Posts in On The Road Reports


The Accelerating Beer Scene of Windsor

September 8th, 2015 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports 5 comments

Things are changing in Windsor. At least it feels that way, because I’ve actually never visited the city before. From a beer perspective, there wasn’t much to draw me there in the past. The craft beer scene began and ended with the old Walkerville brewery from the early and mid 2000s, whose beers were fairly bland and uninteresting. The brewery declared bankruptcy in 2007, and it did not seem missed. That’s pretty much Windsor’s history in the craft beer movement, at least what I could tell.

The beer scene started to change a couple of years ago with news of the rebirth of Walkerville Brewery, the debut of a craft beer festival and some chatter in The Bar Towel’s Forum. But Windsor remained off my radar. It was most welcome, however, to be contacted by Ontario’s Southwest to visit Windsor to check out the beer scene there. This was a city I knew all my life and is literally just down the highway from my home in Toronto, but almost completely foreign.  This would be a most interesting visit to see if my perceptions of Windsor had changed.

My visit would comprise of a “Bikes and Beers” cycling tour, a monthly event hosted by WindsorEats, a local food and drink website and consultancy covering Windsor and Essex County. Due to timing, Adriano from WindsorEats generously offered to give me a private tour of the city. We met on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon in Willistead Park, a picturesque park located in the city’s Walkerville neighbourhood (which is the host location for Windsor’s upcoming beer festival in October, also run by WindsorEats).

DSC01801Our first stop was within the same neighbourhood, riding past some attractive historic homes to the Walkerville Brewery, located just off Wyandotte Street East on Argyle Road. The building is immediately striking, a vast wall of red brick facing you upon approach. The history of the location is an incredibly interesting one, as it was one of the original rack warehouses of the Hiram Walker Distillery, of which others remain in use across the street, and the distillery itself located only a few short blocks away.

The building gives the brewery an immediate uniqueness, as the high ceilings and expanse provides an almost hangar-like feeling. Within the main doors lies an open, airy taproom, with a long bar and numerous tables stretching to the back of the building. Within sight of the tasting room is the brewery itself, a spacious facility with numerous tanks and packaging lines. Within the brewery also lies a small barrel aging area, the only time I saw barrels in use in Windsor.

DSC01813Walkerville Brewery is, of course, named for the aforementioned Walkerville neighbourhood, in turn named for Hiram Walker himself. One cannot escape the history of Hiram here, and the residents are very proud of the history. He literally built the neighbourhood, as he owned 468 acres around the distillery and built many of the homes lived in by the distillery’s workers (although he himself actually lived across the river in Detroit). Adorning the walls of the brewery are numerous museum-like panels outlining the history of the neighbourhood, so a stop to the Walkerville Brewery provides not only a nice beer, but an interesting view into the past of Windsor.

Walkerville produces a wide range of beers – during my visit they had their flagship Honest Lager, Loophole Ale (a kolsch), an IPA, a Milk Stout and a Dunkel. A barrel-aged Scotch Ale was released shortly previously to my visit, with only a few bottles left in the to-go fridge.

Although retaining the same name, this incarnation of Walkerville has new ownership and a new outlook on beer from previous days. If your memories of Walkerville are only the original lager (as mine were), the new brewery is definitely worth investigating. This stop was my first indication that Windsorites have taste buds for the more interesting.

After finishing up at Walkerville, Adriano took us through the commercial area of the neighbourhood along Wyandotte. Biking past such storefronts as the metaphysical shop Smudge, old-school Tony’s Shoe Repair, vintage Harvey Lo’s Yummy House and modern restaurant The Willistead, the streetscape is authentically eclectic. Heading south of Wyandotte led us to Windsor’s Little Italy neighbourhood, to our second stop, Motor Burger on Erie Street East.

DSC01840Motor Burger is the kind of establishment that helps put a beer scene like Windsor’s on the map. Motor Burger is a brewery and restaurant, with Motor Craft Ales being their beer brand. Motor Burger has a familiar urban restaurant layout, with a long bar down the left hand side of the space, with tables lining the floor leading back to the kitchen.  As the name implies, the restaurant features an automotive theme throughout its decor and menu quite prominently.

The brewery is located in the basement, which I can only describe as Buffalo Bill-esque. A vast, multi-roomed and seemingly endless space took us to the brewery, which remarkably is all brewed on a single Brew Magic system. On the system all the Motor Craft Ales are brewed, and it was heartening to see so many unique styles on offer. They included a wide range of styles including lager and cream ale, bitter and IPA, amber (Motor A, their first beer) and brown ale and more. A couple of interesting recipes were on offer during my visit, including the refreshing Deja Blue with blueberries and lavender, and the balanced Jalopy with smoked malt and jalapeno. The food at Motor Burger is also top-notch, as their burgers have been recognized across the editorial spectrum including Reader’s Digest and Thrillist. Dig the nachos too.

Alas, one beer I was quite keen to try was the recent collaboration between Motor Craft and Batch Brewing of Detroit, which sold out prior to my arrival. Again, evidence that unique beers are popular here as elsewhere. Keep it up Motor Burger, and save me a pint for next time.

DSC01843Continuing on led towards and along Windsor’s pretty waterfront, where uninterrupted public green space spans the entirety of the downtown core. It’s from this location that the unique Detroit skyline is in full view. At this point in the tour it really hit how remarkably close the two cities are.  Being separated by only about a half a mile of river, the two cities are genuinely and intrinsically linked, both socially and professionally.

Due to Ontario’s lower drinking age and the presence of the Caesar’s casino on the Windsor side, many folks from Detroit regularly make the trip over for fun. And with Detroit’s major attractions (pro sports teams, concerts, etc.), Windsorites also do the same. It would be amiss not to say that a beer trip to Windsor is enriched with a trip across the border to experience Detroit’s dynamic scene. In fact, it truly makes a visit to Windsor even more compelling and attractive. However, we’ll save Detroit for another time. For now, let’s continue on the Windsor journey.

