Half Acre Brews Up Beer Renaissance in the Windy City
When you think of great beer towns, what comes to mind? Most likely Portland, Ore.; Denver, Colo.; and San Francisco are on your list. Or maybe perhaps Grand Rapids, Mich., which was crowned Beer City USA in 2013, and is home base of Founders, makers of the great imperial stout KBS among other great brews. But Chicago?
Chicago has always loved beer; the ubiquitous corner bars and Old Style signs are good indications, not to mention the Second City is home to the venerable Goose Island. But it’s only in the past few years that it has seen a brewing renaissance. With breweries such as Metropolitan Brewing (2011) and Revolution Brewing (2010), where a seat is a hot ticket on a Saturday night, Chicago is becoming a major player on the scene.
Credit some of that recent success to Half Acre Beer Co., which was established in 2006. They were among the first to navigate the waters in building an urban brewery in the Windy City, which hadn’t been done in a while. It may be only eight years old, but it’s earned major respect in the craft beer world. If you saw the movie “Drinking Buddies,” you may have spotted their flagship pale ale Daisy Cutter as two characters enjoy a long night of drinking.
Chicagoans love Chicago so it’s no surprise to see this neighborhood brewery be fully embraced, so much so that when we arrived at 10:30 a.m. to line up for the popular 11 a.m. Saturday tour in below-freezing temps on a chilly winter’s day, we barely made the cut (make sure to get there early as they only allow 60 people, so if you’re No. 61, you’re out of luck).
The tour costs $10 and you get a pint glass and three full-size pints – no dinky Dixie cup samples here! That alone is worth the price of admission but the tour, which was led by Half Acre staffer Tom, is also two hours of beer geekery meets comedy show. Brewery tours can be full of lots of jargon that may not sink in for those without the brewing background. Tom put the fermentation process this way: They’re getting it on, the party’s going, and the cops have been called. It’s been one of the more informative and entertaining tours we’ve been to so far.
We started off with a history of the company. Owner Gabriel Magliaro got his first taste of craft beer while in Colorado studying art and graphic design. When he moved to Chicago, he wanted to bring that craft beer philosophy to the Windy City. He learned a lot from hanging out at Goose Island and Two Brothers, eventually leading to the birth of Half Acre.
They started off small. Half Acre Lager – which you won’t find any more -- was the first beer to have a Half Acre label. After working with a brewer in Wisconsin to make the beers and a team of one doing the schlepping and selling, they scored a sweetheart lease and a used brewhouse for their brewery, setting up shop in an old antique store space in North Center on the north side in 2008. They wanted to park their brewery in a neighborhood and have a connection within a community.
Today they boast a 15-barrel brew house with 19 fermentation tanks, brewing 30,000 gallons of beer. The beer is made with “equal parts love and hate.” We definitely saw the love part on the tour in regards to music fandom that sparked a brewery friendship; we spotted the Ween boognish several times around the brewery. The collaboration between Short’s Brewing in Bellaire, Mich., and Half Acre came about after the owners discovered their mutual love of the band, Tom told us. Half Acre collaborates with other top-notch breweries, such as 3 Floyds in Munster, Ind.; the two breweries recently released She Wolf, which combines the tastiness of Daisy Cutter along with the bold hoppiness that 3 Floyds is known for.
And they just keep on growing. They opened the tap room in 2012, and on any Saturday it’s usually packed. But wait! There’s more: Half Acre just announced that they bought more property in the Bowmanville neighborhood. They’re not going far; according to their blog, “You can leave our brewery on Lincoln Ave and walk through the door on Balmoral in about five minutes time. The scale of the site will remove constraints that have uncomfortably driven our brewery.” The expansion will allow them to grow their distribution in the Chicago area, and they aim to start brewing there in October.
With breweries like Half Acre, Chicago is catching up to other towns known for locally produced brews.
Jake Williams (twitter @jakewillchef) also contributed to this article. Below are his tasting notes on some of the beers we sampled:
Heyoka: By far our favorite of the day. It’s named after a trickster spirit, and it must’ve taken this out-of-this-world power to make an IPA this clean and crisp yet so hoppy. It’s bitter at the beginning but the finish is mellow.
Chubstep: A very malty and roasty porter with coffee undertones that was a bit on the sweet side.The name is a reference to a side joke: A friend had called dub step chub step, and it stuck.
Daisy Cutter: This West Coast pale ale is what they’re known for. It has a very wet hop taste to it. (Side note: When we first tried this at a Chicago bar a couple years ago, the bartender said the aroma was like pot. And to our olfactory nerves, it really does smell like it! Another side note: Did you know hops and pot are part of the Cannabaceae family? Science!)
Pony Pilsner: Any easy drinking brew – the best PBR we’ve ever had. A well-done beer that will appeal to the masses.