Wednesday, 28 April 2010

My Kind of Town - Mostly

Chicago is big and brash and like most cities in America, laid out on a grid pattern, which makes navigation easy, though there seems to be an assumption that everyone carries a compass in their head. Knowing North, South, East and West is kind of assumed, but once you figure that out, it is straightforward. There is an excellent and cheap public transit system and buses fill in the gaps. Main metro lines run all night. And there are pubs, though the good ones aren't particularly near each other and while there is good food, a liking for pizza and burgers is a distinct advantage in brewpubs. Apart from the transport, nothing is very cheap and beer servings are small, rarely even being as much as 16oz, the US pint. Measures are vague and described variously as snifter, half, tulip, imperial, pint, glass, Willi, or in ounces. Short measure is the rule. You get what you are given.

So now we have the basics, let's talk about the beer itself. Recently there has been much discussion about how American craft beer is getting seriously (and dangerously) too strong. This case seems well supported by Chicago and one that does tend to have you scratching your head as to what to drink. A five percent beer there is a rarity, a sub five percent one almost non existent. And here I must shatter a myth. People do like to have a drink and they do like to have one or two more than one or two. There was a lot of beer being drunk. Conversations - and Americans are pretty friendly people - elicit that a lot of people do think it is out of hand and getting worse. It seems hard to get into an American brewer's head, that flavour doesn't have to come from alcohol. It is my observation that at the craft beer scene, this hell for leather dash for strength, is brewer not customer driven. My American friends are used to this, but they too would like a bit more lower strength stuff. Our outing to the Map Room (great place) meant that Alpha King was one of the weakest beers all day at 6%. And we were there for quite a few hours. It makes it dangerously easy to get completely pissed. Fortunately a few pints of the delicious Allagash White, made life a little easier, but even this is 5.5% (not 5% as in the picture). See what I mean?

There was one honourable exception. Goose Island Brewing where I went on Sunday, while my mates went to baseball and got thoroughly soaked and cold). There you could get a 3.2% mild or a 3.5% bitter in English style, while there were other beers of drinkable strength too, for example Honkers at 4.2%. More of Goose Island in a subsequent post.

I know it is a different culture and that you might argue that you could have samplers - we did sometimes - or small measures - we did- or just drink less - well we did as you simply can't swoop such strong beers (though sometimes we did), but really, have a look at the beer menu above and ask yourself if it is sensible or balanced? I know that you will reply that it isn't meant to be, but if Goose Island see the merit in it, there must be some call for it surely?

Of course we could just have drank Bud/Miller/Coors, but that was never on the cards, so strong beer it was, but we'd have liked a choice.

Since this subject is topical I thought it was worth an airing. Next posts will be all positive as I had a fantastic time.


Montague said...

I think you're just a big girl. When in Rome do as the Romans. Vienna Beef, pizza, rib tips, etc. If you had any real bollocks you would have came to West Coast and did it proper.

Brendan said...

Most American adults don't get to go to the bar for an extended session. We get one or two beers for happy hour, and then it's off to the home and the familial obligations. If I only get one or two beers, I want them to be memorable, rather than simply pleasant. And in Chicago, there are great restaurants and great Chefs, if all you found was burgers and pizza, that is indeed a shame.

mrt said...


I believe you mean Goose Island (unless there's a new brewery in Chicago that I'm not familiar with). As for the general point of your post, I strongly agree that the focus on strong beers by US micro breweries is getting a bit out of hand. I'm constantly looking for flavorful beers (I'm a Yank and a big fan of IPA's/APA's) on the lower end of the ABV spectrum. Alpha King is probably my favorite American beer (frankly, it's probably my favorite beer), but at 6% it's still not the easiest beer to enjoy for an extended session. I'm also a fan of beers like Bell's Two Hearted (which I see listed on the menu from the Clark Street Ale House) and Victory Hop Devil, but both of these are over 7%. Downing a couple of these too quickly (which is easy to do as they are delicious) can put a quick end to a session.

However, I think we're starting to see at least some American brewers begin to push back against the trend of high ABV's. My evidence is merely anecdotal, but I've been to a few brewpubs recently that are brewing what they call a bitter, or even a mild with lower abv's (I was actually just in a new brewpub in Chicago that was brewing a mild at 3.5% abv).

Anyhow, I'm glad you enjoyed Chicago which is quite possibly my favorite American city. It's a shame that the weather wasn't a bit better while you were here.

Mark said...

I totally agree with you. Despite my precocious bravado for strong, rare beers, when you are actually faced with them it's daunting. Sipping 4oz servings is ok, but ultimately unsatisfying - I want a full pint - have 16oz serving of 7% beer is dangerous! When I was in SF I was always having to be conscious of how much I was drinking and how strong it was and that's not that fun. I did learn the hard way on the first day though when I was completely pissed by about 3pm!

It does seem like in some sections of the US scene that attention is turning towards lower ABV beers, they just don't get the same vocal reaction as the strong beers. It's a strange one. The trouble is, a lot of the stronger beer is very nice, you just can't drink it because you want to sit there for a couple of hours, not a couple of minutes.

Looking forward to hearing more - I'd like to visit Chicago sometime.

Tandleman said...

mrt - Sorry about that. Slip of the keyboard. I'm still knackered and my tired mind went to the British default. Goose Island of course. Corrected.

Brendan - Your theory of American beer drinking doesn't explain why the pubs we went to were bursting until 2.a.m and beyond. And these people were shifting beer. Also I had plenty great food in Chicago, but my point was the emphasis of brewpubs on burgers and pizza. And why not? It's great food with beer and done very well. And Brendan. Two of these memorable drinks on the way home from work and you'll be driving illegally.

Tandleman said...

Mark. You can cope with 6% for a session, but you have to drink a bit more slowly. I agree with what you say and the odd thing as I remark above, is that lots of people are getting tolerant to strong beer and necking them. We saw plenty of people that were pretty well pissed too though. When I do my Goose Island piece, I'll show a different side of the coin. Mind you one of our number was photo'd asleep in the pub after a few, so even experienced Yankees can be caught out.

Erlangernick said...

Well, there's driving illegally, and then there's driving illegally. The legal blood alcohol limit in IL might be twice what it is in Britley...assuming it's a civilised .05% on the island anyway.

Tandleman said...

Well neither case is true.

Velky Al said...

I am sure this is one of the reasons that I homebrew more and more, it is so damned difficult to find a beer you can sup on all night without turning into a raging monster.

I was once told by a brewer here that the reason they don't make beers like Mild, 60/- or even just a standard Bitter is because there is no market for them.

I beg to differ quite strongly, the reason there appears to be no market for low alcohol session beers is because the hopwhores dominate the discussion with their near masturbatury desire for IBUs, who then revile anyone who dare suggest that an Imperial Double IPA which actually tastes of paint stripper, and is no doubt doing a number on your tongue, isn't quite their thing.

There are days when I despair, and all I want is a pint (20oz, proper one) of Everard's Tiger, Fuller's Chiswick or something equally refershing and good, but to no avail.

Erlangernick said...

Blimey! I see you can drive up to 0.8 or 0.08 (depending on reckoning) in the English-speaking Euroworld! That's it, I'm emmigrating.