The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Alter Brewing, Downers Grove

Welcome to stop #36 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Alter Brewing Co, 2300 Wisconsin Ave., Downers Grove
Train line: BNSF, Belmont
Time from Chicago: 48 minutes (Zone E)
Distance from station: 800 m

Ah, the suburbs. Sometimes you can find a brewery down a stroad and along another stroad in a light-industrial park on the outskirts of an outskirts town. Alter Brewing Company's Downers Grove taproom will never appear on the National Register of Historic Places. But it appears on the Brews and Choos list because it fits all the criteria for inclusion.

I tried four of their beers, none of which curled my toes or my stomach. The Alterior Motive IPA (7%) was a perfectly competent light, clean, IPA with grapefruit and orange notes from the Citra hops. The FU Covid double dry-hopped IPA (7.2%) was a perfectly competent hoppy IPA with some vanilla, honey, and toffee notes I found interesting in an IPA, and enough complexity that I'd drink it again. The Hopular Kid extra-pale ale (6.5%) had a ton of juicy flavors with more malt than I expected, and a long, sweet finish that many people would enjoy but didn't work with my more savory and bitter preferences.

But wow, the Alto Porter (6.8%) surprised me. It had chocolate on the nose with coffee and toffee in the body. It was delicious: not too malty, not too bitter, well-balanced. I would get a 6-pack to share with friends.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? Yes
Televisions? None
Serves food? No; BYOF
Would hang out with a book? Maybe
Would hang out with friends? Maybe
Would go back? Maybe

Two Brothers Roundhouse, Aurora

Welcome to stop #35 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Two Brothers Roundhouse, 205 N. Broadway, Aurora
Train line: BNSF, Aurora
Time from Chicago: 81 minutes (Zone H)
Distance from station: At the station

In 1856, the nascent Chicago & Aurora Railroad built the first roundhouse in Illinois in the small city of Aurora. It served as a locomotive shop and storage facility until 1974, then abandoned, even as it won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Flash forward to 2011 when local brewery Two Brothers Brewing opened a restaurant and small brewing facility on the site.

On Saturday, with crisp, clear skies above me, I trekked all the way out there to have lunch and try the beers. Lunch was perfectly fine, as were the beers.

My server brought the flight out with the beers in alphabetical order, which also turned out to be the right tasting order. I started with the Atom Smasher Oktoberfest (7%), a malty, well-balanced, good Oktoberfest-style lager, well-made but sweeter than my palate prefers. The Citra United IPA (7%) hit me with hops on the nose and tongue, finished cleanly, and have me less citrus and bitter notes than I expected. (I wound up ordering a full pint after lunch.) The Wizard Staff IPA (5%) had a bright, light, maltiness to it, with a clean finish and light orange notes. The Wobble IPA (6.3%) had a slight astringent note with high hops and less depth than the others.

I also got a sip of their bourbon whiskey, distilled on site. It had a sweet nose with nice oak notes, and I found it a solid whisky if a bit young. The 75/25 corn/rye mash bill gave it some pepper that would work in a Manhattan well.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? No
Televisions? One inside, none outside
Serves food? Yes, full pub menu
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

One Lake Brewing, Oak Park

Welcome to stop #34 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: One Lake Brewing, 1 Lake St., Oak Park
Train line: CTA Green Line, Austin
Time from Chicago: 21 minutes
Distance from station: 200 m

Carved out of a 1920s-era bank building right on the border with Chicago, One Lake Brewing has an unusual, multi-level space with a pleasant rooftop beer garden, good food, and great beers. On Sunday, a friend and I trekked out to Oak Park to try a few beers there.

From right to left in the photo above, I tried the Blonde@40 (4.0%), a malty lager with a clean finish that reminded me of MGD (my training beer) the way a Wagyu steak reminds me of McDonalds; the Lando IPA (8.2%), a big, hoppy, delicious and strong ale I'm glad I tried in a small pour first; the Oscar Milde (4.2%), an excellent English mild ale with chocolate and caramel notes and a whiff of toffee; and the Black is Beautiful (5%), their version of a German black beer with complexity, depth, and a long chocolate finish I loved.

(I actually drank them in a different order: Blonde, Mild, Black, IPA.)

We got lucky that they had a 2-top available for walk-in right as they opened, but the rooftop filled up fast. Given Sunday's beautiful weather and smoke-tinged sunset, plus the food (worth a trip on its own), I can see why they've gotten popular.

