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A 2004 Beer and Steam Odyssey through the US Midwest

Part 3: Milwaukee to Chicago for brew-pubs in and around the Windy City

Tuesday 22nd to Thursday 24th June

US Midwest P3 1The following day found us at Milwaukee Union station for the next stage of our journey. It is just 86 miles to Chicago so we had a late morning start and an early afternoon arrival in Chicago Union station. It is worth remembering that this was another high speed section of the former Milwaukee Road. In 1938 this section was achieved in 75 minutes including the slow approaches to end stations.

We had soon checked into our hotel in the River North district and our first port of call after was the local branch of Rock Bottom not far away. This dates from 1995 and was formerly two separate premises, a café and record store. It is on the corner of State Street and Grand Avenue and the Grand station of the CTA Red Line is right outside. The building itself dates from the period of rebuilding following the Great Fire of 1871. Quite frankly, it doesn’t look that old.

US Midwest P3 2After a taster flight of beers and a pint of cask-conditioned Chicago Gold we were out and around for the afternoon / evening. We travelled from the aforementioned Grand station one stop to Lake in the “Loop” where we transferred to the Brown line and travelled in a north-west direction to Damen station. New York has its famous Flatiron building, so named for its unusual shape, but Chicago has its own version. After descending from the elevated railway I managed to take a photograph of it at the right angle, albeit against the light.

This is the Wicker Park district of the city and a very short walk took us to Piece Brewery & Pizzeria. This opened in September 2001 with Jonathan Cutler at the brewing helm. He had come from the nearby Goose Island Brewery and so was well versed in small breweries. This one is of seven barrels (bbls) capacity and normally turns out around 1,800 barrels per annum, although the original plans called for just 500 bbls a year. I have researched these facts and if they are correct means that they brew around 250 days a year, quite incredible!

The pub is basically one large room with an open kitchen where the New Haven-style pizzas are baked. These are different to the usual Chicago-style which have deep crusts, being much thinner. There was a good vibe that day as it wasn’t too busy. We had a selection of beers here and liked them a lot. We left the pub and walked the short distance to the bus stop of route 72. (See photo, below right.) We caught the bus for a five minute run along North Avenue.

US Midwest P3 3After a short walk we arrived at the Goose Island Brewery. It opened in 1988 and is named after an island in the nearby Chicago River. Back in 2004 it wasn’t as well-known as it is today, see below. There was this pub-brewery and they had another near to Wrigley Park, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, see below. The pub we were visiting is in the Lincoln Park district although it is referred to as the Clybourne outlet, presumably because it’s on the avenue of that name.

US Midwest P3 4A new brewery was opened in 1995 at West Fulton Street, but until 2015 it had no tap room. Even now it is only open Thursday to Sunday. The company was probably in its independent heyday when we visited.

In 2011 they were taken over Anhauser-Busch-InBev, the largest brewing company in the world. The Wrigleyville operation eventually closed at the end of 2015. It was this purchase by AB-IB that set off the process of large multi-national brewers taking over smaller respected breweries mainly to trade on their good name.

Going back, the Widmer Brothers Brewery of Portland, Oregon took a stake in 2004 and thereafter Goose Island has enjoyed nationwide distribution. So, a two brew-pub local operation has become part of a global network. Can anyone stand up and say that the “Craft Beer” name has not been subverted by this and other mega-breweries? It is so blatantly obvious they want to use the respect these small companies have acquired over the years to make themselves a lot of money and eventually quality will decrease. Don’t fall for it!

US Midwest P3 5Back to the innocent days of 2004, we were on our way again and walked to Armitage station of the RTA Chicago “L” (Elevated) railway. Then we went north for four stops to Addison station.

After descending to street level we couldn’t help but miss the imposing edifice of Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs. I first saw this stadium around 1980 and it no doubt looked more modern now. Back then it seemed to be entirely constructed of wood.

US Midwest P3 6A brief history of the Cubs won’t go amiss here. They were founded in 1876 as an inaugural member of the National Baseball League.

They were named as the Chicago White Stockings and became Chicago Cubs in 1903. This was before their most successful seasons ever just prior to the First World War. They were in three consecutive years, for the first time in history, in the World Series, winning two.

They then went on a very prolonged period of winning nothing. There fans were (and are) very loyal but it must been very disheartening to have to watch this. They went 71 years without winning a single trophy and 108 years before being in the World Series. It all changed in 2016 when they won the National League Championship Series followed by the World Series.

US Midwest P3 7So, here we were, going into a crowded pub; it was a match day. This is a huge pub and the atmosphere was electric. Gradually the supporters left; I guess we arrived during an intermission in play.

