The State of Craft Beer in Chicago Bars

May 21, 2015

In honor of Chicago Craft Beer Week, we wanted to learn something about the craft beer landscape here in Chicago. Many of us at Datascope enjoy a nice beer from time to time, and some of us (thumbs pointed firmly at author) really nerd out about it, brewing our own and seeking out new styles and breweries every time we’re in a bar.

To learn more about the state of craft beer in Chicago, we analyzed data from Beermenus.com, a site where bars post their menus. The Beermenus team provided us with a snapshot of all Chicago-area menus on 5/12. We limited our analysis to bars in the city limits— no suburbs, no liquor stores. We also excluded cider (it’s craft beer week, people) and to-go offerings, only examining bottles, cans, and drafts you can enjoy at the bar. All in all, this gave us 12,562 menu listings from 190 bars across the city. Many thanks to the Beermenus team for the data!

If you don’t see your neighborhood or your favorite bar listed in our analysis, keep in mind that they might not have their menus listed on Beermenus. There are hundreds of great beer bars in the city and this is by no means a comprehensive survey of all of them. That said, most of the places that choose to post their menus online have a pretty good selection, so that’s another bias present in our data.

We started by looking at styles citywide— when you go to a bar, what kinds of beer do you find these days?

The fact that the IPA has overtaken the Pale Lager for most common beer type can be taken as both a cause for celebration for craft beer champions, and also a sign that many American breweries (and craft beer drinkers) have a proclivity for the hoppy stuff.

But let’s say you’re not an IPA person. What else are you likely to find at your nearest bar?  

Here you can see that while once again the hoppy IPA and APA styles top the list, over 50% of Chicago bars have some kind of wheat beer, pilsner, fruit beer, saison, porter, or Belgian ale available as well.

At the bottom of these lists are more obscure Belgian styles: the unblended Lambic and the Grisette. If you want a Grisette, a light Belgian beer originally brewed in warm weather for Belgian miners, the only one available at a bar in Chicago right now is Smuttynose Hayseed, available on draft at Parlor Pizza Bar in West Loop. If you’re after an unblended Lambic, an unusual dry and tart Belgian beer fermented with wild yeasts, you’ll have to go to Owen & Engine in Logan Square for a bottle of Vanberg et Famille LambickX. Both of these are excellent warm-weather beers, in this author’s opinion.

The variety of styles available to Chicago beer fans is encouraging. Now we were getting curious— where do we go if we want to try the most styles possible?

North Center residents have great options, with The Globe, Fountainhead, and The Bad Apple dominating the top of the rankings. But even the average Chicago bar has over 25 styles on menu! So if you don’t live near one of the top bars listed, there’s probably still lots to try near you.

Let’s say you fancy yourself a cicerone and you’ve already tried every style of beer. “I’ve already tried a Rauchbier! And an English Mild! What I crave is selection!”

You see some of the same North Center cartel here, but some other heavyweights like Maria’s down in Bridgeport, Monk’s in the Loop, and Beer Bistro join in. Here the distribution is more skewed than it is with style— while the average Chicago bar has over 52 beers listed on their menu, the bars with the biggest selections have over 4 times that amount.

Another factor a beer geek might take into account when evaluating a bar’s selection is the relative rarity of their collection. We defined rare beers as ones that are only found at one bar in the entire city, like the Grisette and Lambic we looked at earlier.

The Globe once again takes top honors, but bars like Local Option and The Radler also make the list for the first time. They both have exclusive house brews that move them up the list, and The Radler also has the benefit of specializing in German styles, with imports that are hard to find elsewhere in the city. Also, in this author’s opinion, Northdown consistently has one of the best curated beer lists in the city. If you’re a craft beer lover, go there and order anything.

But let’s pump the brakes. How much is all this going to cost us?

The median price for a beer in Chicago is $6. Again we see a lot of skew here— you’re not going to find much cheaper than $3, but rare bottles can stretch up into the double digits. For the purpose of our plot, we had to take out some of the giant-sized bottles like the 9 liter St. Feuillien Triple available at Stout Barrelhouse & Galley Chicago for $260. To be fair, some people pay way more than that for less than a liter of wine.

In conclusion, the state of our union beer selection is strong. Even average bars these days have dozens of styles and brews to choose from, and the best of the best offer a neverending supply of new things to try. For the hop-averse, it would be nice to see less focus on big IPAs and more on malt-forward styles like browns, ambers, and Belgian brews, but just about everywhere has some sort of wheat beer or porter in addition to the macrobrew “pale lager” offerings.

Do you have other questions about Chicago’s craft beer scene that you want us to answer? Leave a comment or hit us up at @DsATweet and we’ll follow up as time allows.

Prost!

contributors to this post

headshot of Brian Lange
Brian
headshot of Gabriel Gaster
Gabriel