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Morning Shift

Chicago Is Now The Nation’s Brewing Capital

Chicago has outranked Denver, Seattle and San Diego to claim its place as the nation’s brewing capital.

There are 167 breweries in the city’s metro area — that’s up from 62 in 2013, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Author and Tribune columnist Josh Noel joins the Morning Shift to talk about the city’s booming brewing scene.

On the history of craft beer in Chicago

Josh Noel: The modern history of Chicago craft beer basically starts in the mid-to-late eighties when a handful of places opened. Things were starting to bubble up out west a little bit in terms of “yeah this beer is made right here in this city, in this building, how strange.” And so a handful of Chicago breweries opened up. Two opened in ‘87 — those are both long gone — and then in ‘88 came Goose Island, which is still kicking around.

Tony Sarabia: It sounds like the city has made it pretty easy, pretty welcoming for this industry — I was talking to my colleague Jerome McDonald earlier and he said where he lives in Arlington Heights, they don’t allow this. So what kind of credit to we give Chicago proper for having this industry grow so much?

Noel: A lot of the growth here and nationally — in cities, and at the state level — has been brewers guilds working hard to get laws changed. I mean, these are small businesses. Who doesn’t want small businesses opening in their communities? The political evolution on it has been a huge factor and that’s especially true in a lot of suburbs which tend to be more conservative.

On how the beer industry has changed over time

Sarabia: What has this meant for the mega breweries?

Noel: It is not good for the mega breweries which is why Anheuser Busch had to buy Goose Island. Tastes have fragmented, is the way they talk about it in the beer industry board rooms. A generation ago, we would drink one or two beers for (the) ten occasions that we opened a beer. Now, we’re drinking 8, 9, ten different beers for those ten occasions. We’re not just a Bud Light guy anymore, we’re not just a Coors Light guy.

On exploring craft beer options

Noel: You walk into Binny’s now and there’s just thousands -- it’s overwhelming to me, and I write about beer for a living. And I walk in and I’m like “how do I navigate this” so I can only imagine what it must be like for a lot of other people.

I think beer — not to overgeneralize — but beer is still is the beverage of the every man and every woman. I think craft beer has done a lot to position itself that way, you know in addition to the big beer brands. The growth of tap rooms -- meaning breweries that basically open their own bar right on site so the beer is made in the next room and its served in this room — it’s a pretty neat experience. You know you’re drinking some fresh beer.

Sarabia: And the idea of flights… that’s relatively new when it comes to beer, right? Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t go to a bar and have a flight of beers.

Noel: Right, exactly. That’s just another form of exploration which, in a lot of ways, is what craft beer is about. It still sounds crazy to me that Chicago has more breweries than any other city in the nation. It’s wild.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUEST: Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune reporter and author of Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business

LEARN MORE: Cheers, Chicago! You're home to the most breweries in the U.S. (Chicago Tribune 12/11/18)

Brewery Growth Is Both Urban And Rural (Brewer’s Association 12/10/18)

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