beer, and it was quickly disposed of for the next sample.

Moving down the line, we opened the Matilda. This beer is brewed with the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces, so right from the start we knew this was going to be different. This beer was quickly pronounced the best of the three so far sampled. It had really interesting character and the use of the Brett was perfectly executed. Just enough to make it unique and interesting.

Illinois Beer

Goose Island Pepe Nero

The final beer in the vintage line for us was the Pepe Nero. Listed on the brewers website as having an aroma of roasted chestnuts, I found no distinguishable smell for this beer, however the flavor was great. 2 out of 4 of the party really enjoyed this beer and were quickly reaching for a second sample.

Prior to the invention of the stainless steel keg, all beer was brewed and shipped in wooden barrels. At that time, the brewers took extensive measures to ensure the barrels were free of any influencing flavors that could leak into the beer. Lately, the craft beer world has been taking barrel brewing in new directions, and trying to leverage the potential residue from the previous contents of the barrel. It is not uncommon to see beer aged in wine barrels, or bourbon barrels, both from varying amounts of time, allowing unique character and flavor to develop.

When I was purchasing the beer for this week, I was talking to the owner of the liquor store about Goose Island. Just as I was about to leave, he asked if I ever had Bourbon County. This is a brew that as of this writing is sitting at number 13 on the Beer Advocate top 250 beers list. I said that I have not, as it is really hard to find. With a wave of his hand, he summoned one of his employees to the back room and out came a single bottle. After paying more than I ever have for 10 oz. of beer, I was heading home with a bottle of Bourbon County Stout, our final sample of the week.

One sip has more flavor than your average case of beer

Illinois Beer

Bourbon County

“Wow, look at the legs!”, was the first comment as this beer was getting poured. Black as tar, with a viscosity of 50 weight motor oil, this beer had all the signs of something unique. The aroma was sweet, dessert sweet. The mouth feel was thick. Not maple syrup thick, but thicker than any other beer of the day, and by far the most interesting beer of the day. Quickly we heard “This needs chocolate,” and a block of 60% dark was chopped up and placed on the table. With that simple addition, the character of this beer quickly changed, and I now understood why this beer is so coveted.

Before the chocolate, this was a top 20ish beer, after the chocolate, a top 5.

In the end, Goose Island did us no wrong. Say what you about about what is or is not a craft beer, this week we sampled 5 different brews that were something special.

Next week, we head south to Alabama.


beer, Special Report

Craft Beer Summit at Riverwalk Brewery

Special Post: Craft Beer Summit

Craft Beer- Riverwalk Brewing

Riverwalk Brewing Company

I can’t think of a better way to start off the week, then with great craft beer and conversation. On February 25th, Riverwalk Brewery hosted a mini craft beer summit at their Newburyport brewery, bringing together a small group of local brewers, craft beer bloggers and enthusiasts to discuss the current happenings in the craft beer industry, all the while sampling various selections of local craft beer.

In general, the public still held to several beliefs about beer drinking. First, that it was better than drinking water. Second, that beer was a foodstuff and a healthful supplement to the entire family’s diet. And third, that beer drinking was an acceptable way to promote social discourse, with an overall positive impact on the community.

— Gregg Smith, Beer in America

When I started on this blogging project, I wanted to share in the adventure with anyone crazy enough to appreciate the undertaking. One evening, while picking up a weekend Growler at Riverwalk, my local brewery (Doesn’t everyone have a local producer of great craft beer?), I mentioned my blog, and almost immediately, I was offered assistance, if I needed any. I knew I would require some help later in the year, when the states get far away, and the distribution system vanishes, but I thought it would be fun to do some collaboration earlier in the year, so I asked them if they would like to host week 6, Massachusetts. The idea was that it would be interesting to have the brewers select craft beer from the state and talk about it.  From that idea, the craft beer summit was born, however due to scheduling issues, we couldn’t all get together until I was covering New Hampshire.