DSC01853Heading up from the riverfront, Adriano took us to Craft Heads Brewing, located right in the heart of downtown on University Avenue West. Formerly a blues bar, Craft Heads opened within the last year in a basement location sunken below street level but with windows above ground. A large open space holds numerous tables, and the back bar encompasses a large tap wall with beers labeled “A” to “Z”.  Similar to Motor Burger, all of Craft Heads beers are brewed on a tiny system, again remarkable to maintain a line-up that purports to be 30 beers.

Due to the inherent capacity of such a small system, a few beers were unavailable on our visit, but the line-up included a diverse range of styles including a saison, coffee stout, honey brown, hefeweizen, blackberry blonde, rye beer, oatmeal brown and multiple porters. Great to see this kind of diversity in a beer line-up.

DSC01868While in downtown we decided to check out a new addition to the scene, the Blind Owl on Oullette, the main nightlife strip in Windsor’s core. The Blind Owl, opened only a few months ago, is a tiny, attractive bar, with unique decor and a focus on craft cocktails. The beer list is a broad one that includes numerous craft and mass-market selections. It’s not the kind of place my ‘big-city’ biases towards Windsor would have expected, as it’s a definitely a cool spot and a welcome respite from the raucous and unappealing party bars located down the street.  A must stop while in downtown, for sure.

DSC01881Continuing along University Avenue led us to Brew Windsor, located on the east portion of the street past the Caesar’s casino zone. Brew has a unique layout, as it’s literally in an old multi-level residential building, the brewery and taproom located on the ground floor. The ground floor is a lively and intimate space, with a small side open-air area. What was quite attractive about Brew was their upper terrace, a narrow patio with a “bi-skyline” view of both Detroit and Windsor. Brew is focusing on only a few core brands at this point in time, with an unfiltered lager and a stout available during my visit. Let’s hope they expand their style experimentation at this promising spot in town soon.

DSC01896We headed back along the riverfront, all the way past the Ambassador Bridge to one of Windsor’s oldest neighbourhoods, Sandwichtown. Here we stopped in at Rock Bottom (not affiliated with the U.S. brewpub chain), a multi-tap bar with 30 beers on draught available. Rock Bottom has a classic American pub feel, with wooden bars and tables, mass-market beer paraphernalia and broken peanut shells strewn across the floors. The tap line-up was interesting for Windsor, featuring Great Lakes, Amsterdam, Flying Monkeys, Stone, Muskoka, Central City and more, but I have to admit that coming from Toronto I am a bit spoiled. Because of that, I was hoping for more local beers in the line-up, with only Walkerville making an appearance. But as Windsor seems to be a market ripe to embrace unique craft beers, brewers from other parts of the province would be wise to make the effort to distribute their beers to Ontario’s Southwest. My suspicions is they would be gulped down quite quickly.

DSC01902We headed back along University Avenue towards downtown, making our final stop of the tour at the Windsor Beer Exchange.  Here live music is common, alongside foosball, pool and a selection of some vintage video games. A small but well-curated selection of ten Ontario draught beers were available, including Craft Heads, Bayside, Descendants, Maclean’s, Railway City and others. One thing that was very interesting about this spot was their “variable pricing” for beers, where pints were priced in real-time based upon each line’s popularity, or lack thereof.

And with that, our beer extravaganza of Windsor wrapped up. My guide Adriano is clearly a passionate Windsorite, and his enthusiasm for the region shows. And through his numerous initiatives to promote the area, he is sharing this passion everyday. I’d highly recommend you take a look at his tours for a great way to see the beer scene of the city. And as Windsor is incredibly flat, it makes for a very easy and low-effort ride to get around town.

DSC01919Windsor is a city where its beer scene is clearly emerging along the trend lines seen across Ontario. Featuring four local craft breweries now, and more on the way (Rock Bottom is building a brewery next to their bar, and there’s a sign up for a Midian Brewing on Wyandotte), the appetite for good beer is evident. There is quite a bit of style variation in the scene, and hopefully the local brewers continue to push themselves to experiment further. Windsor pleasantly surprised me, a city that isn’t just about OV anymore, where your dollar goes significantly further than in Toronto, has a delicious local style of pizza, a lively riverfront and friendly residents. It’s a ride down the highway I look forward to making again.

The Bar Towel thanks Ontario’s Southwest for its generous assistance with my Windsor beer excursion. If you are thinking about taking a trip yourself, there are numerous convenient accommodation options within the downtown core and surrounding area, and with reasonably priced cabs and a city transit system, it is easy to get around. For a chance to win your own trip to experience the region’s culinary delights, enter the Dream Foodie Escape contest here. For trip inspiration, visit


Frothing for Homebrew in San Diego

June 6th, 2015 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The Bar Towel is proud to present our annual preview of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrewers Conference, taking place from June 11th to 13th in San Diego, California. This article will cover highlights of the conference as well as recommended beer destinations in San Diego.

IMG_0660Following last year’s National Homebrewers Conference (NHC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this year it moves to the west coast and the incredible beer city of San Diego, California.  San Diego is a destination that needs no introduction when it comes to beer: it is a vast paradise for beer lovers, with breweries, taprooms, tasting bars, pubs and beer-focused restaurants generously sprinkled across the area’s coastal terrain.  As as the largest conference dedicated to amateur brewing in the world descends on the city, beer once again becomes the focal point of this wonderful city.

If you’ve never been: a warning first.  San Diego is a city that will make you want to move there.  Coming from the frigid depths of Canadian winters, San Diego enjoys a year-round daily average temperature of 21.4 degrees Celsius.  But it’s not just the weather that makes San Diego so enjoyable, or upwards of 100 regional craft breweries for that matter.  It’s simply just an idyllic place, where the residents are friendly, there’s always an interesting sight or neighbourhood to explore and a unique experience to take in.  It’s genuinely one of my favourite places in North America and it will certainly be the same for everyone attending the conference this year.

