Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Musical Salute To Chicago Brewing

Tonight at 5:30 pm I was at Garfield Park Conservatory with a few hundred other committed geeks and aficionados quaffing locally-made beers to mark the kickoff of Chicago Craft Beer Week. It's a glorious, eleven day (that's right, a week can be eleven days when there's beer involved) celebration of Chicago brewers and Chicago bars that celebrate great beer. Not just in the city but throughout the suburbs there will tap takeovers, special brews, beach parties, mini-golf and almost any manner of beer-related merrymaking that you can think of - a hophead's dream come true.

Craft beer was a part of my life for years before I touched the stuff thanks to my father dragging my mother and I to brewpubs across the country throughout my childhood. By the time he left me at college with the instructions "When you drink, drink good beer," I was hooked. It's not coincidental that I was also getting pretty seriously into music around the same time as beer makes music sound better and listening to music is a perfect opportunity to drink great beer. With that in mind, I decided to make a minor contribution to #CCBW with an esoteric musical salute to the brewers that make Chicago such a great beer city.

Below I've made and attempt to match every Chicagoland brewery (good, bad or ugly) with a band that is its musical equivalent. Factors such as style, attitude, aesthetics, location, fanbase and many others were taken into account but the list is mostly just my own capricious impressions and odd assocations, so take it with a healthy dose of salt. Then quench your thirst with a fine local brew. (Note: I've only included breweries that have already opened and whose products I've tried, apologies to any I've left out. But the proliferation of new breweries in the area means that I hope to be able to do another full post next year with entries for Arcade, New Chicago, Solemn Oath, Begyle, Broad Shoulders, Lake Effect, Spiteful and others.)

Goose Island - Wilco
Both Goose Island and Wilco are the Chicago OGs of their respective scenes. They started up as scrappy upstarts but have gone on to win praise and scale up without "selling out" their independent spirit. Like Wilco, Goose Island does a number of styles with equal adroitness. Bourbon Country Stout is the perfect companion to "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", both are massive, dark but ultimately uplifting while the airyness of their Summertime Kölsch just screams "Either Way" (or anything off Sky Blue Sky, really) and they each have an offering with special Chicago love, even though I'm not actually aware of any Kiss 'N Rides on the Green Line. Both these Chicago institutions prove that you can age gracefully without losing your edge.

The other big name in Chicago(land) brewing would never be called "graceful" but has more than enough edge. Like Three Floyd's Brewing, Atlanta's alt-metal Gods, Mastadon are big, brash, loud and perhaps the best at what they do in the world. It's no secret that Nick Floyd is a HUGE metal fan, so this one was a no-brainer, however, unlike some metal bands, Mastadon isn't. I mean this is a band known for concept albums as emotional and intelligent as they are balls-to-the-wall, flat-out ROCKING which is how I'd also describe many of Floyd's hoppy masterpieces. So grab a Behemoth, pour yourself a glass and then drop the needle on Leviathan to listen to its aural equivalent. Neither of these are going to appeal to the timid but neither do they lack appeal for the initiated. Even if you're not normally a fan of hops or metal, if you're willing to approach Three Floyd's or Mastadon on their own terms, you're probably gonna walk away converted.

Revolution - Sly & The Family Stone
Sly & The Family Stone were one of the few bands able to walk that fine line between artistic and political relevance and cultural success and Revolution has learned more than a thing or two from that model. It's obvious that this Logan Square (and soon-to-be-Avondale) brewery has taken many of the same lessons to heart. Just like you're likely to hear "Dance To The Music" or "Everyday People" on an oldies station or lite FM playlist, Revolution's Bottoms Up Wit or Workingman Mild could please any craft-beer agnostic or newcomer. But Sly's revolutionary attitude (they were one of the first major interracial music groups to achieve widespread acclaim) and often-harsh and uncompromising music made for some of the most daring sounds of their time. In the same vein, a Revolution Rosa or Anti-Hero have enough power and pent-up righteousness to call to mind the anger of "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" or the stridency of "Stand!"

Flossmoor Station - The Kinks
Two great institutions that manage to be great innovators while simultaneously bearing the torch of great tradition. Ray Davies famously asked that "God save draught beer" and The Station (as it's known by the locals) has certainly put a few bitters and session beers over the years that wouldn't have raised eyebrows in a rural English pub. But, just like the Kinks would add some Calypso or even proto-punk flavor to their standard invasion sounds, Flossmoor brewers have loved to throw classic styles together with (the Mick Jaggery IPA with English hops in American quantities springs to mind). And just like the Kinks penned a love-letter to small-town old-fashioned values, not only does Flossmoor Station's railroad motif celebrates the last of the steam-powered trains but it's located ON the village green.