Sadly the pub is no longer with us. The landlord of the property wanted to redevelop it and throughout 2014 only one month leases were on offer. It closed at the end of the Cub’s season that year, supposedly for ever. However a surprise awaited in April 2015 when it reopened. However it closed at the end of that season, for good. After this satisfying mini-crawl we went back to Addison station for a Red Line train to Grand station for a last one in Rock Bottom before retiring to our hotel.

US Midwest P3 8We now had a break of two complete days away from our special train, yet not away from the rails.

The next morning Wednesday 23rd June we caught a Metra train from Chicago Union Station along the Milwaukee District North Line that runs to Fox Lake. Although we alighted at Libertyville, a journey of just over one hour. This medium sized town in the northernmost part of Illinois is home to Mickey Finn’s Brewery.

This pub has been around for some time, over a hundred years apparently, and it acquired its own brewery in 1993.

A later development is that the brew-pub has moved since we visited. But not very far, just across the road to larger premises. I think this occurred in 2014 and was probably necessary as I remember it was rather small for a brew-pub and was very busy for a midweek lunchtime. We liked the beers a lot.

All too soon we were taking the ten minute stroll back to Libertyville station. We caught the Metra train back to Chicago Union station and then walked a few blocks to another station, the Ogilvie Transportation Centre. This is the former Chicago & North Western Railroad station with sixteen platforms.

US Midwest P3 9It was completely rebuilt to accommodate the office building of CityCorp above which opened in 1987. The original station building of 1911 was knocked down in 1984.

I know I am not alone in thinking that the destruction of the old station was a crime. It was a wonderfully atmospheric place. I remember it had hand-cranked departure indicators when it was the Chicago terminus of the Chicago & North Western Rail Road. At that time the train shed survived, but between 1992 and 1996 it was sadly completely rebuilt anew.

US Midwest P3 10Nowadays it is home to Metra’s Union Pacific lines of which there are three. Union Pacific had taken over the Chicago & North Western in 1995, although in the historic pre-Amtrak era C&NW had handled the UP company’s trains between Omaha (Nebraska) and Chicago. We were travelling on what was once that main line.

The station’s name was changed to Ogilvie in 1997. We caught a train on Metra’s Union Pacific West Line which heads towards Geneva.

We alighted from the train at Villa Park. No, not the more familiar one in Birmingham! It is about a forty minute run from Chicago. Our destination was Lunar Brewing Co. This is one of the lesser-known breweries of Chicago. I have seen it described as a bar with a brewery rather than a brew-pub and I think that is accurate.

US Midwest P3 11We visited in the afternoon which was a very good time as we were told it gets very busy in the evenings. Entering the pub the bar counter with a considerable number of stools is seen on the right whilst there are high tables and stools on the right giving way to normal tables and chairs further down the room. At the end there is a small stage where Blues and Rock bands play on certain evenings. There is a nice mirrored bar back. Apart from their own beers, which we thought were well-crafted, they sell other small and national brewer’s beers.

US Midwest P3 12Back at Villa Park station we caught a train westwards to Geneva station (photo above right). The Metra trains once terminated here; now they continue to the west and tie up at Elburn. At Geneva station we came across the Third Street Bar & Grille with access directly from the platform. There was over thirty minutes before our bus departed and so we paid a visit. Unfortunately they offered only national brewers beers. I tried Budweiser Wheat, a company whose beers and a style I would not normally drink. It lived down to expectations. However, Linda had a great time with the free popcorn making machine.

Then it was on a Pace bus heading north to Elgin, which is not pronounced the same way as the city in Scotland. We got off near the main station and it was a less the ten minute walk to the Prairie Rock Bar & Grill. A notable aspect of our meander towards the brew-pub was crossing over the fast moving Fox River at dusk. The air was laden with flies and mosquitoes and it was very uncomfortable for a time.

US Midwest P3 13The Prairie Rock was a large pub with a separate Chop House. We found it to be a pleasant place and thought the beers were fine. Nevertheless, we won’t be hurrying back, as it has now closed.

Please have a look at the photograph above left. On the right you will see a part of the building with a convex shaped roof line. When we visited it was the Prairie Rock Chop House. This closed through lack of patronage, yet the pub continued to thrive.

US Midwest P3 14In 2012 the former Chop House section was leased to the Discovery Church (founded 2007ad). This, in their own words is a "non-denominational Christ centered" organisation. In December 2015ad it purchased the freehold from the landlord for $1.5 million. In a gesture of Christian benevolence they served the pub notice to quit and sadly it closed in 2016ad.

We caught the train back from Elgin to Chicago Union on the Metra Milwaukee West Line. One for diesel loco fans. It was with a locomotive of type F40C originally built for the Milwaukee Road in 1974. A rare loco then, it had bitten the dust by the end of the year.