Now, on to the conference.  This year it is taking place at the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center, a vast, expansive property located in the Mission Valley area of San Diego, with numerous pools, golf, dining and accommodation options. The Craft Brewers Conference was held here in 2012, the final year before they moved to traditional convention centres due to its size.  But for a smaller conference like the NHC, the closeness and intimacy of the resort will allow attendees to easily to meet, mingle and drink with other homebrewers.

IMG_6768The Town and Country is located on a street called “Hotel Circle” for good reason: it is an area of the city where a cluster of hotels exist, with easy access to numerous shopping options (“Fashion Valley”, and others).  It’s also conveniently located about 15 minutes by car from the San Diego airport, itself being right in the middle of the city.  However, I’d encourage you to not stick to the conference property for your time in San Diego, as they’re so much to see and explore in the city.  But we’ll get to that soon.

The conference itself follows a similar structure to previous years: informative seminars throughout the day on various homebrewing topics and a parallel Homebrew Expo featuring exhibitors of brewing equipment and supplies.  During the Homebrew Expo there is also a Social Club, where attendees will always be able to enjoy a beer and mingle with other homebrewers.

One of the unique aspects of the NHC is the service of homebrew at the conference.  So throughout the conference there are different homebrew clubs from the U.S. serving up their beer alongside professionally-produced brews. It’s an obvious great way to try other homebrew from across the country.

The conference is underpinned by its seminars, informative talks, discussions and panels about a wide array of brewing topics including ingredients, process, recipes, styles, history, professional brewing and more.  The speakers include both professional brewers and homebrewers, along with other affiliated industry representatives.  There’s something for everyone, but if you’d like to narrow down some sessions for consideration, here are my picks for some worthy ones to stop in on:

  • Thursday, 9am: State of the Homebrew Industry.  Bart Watson, the chief economist from the Brewers Association always gives interesting talks based upon their brewing data collection and analysis. This will surely be an informative discussion to see how homebrew’s growth compares to the booming professional craft industry.
  • Thursday, 12:45pm and Friday, 12:45pm: A Contrast and Comparison of the Many Variations of India Pale Ale.  San Diego is inextricably linked to Stone Brewing when it comes to beer, so you can’t go wrong hearing from Stone’s brewmaster Mitch Steele about IPA.
  • Thursday, 12:45pm and Saturday, 10:15am: (Almost) Everything You Know About Brewing History Is Wrong. Homebrewer, author and consultant Randy Mosher will certainly provide an entertaining and informative talk about the history of beer styles at this seminar.
  • Thursday, 12:45pm and Friday, 12:45pm: Brewing with Coffee: Approaches & Techniques from Dry-Beaning to Home Roasting. Coffee and beer are a wonderful combination, and so too is this panel consisting of sour beer expert Michael Tonsmeire, Jacob McKean and Amy Krone of San Diego’s Modern Times brewery.
  • Thursday, 2pm: Brewing With Experimental Hops: A New Hop Variety Just For Homebrewers. Vinnie Cilurzo of the renowned Russian River brewery alongside Jason Perrault of the Hop Breeding Company and Karl Vanevenhoven of Yakima Chief-Hopunion will be debuting a new experimental hop bred with homebrewers in mind. Will be interesting see what homebrewers will do with this new hop.
  • Thursday, 4:30pm: Keynote. The keynote address, held at the end of the first day of the conference, is being given this year by Tomme Arthur, co-founder of Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. Another famed San Diego brewery, it will be interesting to hear Tomme’s take on homebrewing and the industry today.
  • Friday, 9am: What a Proper Pairing Can Do for Your Beer. Imagine how great a multi-course beer dinner is, but with homebrew! Greg Brown from Long Beach, California’s awesome Beachwood alongside Adam Dulye of the BA and Sean Clark of Steamworks talk about food and homebrew pairings.
  • Friday, 12:45pm: Mead Panel. A quick shoutout for some CanCon in the session lineup, as Ryan Chaytor of the Cornwall Homebrew Club alongside four others discuss recipes, techniques and more for this fast-growing style of homebrew.
  • Friday, 3:15pm: Ménage à Myces: Blended Yeast Fermentation.  Yeast is a big deal in beer, and this talk is being given by Chris White, founder of White Labs.  Listen to his taken on blended yeasts and pay a visit to the White Labs tasting room in San Diego with 30+ beers brewed on site.
  • Saturday, 9am: Mastering the Art of Hop-Fu!.  Kelsey McNair has earned dozens of awards for his IPAs, and this seminar promises to reveal some of the secrets behind one of the most popular styles in brewing.
  • Saturday, 10:15am: Introduction to Experimentation.  Long-time homebrewers Denny Conn and Drew Beechum are sure to provide an entertaining perspective on the benefits of experimental brewing. Expect true homebrew in action at this seminar.
  • Saturday, 10:15am: Taking Funky Beers from Homebrew to Pro. Peter Perrecone moved from homebrewing to pro with North San Diego County’s Toolbox Brewing, focused on sour and Brett beers. This talk promises to bring the funk.
  • Saturday, 12:45pm: Hops: Grow and Enjoy Your Own. I know I’d love to use my backyard to grow hops, and although Toronto’s climate isn’t the same as San Diego’s, it is of course possible.  This talk by homebrewer Sean Gardinier will discuss tips on growing your own hops.
  • Saturday, 2pm: Blurring the Style Guidelines: Brewing Great, Mixed-Style Beers. Peter Zien, the owner of another famous local brewery, AleSmith, will give a talk about brewing beers that don’t fit into particular styles – always something important for brewers looking to push the barriers of creativity.

There are seminars and panels covering so many topics at the NHC, attendees will certainly come home knowing more than when they arrive.  I’d encourage you to stop in on as many as interest you and enjoy the passion and enthusiasm of the industry.