Finch's - The Monkees
Put together for commercial reasons, you can't help but like 'em and, as Jim DeRogatis can't wait to tell you, they did eventually throw the reigns and strike out on some genuine independent creative work. Finch's wasn't founded by beerheads, but rather some shrewd entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the craft beer trend. But just like Monkees were a lab-engineered supergroup designed to make money and became something greater, so has Finch's. Apparently there are many in the craft beer world who look down on them, but just as the Monkees added some bitterness to the pop formula with "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone", Golden Wing's hoppy take on the blonde ale is a breath of fresh air. The Threadless IPA can also stand up to the fierce local competition within it's style. I'll also add that, having just sampled their new Kölsch at Beer Under Glass, I can tell that it'll make you a believer.

5 Rabbit - Calexico
A perfect blend of white indie and Latin traditions, innovative, with hints of the familiar. What? Too on the nose? Well, just like Joey Burn and John Convertino mixed sixties pop, 80's underground rock with Mexican folk and mariachi, Andrés Araya, Randy Mosher, and Isaac Showaki have created their own American/Latin hybrid to fabulous results. Pound a 5 Lizard for some sunny but intriguingly different influences whilst jamming to Calexico's horn-infused take on "Corona" (don't worry, it's about the emptiness of consumerism, not shitty beer) or steel yourself against winter sipping a 5 Vulture and contemplating the hushed mysteries of "Writer's Minor Holiday" in solitude. Either way you're dealing with people who know how push the right buttons with ingredients and attitudes from both sides of the border.

Pipeworks - Naked Raygun
Maybe I'm just taking their mechanical artwork too literally, but I can't help but think of Chicago D.I.Y. gearheads Naked Raygun every time I see a beer from Young Turks at Pipeworks. Songs like "Ghetto Mechanic" and "Gear" certainly play into the wrench-chic that the boys in Bucktown are try to establish, but there's more here than that. The cartoonish, teenage boy vibe of the names and artwork for Ninja Vs. Unicorn and Close Encounter have a lot in common with many of Raygun's goofy album covers. For both the band and the brewers however, the packing may be fun and games but the contents are serious business. Like the no-nonesense guitars and bedrock bass of Naked Raygun, Pipeworks wields hops and malt like weapons, creating some knockout beers (well, at least the two I've tried so far). Let's just hope that the brewery doesn't share the band's (relative) obscurity outside their hometown.

Both microbreweries and indie rock have long traditions of making the personal political and, by their very ways of operating, making strong political statements. If you're looking for people with a history of D.I.Y. ethics, who go out of their way to connect with fans and constantly strive to ensure that their product is ethically produced and delivered according their own beliefs, look no further than Chicago's Half Acre or indie godfathers Fugazi. Whether it's creating a massive bootleg archive or sending out puzzles to your supporters, both brewer and band are known for going above and beyond for their fans. And just like Ian McKaye was famous for refusing to play anything but all-ages shows or raise ticket prices above $15 (generally less), Half Acre lives by its ideals by reducing brewing waste and sponsoring a cycling club. And both Fugazi and Half Acre don't let politics get in the way of their products, with both putting out solid realeases from the Goassamer Ale to the Double Daisy Cutter or "Waiting Room" to "Argument".

Sometimes a genius needs to be in a band of collaborators to truly realize their vision (see: Travis Morrison) while sometimes they actually need to break free of constraints to spread their creative wings. Eric Clapton was a guitar-slinger on some great tunes for The Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominoes (and even played on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") but it wasn't until he struck out on his own that he truly felt creatively free. Similarly, Pete Crowley made a slew of masterful beers for Rock Bottom Chicago but always dreamed of starting his own brewpub, which he finally did on Christmas weekend 2010. Unconstrained by being forced to put out certain beers, Crowley and turned Haymarket into a go-to location for heavy hop hitters and big Belgians in the West Loop just like Clapton used his freedom to excercise his penchant for down-and-dirty blues rock, even curating his own Crossroads Festival right here in Chicago. Isn't it great to see unconstrained masters, doing what they love?