Beer garden? Rooftop
Dogs OK? No
Televisions? None
Serves food? Yes, full menu
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Urban Brew Labs, Chicago

Welcome to stop #33 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Urban Brew Labs, 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago
Train line: Union Pacific North, Ravenswood (Also CTA Brown Line, Damen)
Time from Chicago: 16 minutes (Zone B)
Distance from station: 600 m (1.6 km from CTA)

This relatively new (2018) brewery just across the tracks from Empirical has a tiny patio and large ambitions. James, the owner, plans to open a taproom in the former KOVAL Distillery shop that fronts on Ravenswood Ave. as soon as possible. Covid-19 may have delayed that a bit, but he put out a couple of tables on the Winona Ave. side for people and dogs.

Sunday afternoon around 2 I had the patio to myself, at least for a few minutes, so I got a chance to talk to James and try a few of his beers. First, the Hazy River New England IPA (6.5%), a malty, not-too-hoppy, well-balanced ale with a clean, slightly bitter finish. Second, the Straight from Zee Wickel (5.6%), a Zwickelbier with a malty, fruit-forward flavor and not too much alcohol. Finally, the Packy New England Ale (6.4%), which had a fruity nose followed by a hop-forward clean ale with some grapefruit and lemon notes.

Now that autumn has arrived, and given the likelihood that the taproom won't open until next spring at the earliest, I strongly recommend getting over there whenever you have the opportunity. And then pop over to Empirical, because it's a 2-minute walk.

Beer garden? Yes, but tiny; taproom opening in 2021
Dogs OK? Yes
Televisions? None
Serves food? No; BYOF encouraged
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Mickey Finn's Brewery, Libertyville

Welcome to stop #32 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Mickey Finn's Brewery, 345 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville
Train line: Milwaukee District North, Libertyville
Time from Chicago: 67 minutes (Zone H)
Distance from station: 600 m

If you look at the Brews and Choos Map, you will notice that the Milwaukee District North line has only two breweries near its stations in Lake County. Grayslake's Light the Lamp Brewery was delightful, and I may go back this summer. Mickey Finn's, well, they're in Libertyville.

Mickey Finn's has been around since 1994. Their beer didn't wow me and their patio didn't help. Like a lot of places, they have too many TVs and they keep the music up, making conversation difficult and reading impossible. The beer garden also has an unbalanced shape and strange aesthetic, with the quietest two-top available on Friday being right on Milwaukee Avenue.

The friend I had dinner with pointed out that this place qualifies as nightlife in Libertyville; thus, the noise and confusion.

I tried three of their beers: the Cerveza Lager (4.8%), a sweet, malty brew with a lime wedge that provided desperately-needed flavor; the Tradesman Pils (5.8%), a sweet, light-finishing, fairly balanced beer with loads of caramel and maple notes; and the Pineapple Express Double IPA (8.0%), also sweeter than a regular IPA but the only one of the three that approached my palate.

At least the wings were good, and I enjoyed catching up with my friend.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? No
Televisions? Ubiquitous, unavoidable
Serves food? Full pub menu
Would hang out with a book? No
Would hang out with friends? Maybe
Would go back? No

Light the Lamp Brewery, Grayslake

Welcome to stop #31 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Light the Lamp Brewery, 2 S. Lake St., Grayslake
Train line: Milwaukee District North, Grayslake
Time from Chicago: 76 minutes (Zone I)
Distance from station: 1.0 km

A friend and I planned to have dinner up in Lake County yesterday, so I managed to squeeze in two breweries. We've had sunny and warm weather, perfect for sitting in a quiet beer garden with a book. Light the Lamp Brewery totally fits the bill.

Unfortunately, do to the reduced train schedules because of Covid-19, I only had 40 minutes in Grayslake unless I wanted to take a $15 Lyft to dinner. No worries; I got to try two very tasty beers, and I will definitely come back.

The 1980 Miracle Pale Ale (5.4% ABV) started clean and ended clean, with a nice maltiness for a pale ale, but enough bitterness to balance it out: a classic pale ale indeed. The Bitter End Midwest IPA (6.0%) had notes of orange, caramel, and a hint of citrus, with a long not-too-bitter finish. I'd have either one of them again.