IMG_6708A delightful aspect to the National Homebrewers Conference are the numerous large-scale social events to meet other homebrewers.  There are events on each of the three nights of the conference: a Welcome Reception on Thursday, featuring Brewers Association breweries; the Club Night on Friday featuring AHA Member Clubs; and the Grand Banquet and Homebrew Competition Awards on Saturday.  The Club Night is especially memorable, as attendees and clubs get very creative with their presentation, appearance and dress.  That’s a bit of an understatement, as the Club Night really needs to be experienced to be understood what it’s all about.  With dozens of homebrew clubs from across the U.S. participating, it’s a definite highlight of the conference and always one of the more unique beer events out there.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t recommend you stay exclusively on the resort property for the duration of the conference.  There will undoubtedly be many, many delicious professional and homebrewed beers available to try, but you owe it to yourself to take a bit of time to explore what San Diego has to offer.  You won’t be disappointed!

IMG_0671For an overview of some of the major breweries and bars in the greater San Diego area, take look at our preview of the Craft Brewers Conference from 2012.  The article covered some of the well-known breweries and bars including Stone, Lost Abbey, AleSmith, and more.  In the rest of this article we’ll focus on a few of the neighbourhoods of San Diego that are easily accessible from the conference property, instead of the breweries located further afield.  However, many of those are pinned at the map that can be found at the end of this feature if you’d like to venture out.

With so many new breweries constantly opening up in San Diego, it’s hard to keep track of them all.  But one thing you can be sure of in San Diego: you’re never too far away from great beer.  Let’s look at some of the interesting neighbourhoods to visit during the NHC to get a feel for San Diego’s local culture and beer.

SAN DIEGO TIP: The city is quite spread out, so it can sometimes be a bit challenging to get around, as San Diego lacks a comprehensive transit system as found in other major cities.  However, San Diego does have Uber and Car2Go, along with local taxis and a transit trolley to help get around. There is also a bike sharing network in certain neighbourhoods of town. Don’t drink and drive.

IMG_0174One of the densest areas for good beer is in the neighbourhood of North Park, along 30th Street.  Within the area you’ll find the San Diego outpost of the famed beer bar Toronado; the fun and lively Tiger! Tiger!; plus tasting rooms for Rip Current Brewing, Mike Hess Brewing, Modern Times and Thorn Street Brewery.  Heading west towards University Heights there is Small Bar (with two locations) and the 20 year-old beer bar Live Wire.  Nearby along Adams Ave. is the well-known Blind Lady Ale House, and heading down to South Park will lead you to the famed Hamilton’s Tavern.

The downtown area of San Diego has some great beer as well, including the stylish beer bar Neighborhood, brewpubs Half Door and Monkey Paw, an outpost of the Karl Strauss brewery family, a tasting room from Ballast Point and a location of the awesome burger joint Hodad’s.

A visit to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without checking out some of beautiful beaches along the city’s 70 miles of coastline.  Ocean Beach has been booming from a beer perspective recently, with a new taproom from Culture Brewing, the Australian-themed beer bar Raglan Public House, the beer and noodle house Bar 1502, and of course the wild and raucous outpost of the brewery and pizza family Pizza Port.  And of course, the original Hodad’s on Newport Ave.

IMG_6731Just on the other side of the bay, Mission Beach is heating up with craft beer, with brewpub Amplified Ale Works and the extensive beer bars Draft, the SD TapRoom, and Barrel Republic.

Other spots within the vicinity of the conference include the vast, remarkable San Diego expansion of the Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens at Liberty Station, brewery and taproom Modern Times, beer bar The Brew Project, and tasting room for Acoustic Ales.

SAN DIEGO TIP: As you’re at the conference you’re a member of the American Homebrewers Association, so don’t forget to check the AHA Member Deals for beer and merchandise offers around San Diego.

San Diego is full of great beer bars, breweries and tasting rooms, so be sure to take a sojourn from the conference to explore and enjoy.  Watch out for special events and tappings to occur during the conference week as breweries and bars show their appreciation for all the homebrewers in town.

It’s hard to go wrong in San Diego.  With great weather, beaches, sights, food and of course beer, there’s a lot to enjoy here.  It’s a wonderful host city for the NHC this year as San Diego is a place that truly celebrates and appreciates beer.  Have fun at the conference, and be sure to follow along on Twitter and join in on the San Diego conversation in our Discussion Forum.  We hope to see you at the NHC!


Chicago’s Beer Scene is Flying High

June 1st, 2015 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Recently I announced a new collaboration with Porter Escapes, to showcase some of the wonderful beer cities that you can visit through their network of destinations. My first trip was to one of the finest beer cities and overall great places to visit in North America: Chicago.  In this feature article I’ll recap the visit and highlight some of Chicago’s top destinations so you can also have a “beer escape” to this marvellous city.


Porter Escapes offers convenient packages which include a bundle of flight and hotel, so of course my first step was getting to Chicago.  Flying on a sunny Friday afternoon, the short flight to Chicago landed at Midway Airport, in the south side of the city.  Chicago is one of the most convenient cities in North America to arrive by plane, as Midway is connected to Chicago’s transit system, the CTA.  Hopping on the “L” at Midway on the Orange Line gets you downtown in about 30 minutes.  With Porter’s incredible location in Toronto, the entire trip from downtown to downtown is remarkably swift and convenient.

PRO CHICAGO TIP: The Chicago transit system uses re-loadable “Ventra” cards which you tap to use upon entry.  The cards hold their value over time, so when you leave Chicago, hold onto your Ventra card and reload it before you go again. This way you can avoid the lineups of visitors figuring things out at the Midway station.

DSC00373Heading downtown, I checked into my hotel, The James, located on E. Ontario St. in the River North area.  The James is right in the heart of the action, close to many great places downtown, and easy to access different CTA lines to get out to Chicago’s interesting neighbourhoods.  It’s a stylish boutique hotel which made for a convenient and comfortable home base for the weekend.