The evening started out with the requisite introductions, and then we dove straight into sampling a few different breweries from New Hampshire. One of the things I wanted to get out of this sampling was a better understanding of how a brewer would approach sampling a craft beer. Brewers spend their days, perfecting their art, monitoring the quality of their own products and as a result, they develop a unique eye towards the product that the general public does not have. I was looking forward to a glimpse into this world, so I asked Steve, the head brewer at Riverwalk, what he looks for when evaluating a beer. Just like you or I, most times, a brewer likes to just sit back and enjoy a beer. It can’t always be about work. But when he does turn his focus to the product, he likes to get into what a beer is all about, and this starts by classifying the beer.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Riverwalk Brewery – Uncle Bobs Bitter
Craft Beer - Uncle Bobs Bitter
As he was honing his craft, Steve from Riverwalk spent many hours traveling through Europe, experiencing, studying and learning from their brewing traditions. Uncle Bobs Bitter, a session ale, grew out of these travels. While in England, Steve experienced a variety of cask ales. A style of beer that is generally low in alcohol, at 4%, low in carbonation and very enjoyable. This beer is brewed with a lower carbonation to help establish a thicker mouthfeel, and coming in at 4.5% ABV, you can enjoy many pints of this beer.

Humans have a strong tendency to categorize. When we encounter something new, we like to place it in a category so we can better comprehend it, and craft beer is no exception. Walking down the beer isle, we are confronted with a large variety of craft beer styles, ranging from pale lagers to imperial stouts. It is these styles that help us establish a set of parameters so that we can communicate with each other about the beer. When someone tells you they had a wonderful IPA with dinner, you can easily picture what the beer was like, with its hop heavy taste and golden color. Using these parameters we can quickly get into the spirit of the beer, and better appreciate what it is all about.

The question about sampling craft beer was then turned to Matt from Review Brews, to see how as someone that writes about beer approaches the topic. Matt explained how his focus was less about the spirit of the beer, and more on the story of the beer and the brewer. His goal is to get to the inspiration of the beer and let the brewer tell the story. I loved hearing about this approach. There are plenty of review sites on the web today, but finding ones that look beyond the technical aspects of the beer and provide that link between the brewer and potential consumers, is a rare and necessary niche.

One of the things that makes this year-long blogging project interesting is that I am often constrained in the craft beer available from a specific state, and more than often I am forced to go with a beer style I wouldn’t normally choose for a typical weekend. In some instances, I have discovered amazing bottles of beer, but in others, I have found beer that I just couldn’t get into. Some of those hard to handle brews fall under the category of extreme beer, the next topic to come up at the summit.

The extreme beer movement is exemplified by Dogfish Head Brewery, with their slogan Off-centered stuff for off-centered People, Dogfish has brewed some crazy beer. Incorporating ingredients such as blue-green algae (to make a naturally green beer) and Botrytis-infected grapes, Dogfish has consistently pushed the boundaries of what could and should be included in a beer. It is this boundary exploration, and the use of  atypical ingredients, that established what is now referred to as extreme beer. This branch of craft beer brewing has increased yearly and has now grown large enough to have its own festival.

The general opinion of the brewers at the summit was that the extreme beer movement, while not a direction they intended to take any of their products, was definitely an important area for craft beer to explore. Brewing beer has always been, and always will be a healthy mix of art and science. And it is the art component that the extreme beer movement addresses. By constantly pushing the boundaries and testing the limits, new discoveries are made. And from the consumer point of view, there will always be a market for individuals willing to experience these boundaries, no matter how far they extend.

One point raised, that I completely agree with is that extreme beer should be sold in smaller bottles, making it easier to have the experience without the concern of wasting an otherwise expensive beer if the experience is unenjoyable.

While the extreme beer movement is on one end of the spectrum, the session beer movement sits on the other side of the craft beer movement, establishing its own fan base.

Beer Advocate has defined a session beer as:

Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.

