There are two ways to quickly understand a new city; take a walking tour, or sample some beer from local craft breweries. Some cities have several beer companies concentrated in a small area, so it’s possible to do both at the same time. Examples of such places can be found in Wynwood in Miami, South of Route 66 in downtown Flagstaff, and Malt Row in Chicago.
In 2017, the Greater Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce realized that their Northern Chicago Neighborhood was home to the largest concentration of microbreweries in Illinois and decided to capitalize on this. The concept that they came up with was Malt Row, an area of just over one mile with breweries that all have a different approach to creating craft beer. With a Michelin-Starred brewpub, a restaurant that specializes in gourmet hot dogs, an award-winning Neapolitan Pizzeria and more; the Chicago Malt Row comes across almost like a posh pub crawl in a more quiet part of Chicago.
Starting at the most Southern point and easily accessed via the nearby Irving Park Station is Begyle Brewing, the first brewery on Malt Row. This brewpub is Chicago’s first Community Supported Brewery; an initiative inspired by farms that provide organic, often Heirloom produce to a committed base of customers at less than market price. As such, customers can purchase a membership at Begyle Brewing that gives them access to a growler of beer every month as well as other discounts at the brewery. While enjoying some of their standard taproom fare like Free Bird American Pale Ale, it’s not uncommon to see members coming in for a quick growler refill and maybe a conversation about an upcoming release.
I enjoyed a Flannel Pajamas Oatmeal Stout followed by Imperial Pajamas, a version with double the grain as well as added Ipsento Wildfire Espresso that is then aged in Bourbon barrels. It was still morning, so a breakfast stout followed by an Imperial breakfast stout made sense before heading to the next brewery.
Just a block to the north is the next destination on Malt Row, Dovetail Brewery. This company takes inspiration from the traditional beer making methods used in small breweries in Germany and Belgium. They serve several sour beers that are spontaneously fermented so they get their lactic tang from naturally occuring wild yeast strains, and additional sour notes from fruit added to the mash. This might include Balaton cherries or ripe raspberries that they source from a small farm in Michigan.
Many of their beers also get their complexity and character through the use of smoked grain. Their limited editions X01 Flanders Rauch, and X02 Wild Table Beer capture the pinnacle of their brewing abilities in annually released bottles. The first of these, X01 Flanders Rauch is a blend of a Franconian inspired smoked lager and Belgian-style sour aged in an oak barrel for almost three years. It has an aroma that is reminiscent of rain drizzling on a freshly burnt field and a character that is tart and smoky.
A few blocks west is the Lincoln Avenue location for the Half Acre Beer Company; one of the first breweries to open in this area and a popular spot for locals to grab some food and a beer. Their most popular beer is Daisy Cutter, a dry pale ale with a sweet finish of citrus zest and ripe papaya. The company also brews stronger versions of Daisy Cutter and uses the recipe as the base for experimentation with different varieties of hops. The result of this is the occasional seasonal variant like Riwaka Double Daisy Cutter, Nelson Double Daisy Cutter or Fully Saturated Double Daisy Cutter.
Many of the limited edition cans from Half Acre are available exclusively at their Lincoln Avenue location, so I could not pass up the chance to pick up something interesting. Life Cycle is a golden ale brewed in collaboration with the Brussels Beer Project in Belgium. It was the perfect addition to my collection of cans that I held on to from different breweries that I visited in the last few weeks.
Continuing North is Band of Bohemia, possibly the most spoken about spot on the Malt Row. It’s the first brewpub in the world to earn the most coveted culinary award; a Michelin Star. Like any other Michelin Star restaurant, their service, setting and attention to detail is impeccable, but the biggest drawing point is a seasonal tasting menu with an optional house made beer pairing. With over one hundred Michelan star restaurants in Chicago, the beer is the obvious highlight at Band of Bohemia and a flight of five beers seemed like the ideal choice before heading to the next brewery on Malt Row.
Their India Pale Ale pays homage to the Bohemian love of India and is brewed with a gruit of oriental spices including cardamom, coriander and cloves, as well as roasted grapes and kaffir lime leaves. Jasmine Rice continues the eastern flavor experience; it’s brewed with the eponymous ingredient as well as Vienna Malt and is minimally hopped so that the aromatic mashbill dominates the character. Their flagship, The Noble Raven Ale is a well-crafted combination of German and Belgian Malt, and Hallertauer hops and designed to be a simple session beer. More interesting is Cocoa Bay, a dark ale brewed with Ecuadorian cocoa nibs grown at high elevation, dried figs, and leaves of the Pimenta racemosa, a West Indian plant species often referred to at the bay rum tree. Despite the dark color, this ale is designed to be a summertime sipper that is similar to the tropical stouts brewed in the Caribbean.
The next step on this beer journey is Empirical Brewery, named not for a sovereign state governed by an emperor, but rather for the scientific study of repeated observations, the Empirical process. The brewery uses a small single barrel system to experiment with new styles or refine current recipes. Customer feedback determines what stays and what goes, so the brew team is able to make beer for the people determined by science.
Proton No Coast IPA combines the resinous pine notes of West Coast IPA brewing methods and the juicy, floral notes associated with East Coast IPAs, and the name is also a tongue in cheek reference to Chicago’s Midwest location. Their flagship beer is Cold Fusion Cream Ale, a beer that is slightly sweet with an almost cider-like crisp finish. Also popular is Lumen Unfiltered Lager. Brewed with Pilsner malt and flaked corn as a response to the growing popularity of craft lagers, it’s somewhat similar to other quality lagers like Veza Sur Latin Lager or Sierraveza from Sierra Nevada.
The final stop on Malt Row is Spiteful Brewing, their menu starts by listing India Pale Ales and Lagers, but soon reveals a significant amount of stouts on tap. In fact, there are more stouts than lagers and ales combined, and the first beer that they ever sold was a stout. Mrs O Leary’s Milk Stout is reminiscent of chocolate cake, and there’s a version on tap that introduces tart raspberries that add some complexities to the creaminess. They also serve an Imperial Stout called Hostile Harry with two variants on tap, the first has the addition of locally roasted coffee, cinnamon, and vanilla, while the other has cacao nibs and chili flakes.
Malt Row might seem like a marketing gimmick created out of convenience; but the reality is that every brewery included has a unique approach to doing the same thing; creating delicious craft beer. Begyle and Empirical are both focused on deep relationships with the community but they do it in different ways. At Half Acre and Band of Bohemia it’s possible to enjoy beer and food that’s almost art. Spiteful and Dovetail are both the stories of two friends brewing beer that they first enjoyed outside of Chicago. Individually, these breweries are all great, but collectively they become a craft beer experience worthy of any beer lover visiting Chicago.