Chicago. The Windy City. Chi-Town. This is a city with rich history and heritage. After becoming a town of merely 200 people, its perfect location between the great lakes and the Mississippi River caused the population to explode making it an international hub. A massive fire in the late 1800’s tried to take down this majestic metropolis. The city survived and its people persevered to rebuild it stronger and smarter. During this massive rebuilding, the world’s first skyscraper was erected and an infrastructure was created for the city to become, and still remain, the center of railroad activity for our nation. Chicago was home to the best NBA player of all time for many years. It also houses an original six hockey franchise and two baseball teams (one with possibly the most recognized baseball park and longest World Series cold streak in the game). Hugh Heffner built the foundation for his Playboy empire here. Comedians such as Chris Farley, Jon Belushi, Stephen Colbert, Michael Ian Black, Tina Fey and Robin Williams honed their craft here for years and helped cultivate one of the richest improv comedy cultures in the world. Long story short, this place is fucking cool.
What does this have to do with beer? More like what doesn’t it have to do with beer? During prohibition, Al Capone and the cops slugged it out in the streets while he smuggled alcohol and ran his crime syndicate. There was a thriving beer industry in the mid 1800’s producing tens of thousands of barrels of beer. It’s also home to the Siebel Institute, one of the most distinguished American “Brewing” institutions in the country. Miller Lite was actually created from a recipe bought from a Chicago brewer that had created the first large scale light beer. The beer culture of Chicago is as rich as any, and as it used to only be a few hours away from me, I always loved exploring the city and seeing what beers I could find.
For this post, I want to touch on a type of bar that has a special place in my heart, and in beer culture in general: the dive bar. As luck would have it, a close friend worked at the Double Door, a reasonably renowned rock and roll bar in Wicker Park. This is a great example of a dive bar with good beers and I just happened to have a very interesting experience here. She was kind enough to get me in to see a show from a band that featured members from The Raconteurs. Live rock and roll is something I will never turn down, and since this is the city that Goose Island calls home, I can’t turn down the promise of drinking some quality beer while listening to live rock and roll.
The beer selection was a pretty standard mix of Goose Island and retro’s, but the crowd was awesome. I started to pick up on the fact that the band was most likely a stoner rock band. There was no shortage of long hair, black shirts and a general feeling of “Who gives a shit” lingering in the air. In contrast, the opening band was upbeat, catchy and had plenty of dirt on the guitar, just how I like it. The beers were finding their way into my mouth pretty easily too. A few hoppy Goose Island IPA’s and a PBR tallboy were putting me in the mood for something that was turned up to 11. The way the first band went out, I was expecting something with a bang for the main event. After hearing the final band’s first three chords, I immediately remembered why I was surrounded with the stoner rock elite. The music was muddy, slow and had the quality of sludge being thrown against some very cheap subwoofers. I wasn’t in any shape to stand idly by and move with the throbbing waves of sweaty and hairy dudes trying to move with the grinding music. I decided to go downstairs and see what’s what down there.
I sat in near darkness. The music droned on and on above me. I had spent a good majority of my money for the night so I was in the mood for something cheap, light and strange. It fit my general mood on how the night was turning out. To really encapsulate the mood of this basement bar, some guy a few seats down was having a heated argument with himself, and he appeared to be losing. His facial expressions alternated from empathetic, to incredulous, defensive and outright angry during his one-man debate. He pointed fingers into imaginary chests, gestured wildly with his hands and shook his head wildly when he heard something he didn’t like. Not a soul in sight. Don’t get me wrong, I love dive bars and people watching so the scenery was right up my alley and I was having a great time, but the strangest vibe had completely taken over the evening.
On a whim, I decided to try Lacrosse Beer. It was only $2.50 for a can and essentially the cheapest beer I could find in a Chicago bar that weekend. This beer delivered based on price and really kept the “Let’s make it weird” vibe for the night. It was a terrible light lager and there was a strange lingering aftertaste that I couldn’t put my finger on. Not bad enough to stop me, but powerful enough to make me go, “WTF?” The label provided useless information like the beer was Krausen(e)d – ??? – and was double brewed – double-??? – for maximum whatfuckingever. Since Milwaukee is kind of the reigning leader for light and shitty beers, I wasn’t all that surprised and, in all honesty, got exactly what I wanted out of the experience. A beer that complimented the funky, strange character-filled scenery I had surrounded myself with for the night. Not something to experience every night, but definitely something to keep on the bucket lists for certain types of people.
The one-man show down the bar started getting a little more intense, much like that lingering, piercing flavor I couldn’t identify in the lager. He started getting visibly agitated at his invisible opponent and increased finger-pointing and gesticulating like any other man slipping into the dark seas of madness when suddenly, he stopped, hailed a bartender and ordered a drink. For whatever reason, that was the moment when it hit me: the flavor I was trying to identify was grape soda. What the hell kind of beer eventually tastes like grape soda? Then I saw, to my total amusement, it was the kind of beer that a dude who talks to himself all night drinks.
An open mind and a few beers can make anywhere an adventure.