In my experience, the session beer movement is really starting to take-off, and there are a few craft brewers in this area that have really embraced it. One particular beer that was mentioned at the summit was Tafelbier from Notch Brewing, and Riverwalk provided a sampling of their own session beer, called Uncle Bobs Bitter to help keep the topic on track.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Cape Ann Brewery – Fisherman’s Sunrise Saison
Craft Beer - Cape Ann Brewery
Nothing brings about excitement at a tasting more than an corked bottle, with no label. And that is just what TJ from Cape Ann brewing offered up (along with other tasty selections). We were presented with not one, but two different versions of their Sunrise Saison, a summer seasonal beer. Brewed with a blend of Strawberries and Rhubarb, this beer was fun to drink. The first version we had was a special concoction, brew specially for an area synagogue, for Purim. This version contained fresh pomegranate juice. The second version, without the pomegranate juice was aged for a year in Bordeaux barrels. Both of these beers were excellent and worth the trip to Cape Ann Brewery.

Another topic that came up, multiple times actually, was sales and marketing, and we covered a full range of sub-topics here, from labeling to availability to tap lines, and it was very interesting to hear about the issues, constraints and concerns within the industry. One of the more interesting conversations pertaining to sales was the various constraints imposed on the brewers within each state.

This region of New England is small, and with just 2 hours of driving in almost any direction, you can quickly be in a different state, making it simple for even for a small craft beer business to sell their product in multiple states. This does present a problem, as each state has completely different laws regarding alcohol sales. We heard stories about unknowingly trying to make sales in Maine without proper approval, to a brewer not being permitted to pour their own product at events in New York state.

This topic really hit a cord for me, and gets at the spirit of this blogging project. As I have been trying to acquire beer from each state, I have also had the opportunity to experience first hand the odd rules and regulations each state applies to alcohol. The quote that summed it up best was: We are a bunch of small countries.

Overall, the biggest theme that cut through every conversation was education. For too many years, the options available for beer has been very limited and controlled by a few very large breweries. By educating the bar and restaurant staff, and not just the customers, about craft beer, the brewers can help the consumers establish a better categorization of what this movement it is all about. Through these educational efforts, the craft brewers win in the end, because not only did they develop a better, more enjoyable beer. They also helped to free us, the consumers, from having to settle on a tasteless beer designed for satiating a large market audience.

All in all, it was a great night, with 13 different beers sampled, and a wide range of topics about the craft beer industry discussed, I am looking forward to doing it again soon.

Thanks to Matt from ReviewBrews, for the excellent conversation and the IPA from Tree House Brewery, that was some good stuff.  And thanks to Ryan from 2beerguys, for bringing in a barely 12 hour old Royal Impy Stout from Portsmouth Brewery, and providing insightful and excellent conversation. Be sure to check out both of their sites, for plenty of content on local craft beer and the craft beer industry.

Also, thanks to TJ and his wife, both from Cape Ann Brewing, not only did they bring along 3 excellent craft beers for us to try, they also kept the conversation lively, providing insight into the daily live of brewery work.

And a very special thanks to Alyssa and Steve at Riverwalk Brewing for organizing and hosting the event. The group of people they assembled made the night fun and educational, and the beer they provided was excellent.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Tree House Brewing – Julius
Craft Beer - Tree House Brewing
If there was one bottle at the sampling that brought intrigue, it was the bottle of IPA from Tree House Brewing. Brought to the event by Matt from ReviewBrews, this bottle, holding court at the center of the table, caught the eyes of everyone that entered the room. It was the most coveted sample of the night, and everyone couldn’t wait for the top to open. Oh, and when it did, it lived up to the expectations. The aroma from the hops was mind blowing, and amazed everyone on the room. The taste, oh, that wonderful taste, put this brewery on the top of my must visit brewery list. The brewers website says it all:
Bursting with 1.6 oz per gallon of American hops, Julius is loaded with notes of passionfruit, mango, and citrus.  At 6.5% alcohol, it is refreshing and freakishly drinkable.