Opting to explore downtown later, I took the CTA Blue Line at Clark/Lake up to the fun neighbourhood of Wicker Park.  Exiting at the Damen stop places you at the epicentre of one of Chicago’s most bustling nightlife areas.  Something that’s unique about this particular area is the intersection of three major streets – North, Damen and Milwaukee – creating a mega-intersection of sorts.  It can be a bit daunting to navigate but it’s worth exploring, as there is great beer to be found in virtually every direction.

DSC00419The first stop was Xoco Wicker Park, part of the family of restaurants from world-famous chef Rick Bayless.  Xoco Wicker Park is the second location of Xoco, the first being right next door to the beloved Frontera Grill and Topolobampo located downtown (and highly recommended).  The Wicker Park location of Xoco on N. Milwaukee Ave. opened in August 2014 and has a bit more elbow room but the same excellent food and drink as fans have come to expect.  This was near the top of my list for the weekend not only for some delicious Mexican tortas, but a chance to try the just-released new beer from Rick Bayless’s forthcoming brewery La Guardia.  Cruz Blanca is a spicy and sharp biere de garde brewed with hominy, epazote, lime peel and coriander in collaboration with Perennial Artisan Ales of St. Louis.  It is a very promising start to what will certainly be a great new addition to the Bayless empire.  I am an unabashed fan (as are many) of the Rick Bayless family of restaurants, and the new Xoco Wicker Park is on my must-visit list in Chicago, and should be on yours too.

Moving along led me up N. Milwaukee to the Links Taproom, a lively bar with 35+ beers on draught and cask.  Using technology to their advantage, the beer menus are all on large digital screens throughout the bar, listing the details of each beer available, and most importantly how much of it is left in the keg.  And for those in the mood for a real beer party, Links even sells jeroboam sizes of selected beer!

DSC00467Crossing the intersection led me to Big Star, located just past the train tracks on N. Damen Ave.  Big Star is always in party mode.  It’s a raucous, expansive taqueria with a large front patio and wrap-around bar inside, with table and bar seating surrounding it.  There is usually always a wait for a table on a popular night, but you can regularly get into the bar area and just squeeze in.  Big Star’s speciality is tacos, and they are excellent.  Complementing their tacos is a small but regularly rotating tap lineup, usually featuring Three Floyds, Lagunitas and Firestone Walker, and a full bar with a focus on bourbon, tequila and cocktails.  If you’re in a rush there’s even a to-go taco window.  Big Star is a great visit to get a taste of Chicago’s nightlife – it’s always a rush in here.

Walking around the corner to W. North Ave. took me to Piece, a large and popular pizzeria and brewery.  Piece is just an all-around good place to get a beer and some delicious food.  They do something that you don’t really see in Toronto outside of chain pizzerias: they make “full size” pizzas.  Like, pizzas that take up the entire table.  And unlike the “Chicago style” pizza that is popular in the Loop area, Piece serves “New Haven style”, which is a thinner crust with a variety of sauce and topping options.  On the beer front, Piece produces a number of their own beers, usually including strong interpretations of German, American and Belgian styles.  Watch for special guest pizzas from time to time (earlier this year they did a collaboration pizza with Doug Sohn of Hot Doug’s), and the always fun-to-watch live band karaoke on Saturday nights.

DSC00518A final stop of the evening took me across W. North to Trenchermen, a unique bar and dining room built into a former Russian bath house from the 1920s.  A very unique and moody space, Trenchermen has a great beer lineup which included Surly, Three Floyds, Metropolitan, Half Acre and more.

While in the neighbourhood it’s also worth a trek to Division Street, a fun area located one train stop closer to downtown, or easily walkable.  Not visited on this trip but in the past I’ve quite enjoyed Bangers & Lace, focusing on interesting takes on hot dogs with beer, and Jerry’s Sandwiches, with a humongous menu of delicious sandwiches and beer.  Also very much worth a visit is the legendary Map Room, located on W. Armitage Ave.  One of Chicago’s oldest beer bars, the Map Room has an ever-changing beer lineup from the U.S. and abroad.


DSC00651Having done the whirlwind tour of Wicker Park, the second day was dedicated to enjoying even more beer across the city.  First up was right around the corner from the James: the Italian food emporium Eataly.

There’s really nothing like Eataly, a hybrid market, restaurant and retail experience with dozens themed areas representing various styles of food and drink.  It’s quite something to behold, and it’s definitely worth a stop while in Chicago.  Getting there early before the crowds arrive is advisable.  After snagging an absolutely delicious house-made sandwich, I checked out their brewery, a bright and airy space on the second floor.  Named the Birreria, beers here have been created in collaboration with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, with a house saison, rye IPA and Berliner weisse on offer, but also with a wide range of tap and bottles from breweries such as Baladin, Del Borgo, Dogfish Head, Half Acre and Three Floyds.

DSC00682The next stop was the new taproom at Goose Island‘s production brewery, located on W. Fulton Ave.  The taproom, only having opened a couple of weeks ago, is a beautiful new showcase for Goose Island.  While there I was fortunate to receive an informative and fun behind-the-scenes tour of Goose by brewer Dave Tohtz.  Dave took me through a quick tour of the computer-controlled brewery, which was at that moment brewing what would become Bourbon County Stout.  After taking a quick peek at the pilot brewing room, bottling lines, aging rooms and the most impressive keg storage room, with kegs of Bourbon County as far as the eye could see, we drove out to Goose Island’s barrel aging warehouse.

I joked on Twitter that the Ark of the Covenant could be in here, as the size of the place instantly reminded me of the last scene of Raiders. The warehouse is massive, holding Goose Island’s incredible collection of barrels, numbering over 6,000.  Split into two areas for Bourbon County Stout and their wine barrel fruit series, the delicious anticipation of tasting what’s in the barrels hangs heavy in the air. Just another reason to come back to hopefully get a chance to enjoy the beer in these barrels.

