With Nearly 200 Breweries and Counting, Here’s How Chicago’s Crowded Beer Scene Is Adapting

Competition for shelf and tap space is becoming fierce

New breweries continue to open despite the saturation of them in the city. Facebook: Band of Bohemia

Chicago has long been one of the country’s top dining destinations, and in recent years, the city has only furthered its influential reputation in the food and beverage industry.

Thanks to its world-renowned restaurants and critically acclaimed chefs, Chicago has been named host city for the James Beard Foundation Awards—the Oscars of the culinary world—through 2021, and Condé Nast Traveler recently called Chicago “the best restaurant city in America right now.”

In such a food-focused environment, it should come as no surprise that Chicagoans hold their beer to the same standards as their cuisine. In fact, the beer options in the city have surged, with the total number of craft breweries in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs currently edging close to 200, according to Jack Muldowney of The Hop Review, and it continues to grow.

Some of the city’s best-known breweries like Goose Island have long outgrown their craft status to become nationally recognized brands, but many of the city’s breweries are still producing beer on a relatively small scale. Even when Chicago breweries make the move to the retail market, distribution often expands only into neighboring states.

So with competition in the city for shelf and tap space becoming so fierce, what keeps brewers bringing their beers into the market?

Facebook: Cruz Blanca Cervecería

Starting with a taproom

Despite the saturation of breweries in Chicago, new ones continue to open, and some established breweries have started to open their own taprooms and brewpubs. Taprooms allow consumers to sample a brewery’s beer, usually brewed on location, and they may or may not serve food. Brewpubs brew beer and serve food, making them just as much restaurants as breweries.

“There’s an increasing number of taprooms around us, and there’s an increasing number of great beer bars around us,” said Jacob Sembrano, head brewer at Cruz Blanca in Chicago’s West Loop (and one of Adweek’s Rising Brand Stars for Chicago). “There’s pressure in every form of beer now—shelf space, draft space and even competition for just getting people in the door. Breweries that have been open for five or six years are starting to open taprooms, because they realize they can build a local audience and build loyalty that way.”

Jenny Pfäfflin, exam manager at the Cicerone Certification Program for expert beer servers, points out that “no one complains when a restaurant opens in their neighborhood.”

“Breweries are finding out that with this brewpub model, they don’t have to compete for retail space or the tap handle,” she said. “It’s a way to really prove yourself as a brewery before making that leap to becoming a full-time production brewery.”

Facebook: 5 Rabbit Cervecería

The move to open a taproom makes financial sense for newcomers, too. Many breweries have found taprooms to be a dependable first step toward jumping into the crowded retail market. Taprooms allow breweries to build a loyal customer base while putting off some of the headaches involved in retail expansion like finding a distributor or marketing to a much larger audience.

“Opening a taproom allows for a brewery to profit directly,” said Lori Keller, manager at the 5 Rabbits taproom in the Chicago suburbs. “They can sell what they make to their customers in house. If you can open a successful taproom, there’s less reason to worry about expanding into the territory of crowded shelf space.”

Building a culinary tradition

The majority of taprooms and brewpubs aren’t known for their food. They tend to serve up typical bar fare like burgers, nachos and deep-fried snacks. But Chicago has recently given rise to a bevy of culinary-anchored taprooms, where the food may be just as important as the beer. Many of the city’s newest breweries are refocusing to champion their food, bringing in seasoned chefs to create more polished and elegant menus that will garner as much attention as their beers.

Cruz Blanca's breakfast tacos with beef tasajo and chorizo-potato hash with an over-easy egg
Facebook: Cruz Blanca Cervecería

@rebeccaskoch Rebecca Skoch is a food and beverage consultant and writer with Bobalky & Gnocchi, LLC.