Chicago’s Afterthought Brewpubs

August 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

Tom Keith

I call them afterthought brewpubs. Unlike most brewpubs, which brew from the start, these were restaurants first, then added brewing facilities later.

“We have customers – regulars – who come in one or two times a month, who still have no idea we’ve expanded into brewing.” That’s Brandon Wright, co-owner and brewmaster at Hamburger Mary’s, 5400 N. Clark St in Chicago. “They say ‘Wow! You brew your own beer here? When did that happen?’”

Wright: “We’ve been brewing our own beers for over a year now.”

Moonshine (1824 West Division in Chicago) is another afterthought brewpub, brewing on its 10 barrel (310 gallon) system for a little over two years now. (Another possible example would be Lunar Brewing, although that’s much more a bar than a restaurant/brewpub. Local Beet reported on it here.)

Afterthought brewpubs have a couple of commonalities. Most brewpubs show off by giving patrons a clear view of their fermenting tanks and other equipment. That’s easy to do if you’re designing the brewpub from the start. But if you’re adding brewing facilities to an existing restaurant, it’s not always easy to put the brewing facilities in full view. Moonshine’s are in a small (but well-equipped) room just past the kitchen; Hamburger Mary’s are in a sports-bar-atmosphere space separate from the main space (Mary’s Rec Room), which they opened after an adjoining restaurant closed.

So how are the beers? Both places are not without issues.

At Moonshine, six beers were listed on the blackboard; only three were available on the day I visited. “We ran out of some last night. We’re still working on the brewing” said our server. Still, the three from brewmaster and Goose Island veteran Bob Kittrell’s brews were worth sampling, in their trademark jelly jar glasses – reminiscent of true Appalachian moonshine.

Like all brewpubs, they had to have a blonde – a beer for those who buy into Miller’s fallacious claim that its Lite Beer has “true Pilsner taste.” To its credit, its Dizzy Blonde has a bit more body and hops than that popular watery abomination, so it might be able to serve as a gateway beer, showing fans of light megabrews that even beers with real flavor can be tasty.

The Saints N’ Sinners stout had a rich roasty taste, balanced with just a bit of hops, and relatively light body. It’s a beer you could drink all night, despite the dark character.

But the standout of the three was the Able Danger IPA. At 7.5% ABV, it’s a big beer; it’s also very rich, with body and a depth of hops character that I’ve rarely encountered.

Hamburger Mary’s was a bit different. Wright, with homebrewing experience but no formal brewing training, puts out beers with a familial similarity – at least for the draft offerings. They’re all big-bodied, mouthfilling beers, relatively light on hop flavor and aroma. The Blonde Bombshell (an homage to the place’s outlandish fictional character, Mary) was the beer for Bud Light drinkers, but with a lot more of Mary’s body to it. Mary Hoppins Pale Ale, and the Gangsster “Hopped-Up” Amber Ale, were both nice quaffing beers, fairly similar other than a slight difference in color. The Peach Wheat beer, while a valiant attempt, lacked much peach flavor. It was refreshing, though.

l to r, Blonde Bombshell, Mary Hoppins, Gangster, Peach Wheat

l to r, Blonde Bombshell, Mary Hoppins, Gangster, Peach Wheat

To be fair, I didn’t try any of the reserve beers, which are typically hoppier, but not available on draft. They’re produced in limited quantities on a 21 gallon system, and bottle-conditioned. “Most of our customers don’t go for the real hoppy stuff” explained Wright.

Bottom line – if you want great beer at a brewpub, an afterthought brewery shouldn’t be your first choice. But if you find yourself somewhere and discover they make their own beers – try some. Someone has poured his or her heart and soul into your glass. These are all local beers … you gotta love ‘em. Or not.

These are the only two afterthought brewpubs in Chicago. Anyone know of other afterthought brewpubs in the area that The Local Beet should check out?


One Comment

  1. Jim B says:

    Nice article, Tom. I haven’t been to Moonshine yet (an oversight on my part to be sure, but it’s tough for me to get to all the places I’d like to) but I enjoyed the time I visited Hamburger Mary’s. I’m glad you had some good things to say about them, qualified yes but generally positive I thought. I like to encourage these types of places as much as I can, because to my mind, there are 2 ways they can go.

    One is, if they’re mostly brewing for an audience more in line with the BudMillCoors crowd, for their enthusiasm and efforts to atrophy until they’re brewing 6 different-colored versions of the same beer. This happened to the one brewpub (definitely an afterthought type) in my hometown. Seems like now, every time I go there, at least one or two of the beers will have line problems or sanitation problems, and there isn’t one of them worth drinking. They have coolers just full of Miller Lite though, and girls in tight shirts walking around trying to sell you fruity-sweet shots.

    The other way is, if they get good and appreciative feedback from people knowledgeable about craft beers, that maybe they’ll improve and start putting out beers that *will* wow you.

    At the moment, I’d rather have a house-brewed beer at Hamburger Mary’s than a Bohemia at the Mexican place across the street. Unfortunately for Hamburger Mary’s, those are far from the only two options though; they are only a few blocks from a couple of the best beer bars in town. But maybe if we beer snobs stop in on the way from Hopleaf to Edgewater Lounge and encourage them once in a while, that doesn’t have to be a liability. :)

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