Plus, next time I visit, I'll take a walk around the Village of Grayslake. It's adorable. And there's a lake, though a smaller lake than the one by my own house.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? Yes, outside only
Televisions? None
Serves food? Full (and interesting) pub menu
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Spiteful Brewing, Chicago

Welcome to stop #30 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Spiteful Brewing, 2024 W Balmoral Ave., Chicago
Train line: Union Pacific North, Ravenswood (Also CTA Brown Line, Damen)
Time from Chicago: 16 minutes (Zone B)
Distance from station: 1.6 km (1.5 km from CTA)

Spiteful and Half Acre Balmoral occupy the same block, so cheating on distance (over 1,500 m from Metra) for one means cheating for both. I've gone to both for years, though, and they deserve the extra two blocks of walking.

During Covid-19, entry is first-come, first-served, with an hour from seating to last call and a strict, 90-minute time limit overall. They also don't allow dogs right now, but once the pandemic recedes you can expect about a 1:2 ratio of people to dogs on any given day.

Last Saturday afternoon I walked up there with David Litt's Democracy in One Book or Less to have a couple of pints and catch up on reading. At 2:30 pm I snagged a table by the window and ordered a Spite Lite IPA (4%) to start. It had a really crisp, light body, full of hops and citra flavor, and a clean finish. I followed that up with their flagship Spiteful IPA (6.2%), one of my go-tos for years. It's hop-forward with a full body, crisp flavor, long finish, and great hop balance.

Beer garden? No
Dogs OK? Suspended during the pandemic
Televisions? None
Serves food? Vitners chips and Chef Martin brats, plus BYOF
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Half Acre Beer Co., Balmoral Brewery

Welcome to stop #29 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Half Acre Beer Co., Balmoral Brewery, 2048 W Balmoral Ave., Chicago
Train line: Union Pacific North, Ravenswood (Also CTA Brown Line, Damen)
Time from Chicago: 16 minutes (Zone B)
Distance from station: 1.7 km (1.6 km from CTA)

Half Acre actually operates two locations: its original brewpub on Lincoln Ave., and its newer and much larger brewery/restaurant/beer garden just south of Rosehill Cemetery. Both are on the Brews and Choos list, but the beer garden is open this summer while the Lincoln Brewery only has curb-side pickup.

I'm actually cheating a little. You'll have to walk more than 1,500 meters from the Ravenswood Metra station to get to the Balmoral Brewery, but Half Acre makes excellent beer and you'll have to pass two other taprooms (Empirical and Spiteful) to get here. It's worth the trip—especially if you make a summer afternoon of all three.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, you'll need a reservation that costs $15.45, which they apply to your bill. Also they've temporarily curtailed food service and dogs on the patio.

As for the beer, their Daisy Cutter Pale Ale (5.2%) has remained one of my go-tos for years. Try their other pales and IPAs when you visit; they're all excellent. And see what else they've made that month.

When they don't have a raging pandemic to deal with, they serve good pub food including weekend brunch.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? Suspended during the pandemic
Televisions? None
Serves food? Suspended during the pandemic
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Sketchbook Brewing Co., Skokie Taproom

Welcome to stop #28 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Sketchbook Brewing Co. Skokie Taproom, 4901 Main St., Skokie
Train line: CTA Yellow Line, Dempster-Skokie
Time from Chicago: 48 minutes
Distance from station: 900 m

I have gone to Sketchbook Brewing in Evanston for years, so naturally I made a special trip to their Skokie Taproom for its grand opening last Friday. We had perfect weather, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and good beer. The brewery occupies the front part of a 1950s-era light-industrial building next to the CTA, under high-tension power lines, on a medium-busy street—but don't let that stop you.

As they had just opened that afternoon, they had a couple of operational hiccups, but nothing that detracted from our enjoyment. I stuck with the Orange Door IPA as they had just finished a run of the No Parking Citra IPA and didn't have any in Skokie that night.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, they require reservations. And a tip: If you're coming from downtown Chicago on a weeknight, change to the Linden-bound Purple Line Express at Belmont and shave 10 minutes off your trip.

Beer garden? Yes, in front
Dogs OK? Yes
Televisions? None
Serves food? Snacks only; "BYOF" (bring your own food) policy
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Spiraling out of control

First, this chart:

And yet, there are so many other things going on today:

The one bit of good news? Evanston-based Sketchbook Brewing, who make delicious beers and whose taproom inspired the Brews and Choos project, will open a huge new taproom in Skokie tomorrow evening. And guess what? It's only 4 blocks from an El stop.