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The essential Chicago brewery for out-of-town visitors? We have some answers


Chicago — It started, as many things do, with a text message: “If you had a friend coming to town and had to recommend one Chicago brewery to hit, what would you recommend?”

The question was at once simple and impossible to answer.

Like Chicago’s restaurant scene, its robust brewing landscape is best thought of as a tapestry, a series of visions and approaches offering experiences that complement each other. No one eats at only one restaurant; why visit only one brewery?

But when visiting from out of town, time is fleeting. Choices must be made. While it’s difficult to point someone toward just one of the Chicago area’s 220 or so breweries, I forged a quick answer — actually a few of them, depending on the beer drinker in question.

All are open for indoor customers, and all but one have outdoor spaces with various degrees of heating. And don’t forget a mask — the state still requires them indoors unless guests are actively eating or drinking.

With a holiday season that ushered in at least somewhat of a return to normal (thanks, COVID-19 vaccines!), here are picks for the “one Chicago brewery to hit” when there’s only time for one.

The best bet: Revolution Brewing

This was a quick and intuitive pick, and that’s because of what a one-stop brewery must provide: a broad range of styles made well.

Revolution’s production brewery is among the city’s largest and older breweries — it opened in 2012 — and it uses its size and expertise to its advantage. Its 20 taps maintain a varied and proficient lineup, from bright lagers to an array of pale ales and India pale ales, to the city’s finest roster of weighty and warming barrel-aged beers. There’s also virtually everything in between; Revolution has recently tapped (or will tap in the near future) a saison, a brown ale, an English mild, a porter, a red ale, a bock and ... I could go on.

Revolution’s taproom in the Avondale neighborhood has something for everyone, and it’s almost certainly going to be well-made. As a bonus, a glass wall separates the taproom from the brewery, providing a peek into the backroom operations where your beer was made.

If you’re visiting one brewery, you can’t ask for anything more.

3340 N. Kedzie Ave., 773-588-2267,  revbrew.com.  No outdoor seating. 

The deeper-in-the-weeds best bet: Off Color Mousetrap

Off Color’s beer menu may be less instantly familiar than Revolution’s — you’ll be hard-pressed to find an IPA — but it’s still packed with an array of options: light and bright, dark and malty, funky and sour.

It’s the funky and sour (and general use of arcane ingredients) where Off Color most distinguishes itself from other Chicago breweries. But that doesn’t keep it from also being accessible to all tastes. And the quality is generally unimpeachable.

If your out-of-towner has a particularly acute knowledge of beer and delights in a unique point of view, take them here. Outdoor seating on the patio is first-come, first-served, and guests are welcome to bring food from elsewhere, so you can impress them twice in one go.

1460 N. Kingsbury St., 312-929-2916,  offcolorbrewing.com

The best ‘beer that tastes like beer’ bet: Metropolitan Brewing or Dovetail Brewery

Some people just want beer to taste like what they think beer should taste like — no flashy or showy extremes, whether bitter, fruity, sweet or beyond. And by that, they mean lagers.

Lagers have finally taken their rightful place as a core offering from the nation’s small and local brewers, and the two Chicago breweries most often credited with forging the return to basics are Metropolitan, which launched in 2009, and Dovetail, which opened in 2016.

Both offer a unique twist: Metropolitan with a revolving nitro coffee beer at its Avondale taproom along the North Branch of the Chicago River, and Dovetail with a growing program of beers made with wild yeast in North Center. But at the heart of both operations are clean and tidy lagers that make for some of the most rewarding and stunt-free beer in the city.

Metropolitan has outdoor space along the river and requires proof of vaccination for entry. Both Dovetail’s outdoor patio and biergarten and Metropolitan are dog friendly.

In fact, both are so ingrained in the fabric of Chicago beer drinking, it’s too hard to pick just one.

3057 N. Rockwell St. (Metropolitan), 773-754-0494,  metrobrewing.com; 1800 W. Belle Plaine Ave. (Dovetail), 773-683-1414,  dovetailbrewery.com 

The two-in-one: Half Acre Beer Co. and Spiteful Brewing

These two are literally beside one another in Lincoln Square, which makes for an easy two-headed stop for the beer lover who can’t stand to be limited to a mere one brewery.

Half Acre is a modern Chicago legend, as good with hop-forward beer (that is, pale ale and IPA) as anyone in the city, including both trendy hazy IPA and more classic and balanced styles. Also, its Daisy Cutter Pale Ale is one of the city’s most iconic beers.

Spiteful isn’t far behind; its Alley Time is one of the city’s finest pale ales, and the same could be said for its Working for the Weekend double IPA. A visit to the Spiteful taproom is moderated by an increasing embrace of classic and lower-alcohol beer styles, such as English mild, and various lagers that pack deep wells of flavor.

An additional bonus amid the persisting pandemic: both breweries have patios. Also note that Half Acre requires proof of vaccination for entry.

2050 W. Balmoral Ave. (Half Acre), 773-754-8488,  halfacrebeer.com ; 2024 W. Balmoral Ave. (Spiteful), 773-293- 6600spitefulbrewing.com 

The curveball: A great Chicago beer bar

Once essential to understanding a city’s beer scene, bars have taken lost some of their necessity due to the rise of taprooms, where breweries can pour their own beers.

But bars remain essential for doing something taprooms do not: curating a selection. The best Chicago beer bars will have anywhere from a handful to dozens of fresh local beers on tap, which offers an array of options a single brewery visit can’t match.

There are too many to name, but among the gems are: Hopleaf (5148 N. Clark St.), Map Room (1949 N. Hoyne Ave.), The Beer Temple (3173 N. Elston Ave.), The Green Lady (3328 N. Lincoln Ave.), Beermiscuous (2812 N. Lincoln Ave.), Skylark (2149 S. Halsted St.); and suburban stalwarts including The Bavarian Lodge (1800 Ogden Ave., Lisle) and Rock Island Public House (13328 Old Western Ave., Blue Island).