Where Craft Beer is Brewing in Chicago

The walls of Maria’s Community Bar are lined with bric-a-brac, captured bass and a sample of co-owner Mike Marszewski’s doll collection. The bartenders are young and hip, with bushy hair, hipster glasses and tattoos. They pour beer into stylish glasses and serve beers that are rarely found on the South Side.

Two decades ago, Marszewski served Budweiser, Coors and Miller along with his mother Maria, and brother Ed at the bar, back when it was named Kaplan’s Bar. Now, he serves a rotating selection of craft beer that has made Maria’s a popular spot for the growing student population in Bridgeport.

Maria’s is one of the many Chicago bars reflecting a growing trend toward craft beers, which have soared in popularity even as overall beer sales have fallen. Craft brewers sold $8.7 billion worth of brew in 2011, up 107% since 2006 and up 14.5% in only a year, according to the Brewers Association.

Meanwhile big brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and SABMiller PLC have lost ground. In 2006, Anheuser-Busch sold 247 million hectoliters (a hectoliter is 100 liters) of beer. In 2012, it sold 192 million.

Drinkers have more choice in beer now with an estimated 2,126 craft breweries nationwide. The Brewers Association says that it’s the most breweries in the country since 1887.

“There are a lot of reasons for this,” said Paul Gatza, the director of the BA, “but I think the most important one is that beer drinkers are seeking out flavorful beers from small and independent brewers.”

From neighborhood taverns to enormous sports bars and gastro pubs demand is for a much wider variety of beer than ever before. People want to drink pale ale one day and a saison the next. And it means opportunity for brewers and bar owners alike.

The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as any brewery with an annual production of 6 million US barrels (1 barrel is 31 gallons) or less. The brand leader is Samuel Adams, with an annual production of 2 million barrels last year.

Brews sold at Maria’s and other bars that sell craft beer are made all over the country and sit on cooler shelves next to their European ancestors. But more and more “brewpubs’’ are brewing their own beer, like Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Wicker Park or – the grandfather of Chicago craft beer – Goose Island, with locations in Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville.

“People are looking for a wide range of options,’’ said Jonathan Cutler, the Piece Brewmaster. “They get to taste the rainbow of beers that are out there.”

Chicago is still behind places like Denver or Oregon in the number of craft brews and the audience for craft beer, but growth has accelerated. Craft brewing began with Goose Island in 1988, but has burgeoned to 11 microbrews today – 7 of which opened in only the last five years.

In 2006, Redhook and Widmer bought 40% of Goose Island, and the Brewers Association stopped including it in their data. In 2011 it was sold to Anheiser-Busch Inbev.

Since then, perhaps to make up for the lack of locally made beer, Chicago has seen the opening of Finch in Mayfair, the critically acclaimed Half Acre, Crown, Metropolitan, Argus, Limestone and Haymarket breweries and brewpubs. In July 2013 it will be home to a Lagunitas brewery.

Gatza said a good guess about why the sudden growth has been happening is “a big city without much of a craft business compared to population. An opportunity was likely perceived by some of the entrepreneurs.”

A quick survey of sales from local brewers shows they are not only growing in numbers, but are selling more and more beers. Two Brothers projects a sales increase of 66% this year.

Cutler got his first job at Goose Island, back when it was still a craft brewery. He had been homebrewing beer since the 1990s, and decided to pursue brewing as a career.

He decided to take courses at the Siebel Institute of Technology, a world-renowned brewing academy based in Chicago. Like many of its alumni, Cutler got his first job working at Goose Island and went on to greater things.

“I wouldn’t say that former students or breweries have driven recent growth, but rather beer enthusiasts and an emerging beer culture have done so,” said Keith Lemcke, the Vice-President of Siebel. “If there weren’t consumers interested in experiencing new and unique beer styles, breweries couldn’t survive.”

John Siebel, who earned a doctorate in physics and chemistry in Germany before moving to Chicago and working as a brewer, founded the Siebel Institute in 1872. It still has a campus in Chicago as well as campuses in Montreal and Munich.

“The one thing small breweries do well is to be in places where people are accepting of new beverage and food experiences,” said Lemcke, “And they do a great job of creating buzz through more organic means rather than through large and costly marketing programs.”

And part of the appeal of craft beer, from both a consumer and manufacturer perspective is supporting local small businesses. “The best part of my job is I can brew all day, walk into the bar and hear someone say ‘hey, I just had beer you brewed, and I like it,'” said Cutler. “And it’s all worth it, just for that.” ❒

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