DSC00736Public visits to the barrel warehouse are only possible during special events, but tours of the main brewery are available by signing up online. Also worth seeking out is Goose Island’s original location, the brewpub located on N. Clybourn Ave.  Their brewery is still operational at the pub, producing a number of unique beers exclusively available there.  (Give a listen to our past podcasts to learn more about Goose Island and their famed Bourbon County Stout.)

As luck would have it the weekend I was there is was also Chicago Craft Beer Week, the week-long celebration of beer which is common across North America.  The closing event was taking place while I was in town, so moving on from Goose Island took me up to  the Ravenswood/North Center neighbourhood to the Welles Park Craft Beer Festival.  It was a casual beerfest in the picturesque park, and a good opportunity to sample some beers from the ever-evolving local beer scene, with 70+ brewers involved.  But my mission this weekend was the beer destinations of the city that you could visit too, so I moved on.

DSC00786Just a block away from the park on N. Lincoln Ave. is the very popular Half Acre brewery and taproom.  Half Acre is one of the new wave of Chicago breweries, opening up on N. Lincoln ‘way back’ in 2009.  And their popularity is sky-high, as on this Saturday in the middle of the afternoon, there wasn’t a free seat to spare in the taproom.  A lively space with communal tables, the taproom features a number of beers from the lineup of Half Acre’s unique range of beers, including Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, Vallejo IPA, Space IPA, Rambis Oatmeal Stout and other specialities.  Right next door to the taproom is the brewery and gift shop, where beer-to-go is available for purchase.

There’s even more great beer in the neighbourhood around Half Acre.  If you’d like to spend some more time exploring, the broad area also has such worthwhile spots as the well-known Belgian-inspired HopLeaf, The Long Room, Fountainhead, The Bad Apple and Resi’s Bierstube.

DSC00824PRO CHICAGO TIP: Chicago’s transit network is one of the most comprehensive in North America, and makes for a great and affordable way to explore the different areas of the city. The Blue and Red lines, which connect many of the bars in this article, run 24 hours a day.

I headed south to the Lake View neighbourhood, with a stop at DryHop Brewers on N. Broadway St.  DryHop is one of the newer additions to the Chicago beer scene, just approaching its two-year anniversary.  They’ve got a bright, open space, with tables fronting the lively Broadway St. and a long bar inside, with beer tanks lining the back of the bar.  One of the more unique offerings I noticed at DryHop was a “can on demand” contraption, where staff would fill cans from the tap and would be sealed on the spot for takeaway.  A very promising spot with beers that included numerous collaborations with other local brewers, such as a Kiwi/Lemon Balm Berliner Weisse with Pipeworks and an Elderflower and Grape Must Saison with Illuminated Brew Works, and more.

DSC00854Walking along W. Belmont Ave. (with a quick stop at Osmium for a local Dark Matter coffee and a Chicago-style dog at Murphy’s Red Hots) led me to the Northdown Cafe and Taproom on N. Lincoln Ave.  The Northdown is a wonderful spot, with great beer, unique art ordaining the walls, retro movies playing above the bar and even some pinball to boot.  Home of the Chicago chapter of the Mikkeller Running Club, they have a small but well-curated tap list which included Maine Beer Co., Perennial, Lost Abbey, Three Floyds, Off Color and more, plus a vast lineup of bottles.  There’s a great neighbourhood feel here and an easy place to spend many hours sampling some delicious beer.

Other spots worth checking out in the area include the Green Lady, Sheffield’s, Delilah’s, Atlas Brewing, Beermiscuous and Kuma’s Too.  On the way back towards downtown is the famed Local Option, a bar that just about everyone into beer already knows about.  Located on W. Webster Ave. near DePaul University, Local Option is a metal-themed bar with a massive lineup of draught and bottles, including a number of their own house brews.  They frequently host special events and tappings, so be sure to check them out when planning a Chicago Beer Escape.

DSC00910The beer neighbourhood exploration continued, moving along to the lively nightlife area Logan Square.  First up was the booming Revolution Brewing Brewpub on N. Milwaukee Ave.  Revolution has been a tremendous success since their inception, having expanded from their original brewpub location to also include a full production brewery and taproom on Kedzie Ave.  The original brewpub is a great space, with many clever design details such as barrel stave walls and Revolution’s iconic fists built into the construction of the bar.  Over 15 of their house beers are available, ranging in styles from IPA, Porter, Wit, Pilsner and other unique concoctions.

Walking up Milwaukee led me past numerous hotspots, including the vast Emporium, Chicago’s contribution to the vintage arcade bar phenomenon.  There’s video games, pinball, pool tables, air hockey, craft beer and food trucks in here, truly a great spot to have some fun while enjoying a tasty beverage.  There’s also a second location of Emporium down in Wicker Park.

Continuing along Milwaukee and through Logan Square itself led to Longman & Eagle on Kedzie.  This renowned restaurant and bar is candlelight dark on a Saturday night, but still bustling with patrons both at the bar and the dining room.  Featuring a huge spirits lineup with a particular focus on whiskey, they have a strong draught lineup which included Founders, Pipeworks, Off Color, Solemn Oath and more.

DSC00951The night finished with one last stop, and one of the most unique places on the trip so far.  Wandering right into the residential neighbourhood of Logan Square on Albany Ave. led me to SmallBar.  This place is tucked into the neighbourhood itself, surrounded by residential buildings on all sides.  But inside is anything but sleepy late at night, with a friendly crowd and great beer lineup, including offerings from Prairie, Revolution, Pig Minds, IBW, Metropolitan and more.  It was a fitting stop for one last pint to reflect on a fantastic day of beer exploring.