Alright, Two Brothers may not have a Trans equivalent but, minus a carefully-curated weirdo vibe and a recurring fascination with electronics, this brewery has a lot in common with the old Canuck. Both come from rural roots, with the brewery all the way out in Warrenville (that's rural enough for me), both do some incredibly good laid back work but they're also both unafraid to to plug in and turn the amps (or hopes) up to 11! The soothing tartness of a Domaine DuPage might call to mind Young's "Waiting For The Goldrush" by delivering a sour product with surprising softness while there's no mistaking the raw power of either a Crazy Horse guitar workout or a Hop Juice Double IPA and of course an Atom Smasher Oktoberfest is the perfect companion to the sighing beauty of "Harvest Moon". So next time you're looking to escape the city either in your headphones or glass, let either of these masters take you on a little sojourn down by the river.

Simple, clean, delicate but expertly crafted. Metropolitan eschews big beers for a limited number of mid-range traditional German styles just like the Sea & Cake keeps writing the same album with subtle and satisfying variations. OK, so Brazilian and jazz-influenced pop might not initially SOUND like the perfect partner to an industry-themed brewery, but their output is like a match made in heaven. Sam Prekop's soothing onomatopoetry mixed with supple bass, washes of subtle synth and undistorted guitar work is the perfect musical embodiment of cracking open a balanced, crisp Krankshaft Kölsch or a Flywheel Bright Lager. So the next time you're enjoying your weekend with the sweet kiss of a Metropolitan brew  maybe throw another Chicago classic on the stereo and be happy that our fair city has both these treasures up on the north shore.

Wild Onion - Bob Dylan & The Band
Greil Marcus famously wrote about Bob Dylan retreating to a farm in upstate New York to rediscover, with the aid of Robbie Robertson's group The Band, the sounds of "old, weird America" like The Basement Tapes, the Wild Onion Pub and Brewery is countrified, a bit oddball and incredibly good. They're not making orange juice here though, as all of Wild Onion's flagship beers from the Jack Stout to the Paddy Pale Ale are classic examples of their style with a little twist thrown in. And Dylan and co. could create new standards with songs like "Tears of Rage" or "The Wheel's On Fire", but they also liked playing around with songs like "Apple Sucking Tree" or "Yazoo Street Scandal". So next time you wanna celebrate an American classic without the overseriouness of a Ken Burns narration, grab yourself a Summer Wit and have yourself a million dollar bash.

Every grade-schooler has been told that just because something's popular doesn't mean that it's good but as people age, go to college, develop pretensions and possibly start rocking novelty facial hair, they often need to be reminded that opposite is also true. Show up at Piece at seven on practically any weeknight and you're gonna have to wait at least a half-hour and let's not talk about summer weekends, but it's trendiness hasn't detracted from its quality. Similarly, Kings of Leon started out as a little southern rock band that could, putting out solid releases like Youth and Young Manhood and A-Ha Shake Heartbreak before blowing up massively on the back of the (somewhat unfortunate) mega-hit "Sex On Fire". Whether starting out with deep friend rock or German beer styles, both Piece and KoL started from a basic stylistic template and have experimented and branched out. You can see what they do best by sipping a Top Heavy Hefeweizen or Dark N' Curvy Dunkel and blasting "Holly Roller Novocaine" or "Velvet Snow" but you can also see them branch out with bigger, bolder experiments like Cap'n Kickass or "Knocked Up". So remember kids, whether it's beer or music, no one's too cool for school.

Sure, due to its location, it's gonna appeal heavily to the briefcase crowd as well as those less into the scene, but they actually make some really good stuff along with the more predictable offerings. Every Rock Bottom is required to carry certain beers across the country and these offerings range from pretty decent to... unfortunate. But just like the power of "The Joker" cannot be denied, Chicago's Terminal Stout is a worthy addition to any greatest hits (drinks?) list. Sure, neither is what they used to be with Rock Bottom losing Pete Crowley and Steve Miller Band now sans Nate Buffalo and John King but both band and brewery still can wow with some real gems amidst the less interesting stuff.

OK, cards on the table, I'm not the hugest fan of either of these entities. Big, bland, sure to have mass appeal, achieved by making not-unpleasant watered-down offerings in uncontroversial styles. Better than Bud or Maroon 5, but if you're gonna bother to grab a craft brew or supposedly "alternative" (does anyone even say that anymore?) band you might as well get one that's half decent. All of these beers could be described with one word - "yellow".

Phew, that was exhausting. I guess I'll just have to slake my thirst and rejuvenate my weary bones with a refreshing cerveza. Excuse me, I"ll be back in eleven days.

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