When the Local Option is the only option — The Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer

by Michael Kiser

A meandering evening on the town and an encouraging invitation from the one and only Alexi Front from the Local Option unexpectedly brought me and my small crew to the Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer last Friday night. Unexpectedly, but appropriately. 

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When I first moved to Chicago, the Local Option was a slightly roughed-up bar with a modified Rolling Rock billboard out front. As a Pennsylvanian, this drew me in, and I kept going back for the decent beer selection and fish tacos. Back then, fish tacos were some sort of Chicago luxury, as were nationally sourced craft beers. These guys were doing the hard work of getting the good stuff. But over the years, the Local Option has re-invented itself a few times. They still manage to avoid the college crowd that pulses just down the street at places like State and McGee's across the way. And the best I can figure, it has a lot to do with the invisible middle finger on the front door. Somewhere on the facade of that place is a dead coyote on the rail telling the rest of the pack to stay away. And they mostly do. They also continue to seek out some of the most ambitious craft beers from across the nation, and across the pond. 

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The Local Option's most recent transformation seems more like a coming into its own. For the last few years, these guys have been working alongside local and regional brewers, developing their Bierwerker operation. Reluctant to be called contract or gypsy brewers, the Bierwerker doesn't just develop recipes and hope for the best — the team sources their own ingredients and sets up shop in a brewery to do their own work. They've brewed alongside production teams at Bluegrass in Kentucky, Goose Island and Three Floyds. Their beers have been in market, on tap in Chicago for awhile now, and the Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer was a chance to try a good range of them alongside some other heavyweights. When it comes to being local, you'll find a couple here and there on the menu beyond the bar's own offerings. But mostly, the Local Option is the only local option. The rest are distinctly out of market, rare, and usually huge. Alexi and crew have great taste, and a wandering eye.

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But first, the shredding contest. Having neglected to read the event description before showing up (that wouldn't be very metal) the arrangement of a couple bar tables, amp and a pedal took us by surprise. The introduction of an Epiphone Flying V even more so. This was a shredding contest, and we had a front row seat to the mayhem. Three locals competed for the prize of taking home the guitar by attempting to melt as many faces (and a few hearts no doubt) as possible inside of a minute. Backbeat or no backbeat, these guys balanced delicately on top of wobbly tables, and dropped the hammer on the guitar. It made me feel like I wasn't fully conscious in the late 80s. It felt like a reckoning. 

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Let's pair a beer. Schmetterling Gose, a salty sweatsock of an ancient beer style is described more professionally as a "saline sour ale." A brew native to Saxony in its day, the beer is crisp and citrusy, seasoned with black lava salt, coriander and hops and fermented sour with lactobacillus. It's an oddly addictive flavor, and the aromas remind one of a musty dorm room. It's a great way to start a spiraling evening at only 4.5%. 

As the guitars continue to whale and grind, American Muscle, a double IPA, smoothed things out. This is a big, malty DIPA with a body like a trippel, and the citrus and floral is tightly packed on the nose until the very end of the sip. As it works against your nose and palate, the booziness comes through as big as a barleywine. 

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La Petite Mort, essentially French for "orgasm" to anyone paying attention, is a bourbon barrel aged Weissenbock that combines the dryness of a Belgian yeast with the viscosity of caramel and dark fruit character. Brewed in collaboration with Central Waters in Amherst, Wisconsin, this brew really shows how big the Bierwerkers can get while still maintaining a strong balance of flavors. There's no bourbon overload in here, just a smooth, boozy, dark-sweet love boat. 

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As the shredding came to an end (at least the end of the first round, before a mandatory playoff between the clear Local Option favorite and the crowd pleaser with his college friends), we had worked through a number of other big beers. Boulevard's Reverb imperial pilsener, Hair of the Dog and De Proef's Flanders Red, the Nøgne Two Captains and Chicago's own Pipework's A Foolish Wit.

Okay boys, let's play this out...

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