The final day of the Chicago Beer Escape began with a short break from beer for a little sightseeing.  Chicago has some amazing attractions and one of the best ways to see many of them is using a Go Card Chicago.  I’m not one to dwell at museums or other sights – I like to go in, check things out and move on.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off style.  And this card is perfect for that, as dozens of attractions in Chicago are included, many allowing you to bypass the regular ticket lineups so you can get in very quickly.

PRO CHICAGO TIP: Chicago has a vast urban bike-sharing network, Divvy.  Day passes are available for $7, and is a great way to get around downtown (and beyond) for sightseeing.  It’s often a much faster way to zip around town than on foot or via the CTA to hit up numerous sights rapidly.

DSC00986Being on a countdown clock to returning home, I jetted over to the Magnificent Mile (N. Michigan Ave.) being only a few blocks from the James and up to the top of 360 Chicago, commonly known as the observatory at the John Hancock Tower.  Located 94 stories up, it makes for a great view of the city and lakefront.  Also worth it (and also part of the Go Card Chicago) is the complementary views from the top of the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower).

Just around the corner was a quick stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then down into the Loop to the vast, world-class Art Institute of Chicago, one of the best museums you’ll find anywhere.  It feels like at every turn while exploring the Art Institute leads to an iconic piece.  Some personal favourites of mine include the huge Impressionist and American art galleries, the architecture collection, plus Chagall’s America Windows and the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (always a good spot to escape the crowds too).  You truly cannot go wrong at the Art Institute.

DSC00545PRO CHICAGO TIP: When sightseeing in Chicago, you’ll regularly cross the many bridges of the city providing some awesome views.  Be sure to check out the Kinzie Street bridge, one of my personal favourite bridge views and immortalized in film in the “Top 5 things I miss about Laura” scene from High Fidelity.

Now this is a Beer Escape after all, so after some great sightseeing it was time to wrap up the trip with one of Chicago’s most dynamic food and drink areas: the Fulton Market.  This longtime meatpacking district has in recent years been transformed with some of the most acclaimed bars and restaurants in the city, and the density of spots made it for a great place to finish the trip.

First up in the Fulton Market area was the Little Goat Diner on W. Randolph St.  This is the sister location to famed chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, located just across the street.  The Little Goat is a multi-faceted destination, with a sit-down diner, a bar, coffee shop and to-go bakery counter. It’s truly a fabulous spot that can accommodate thirst and hunger at any time of day.  On this particular Sunday they were hosting a rooftop patio party featuring Revolution Brewing, but at all other times the Little Goat has a well-thought through draught selection including the likes of Off Color, Begyle, 21st Amendment, Ballast Point and Half Acre.  You just can’t go wrong here.

DSC01163A couple of doors down is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Lone Wolf Tavern.  A hotspot by night, the bar is quiet and relaxed on a Sunday afternoon, but with no shortage of great beer.  They are incredibly fortunate to have four permanent Three Floyds taps, making the Lone Wolf one of the top destinations to find the sought-after beers from the famed Munster, Indiana brewery.  On this afternoon they had Alpha King, Rabbid Rabbit, Black Heart, Lord Rear Admiral from Three Floyds plus other taps from Solemn Oath, Dark Horse and more.

Around the corner is Green Street Smoked Meats, a warm and rustic down-an-alley bar and counter with beer, cocktails and meats, reminiscent of Fette Sau in Brooklyn.  There’s a real warehouse feel here with a raw, rough brick interior and a classic rock soundtrack playing.  Brisket, pork, chicken and more are the specialties here, and are a tasty complement to a solid beer lineup of 16 taps including six from Local Option.

DSC01180Just a block away on Halstead St. is a brand-new location of Whole Foods Market, always a great go-to destination for beer shopping to take home.  On this particular trip I was able to find some Three Floyds here, which I easily packed into my bag for a beery souvenir of Chicago.  And if you can’t decide what to buy, you can sip on site at the Red Star Bar, the Whole Foods in-grocery bar with 24 beers on tap. Remarkable.

There’s much more to explore in the Fulton Market area – also worth checking out is the fine dining and beer restaurant Publican, its casual sister location Publican Quality Meats, along with brewpub Haymarket.  This is just another of many areas in Chicago that will keep you well fed and satiated.

And with that, the Chicago Beer Escape came to an end, with a quick ride back to Midway and swift flight back to Toronto.  Chicago is a wonderful city to explore, drink, eat, and make new friends.  It’s a city that likes to enjoy life, and you can tell with the bars and restaurants. They are almost always perpetually busy, yet one is always made to feel welcome and encouraged to join in on the fun.  My collaboration with Porter Escapes allowed me to fly, stay and do Chicago easily on a weekend, and you should consider taking your own Beer Escape there if you haven’t, or haven’t recently.  It’s simply delicious.

Please see refer to the map below as all the locations mentioned in this article are pinned.  And there’s always more popping up in Chicago, so be sure to follow the ongoing thread in our discussion forum to learn about the latest Beer Escapes to this fine city from our active craft beer community.


The Bar Towel Escapes to Chicago for Great Beer

May 20th, 2015 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

logo_EN (1)The Bar Towel is thrilled to announce a new collaboration with Porter Escapes, all in the name of great beer!

It’s no secret that Porter Escapes is a fabulous way to enjoy some amazing destinations, and one thing you’ll be able to find at all of them is delicious craft beer.  So, The Bar Towel is going to bring you information, insights, reviews and profiles about the best craft beer spots at select Porter Escapes destinations.  With a Porter Escapes travel experience that includes flights and hotels, now you’ll be able to add a delicious beer itinerary to your upcoming trip!

Delicious house blend Lambic Doux at Chicago’s Publican Restaurant.

Delicious house blend Lambic Doux at Chicago’s Publican Restaurant.

First up in the wonderful city of Chicago.  Home to such famous beer havens such as Goose Island, Local Option, Half Acre, Piece, Map Room, The Publican and more, Chicago is a great destination for beer, food and culture.  And it just so happens that we are in the middle of the 6th annual Chicago Craft Beer Week, running until May 24th, with numerous beer-related celebrations and events occurring across the region.