So on the morning of Thursday 24th June we found ourselves on the concourse of Randolph Street Station, which has been known as Millennium Station since 2005. When I first used it in the early 1980s the tracks and platforms were in the open and it was an ongoing building site. Over a period of around twenty years it has been totally covered over and now sits underneath Millennium Park.

Chicago has a fair distribution of brew-pubs and brewery tap rooms but they tend to be concentrated in certain areas with nothing in the Loop (central district). The northern suburbs round to the west and south-west are good hunting grounds. The east finds you in the middle of Lake Michigan, no good at all! And unfortunately the south side has very few. Nevertheless here we were catching a train to Flossmoor on the Metra (Suburban Railway) Electric Lines. See photo, below right.

US Midwest P3 15The Millennium station is the only terminal in Chicago with electric trains, the rest rely on diesel operations. It was electrified in 1926 by the Illinois Central Railroad.

There is one main line and two branches. It also hosts trains of the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad that crosses the state line into Indiana and serves Gary, Michigan City and South Bend. It was around a fifty minutes run to Flossmoor.

US Midwest P3 16When we got there it wasn’t far to the pub as it is situated in the station building. With ticket machines there is no need for the ticket office and station buildings often find new uses and the Flossmoor Station Brewery is one of these. We went down from the platform, turned right into the subway and right again to the front door.

In the 1990s the station building was in a poor state and deteriorating. Its saviours were local residents, Dean and Carolyn Armstrong who purchased it. That was back in 1996 when the pub and restaurant opened its doors. They added some new features and attempted to retain and restore the remainder. It has worked well and it has a good pub feel.

The station was built in 1906 as a development opportunity. It is said that there were only six houses in Flossmoor at that time. Of course it soon changed.

Inside we found nice room and settled at the bar counter by a window to the railway. The brewery was behind glass at one end and we couldn’t help but notice the magnificent carved wooden bar back. It looked like it had come from an old pub. Flossmoor Station is the centre of the community. We liked it here and had a selection of beers that was enjoyed considerably.

US Midwest P3 17We took the train back to Chicago Randolph Street and then transferred to Union Station. From here we were destined for Aurora, the end station on the Metra BNSF (Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway) Line. Although this line is part of the Metra network it is operated and staffed with employees of the host railroad. We caught an express train which got us there in about an hour.

And if you thought you’d got away with the last railway connections you would be wrong because we were heading towards Walter Payton’s Roundhouse. This is the magnificent roundhouse that once was home for locomotives. It was built in 1856 for the Chicago and Aurora Railroad. That became the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1868 as ambitions to extend westward came to fruition.

US Midwest P3 18Eventually the CB&Q extended all the way to Denver, Colorado. In 1901 it was jointly taken over by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads, yet kept its separate identity. In fact it expanded by purchasing railroads that took it down into Texas. It was famous for the Zephyr trains that operated from Chicago to many cities, often on other railroads. Even now the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland operated by national passenger train operator Amtrak stops daily at Aurora on its long journey to the Pacific Ocean.

The railroad ceased using it in 1974 and it lay empty for twenty-one years. It was placed on National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The building was purchased in 1995 by investors led by Walter Payton, a well-known former player with the Chicago Bears American Football team. It opened in 1996 as a microbrewery, bar, restaurant, museum and events centre as Walter Payton’s Roundhouse.

The brewery within was known as America’s Brewing Company and there was considerable quirkiness about the operation. Bears were the recurring theme. Not surprising really considering Mr Payton’s former football club. There is a friendly bear family to be found on the way out to the patio, see photo above left. Also, a gigantic painting on the wall depicting a large number of bears dancing in the woods, photo above right. We thought it was really good, if not a little surreal, a bears’ disco!

US Midwest P3 19I presume this has now all gone because in June 2011 it reopened as the Two Brothers Roundhouse with ten beers from their brewery and two produced on the plant within the pub. Their home brewery is at Warrenville, Illinois. They have gone on to found a chain of pubs throughout Chicago-land and have even opened one pub as far away as Arizona!

Then we walked the very short distance to Aurora station and caught a train towards Chicago.

US Midwest P3 20Yet, we didn’t go the whole way, alighting at Downer’s Grove. There was a certain amount of trepidation about this visit. We were going to Emmett’s Brew Pub. A well-known website had provided information that this, the second branch of this brewery, would open in Downer’s Grove on Monday, of that week!

Well it all worked out fine as the information was correct, thanks to the internet back in 2004! It turned out to be a very pleasant pub indeed, serving beers that had been made with high quality ingredients.

Their first pub was established in 1998 at West Dundee, Illinois and they now have four, the other two locations being Wheaton and Palatine. They are all around this part of Illinois and the first three established are housed in historic main street buildings. We had enjoyed ourselves here and recommend it, just a few minutes south of Downer’s Grove Metra station where we headed next to go back to Chicago Union station.

Bob Thompson
Part 3 of 5