Please (virtually) join us this weekend (May 22nd-May 24th) as we tour and highlight some of Chicago’s great craft beer destinations, events during Chicago Craft Beer Week, and other unique sights along the way. Follow along via our Twitter and Instagram feeds, and when we’re back we’ll recap all the spots in a feature article on The Bar Towel.

Cheers to a delicious “beer escape” to Chicago!

Inside Magnolia's new Smokestack in San Francisco.

Bar Towel Radio with Dave McLean of Magnolia Brewing

April 13th, 2015 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

I’ve written fondly in the past about San Francisco, one of my favourite beer cities in North America. This year I was fortunate enough to visit again, and while I was there I recorded an interview with Dave McLean, the founder and brewmaster of Magnolia Brewing Company, now featured in our latest episode of Bar Towel Radio.

In the episode I chat with Dave at Magnolia’s Smokestack, their new production brewery and BBQ restaurant, and highlight some of San Francisco’s top beer destinations. Give it a listen here:


If you enjoy Bar Towel Radio, please consider subscribing to via iTunes.

The CBC's host venue, the Oregon Convention Center. Photo courtesy

Our Seminar Picks at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference

April 10th, 2015 Posted by Beer Events, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from April 14th to 17th, 2015 in at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. Part One of the preview covered our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

The Craft Brewers Conference in Portland is only days away, and now’s the time to begin planning to get the most out of your experience. As the largest conference of its kind in the U.S., the CBC can almost be overwhelming nowadays, with non-stop panels, seminars, demonstrations, hospitality events, meetings and vendor showcases. Oh, and the thousands of beer industry folks from all over the world descending on the Oregon Convention Center for three days of camaraderie, connecting and, of course, drinking.

The core schedule format of the CBC is consistent from recent years past, with sponsored demonstrations and hosted seminars occurring throughout the day, and the BrewExpo America trade show running simultaneously, along with various other group meetings, hospitality suites and official nightly events taking place. (See Part One of our preview for a rundown of a number of events happening around Portland, not officially affiliated with the conference itself.)

The big news this year is the addition of an extra half day of BrewExpo America.  (Previously only running on the Wednesday and Thursday, BrewExpo America now runs from 9am-5pm on Wednesday and Thursday, and 8:30am-12pm on Friday.)  This trade show attracts 600 vendors and is a brewery owners’ dream, as suppliers offering everything from basic needs such as equipment and ingredients to neon signs and specialty merchandise are all here. And with over a dozen beer stations throughout the show, it’s easy to stay liquified as you wander up and down the aisles. And speaking of beer, keep your eyes open for the six Symposium Beers produced by Oregon brewers for the CBC.



Craft Brewers Conference Preview, Part One: Portland, Oregon

April 6th, 2015 Posted by Beer Events, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from April 14th to 17th, 2015 in at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. Part One of the preview covers our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

Portland is a city that you want your city to be like. It’s a city where you envy the things that they do and wish it happened where you live. In Toronto, where food trucks and carts have a persistent struggle for their very existence, Portland has literally hundreds of food carts thriving throughout its neighbourhoods. In a time where everything in life is getting more expensive, Portland has no sales tax. And in cities across North America where small brewing is booming, Portland has been on that for years, with over 50 breweries within the city limits, more than anywhere else in the world.

Welcome to The Bar Towel’s annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) preview, this year taking place in Portland, Oregon. Since the Brewers Association (organizer of the CBC) announced Portland as the location of the 2015 conference, the dates have been circled in bright red on the calendars of those across the brewing industry.  Portland is truly a paradise for fans of small brewing and one of the top destinations for beer in the United States.

As with every CBC, the conference is just as much a way to explore the destination city as it is to take in the conference programming, and we wholeheartedly recommend doing both.  Portland is a walkable, discovery friendly city and you’ll enjoy your CBC experience even more by taking some time to check it out. (See our past previews of Denver, Washington DC, San Diego and San Francisco if you’re interested.)

“Local” and “craft” aren’t clichés in Portland, they are part of its DNA. Portland is a city of local food, coffee, beer – just about everything that you’d want to put in your body Portland takes immense pride in. In this Part One of our CBC preview, we’ll outline some of the beer and brewing spots that you might want to check out while in Portland, and Part Two will cover our seminar picks for the conference itself.



Listen to Bar Towel Radio Live from Goose Island

January 17th, 2015 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Bar Towel Radio returns with a special episode recorded last November at Goose Island’s Black Friday tasting event, featuring their famed Bourbon County Brand Stout series of beers.

The event, held annually at their brewpub in Chicago to coincide with the launch of Bourbon County Brand Stout, is a live tasting of the BCBS lineup, hosted by brewers and other staff from Goose Island.

This year I was fortunate enough to attend the Black Friday tasting and was permitted to record the event for Bar Towel Radio.  You can listen to the episode below or via iTunes:

This is the first part of a special two-part “Live from Goose Island” series, and our next episode will be a live recording of the brewery tour from Goose Island’s Chicago brewpub.  Stay tuned for that one, and in the meantime enjoy this episode!

The Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington, Vermont.

Bar Towel Radio Returns

September 22nd, 2014 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Well, it’s not quite the return of Arrested Development, but after a 6 year (!) hiatus, The Bar Towel’s podcast, entitled Bar Towel Radio, has returned.

In July of this summer we traveled down to the Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington, Vermont, and had a chat with Jeff Baker, the Director of Liquid Assets at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, an great beer bar and restaurant in town.  And that visit and chat is now our latest podcast!

You can give it a listen right here:

Bar Towel Radio – Jeff Baker & the Vermont Beer Scene

If you’d like, feel free to listen to or subscribe to Bar Towel Radio via iTunes.

Here are some of the spots referenced in the episode, if you can make it down to visit Burlington:

You can read our past Bar Towel On the Road Report about Vermont here.