The role that Beer Under Glass plays in Chicago Craft Beer Week is a glorious one. It ushers in one of the city's most anticipated times of the year, kicking off 10 days of passionate observance of our burgeoning industry in craft beer. And for the past two years, summer itself has come shining across the sky as if riding on the tail of a comet that is Beer Under Glass. It's no wonder that after months of dreary days and frigid temperatures, Chicago collectively looks to this event with the anticipation of a child going to Disney Land for her first time. The acronym "BUG" being whispered in every bar conversation for a month beforehand. Kegs being stashed away in dark coolers around the region far in advance. Shorts, short-sleeve shirts, and sunglasses being dug up from the deepest parts of our closets.
The past two years, BUG has also become a new brewer showcase. Many of the city's newest upstarts scramble to complete their fabrications and installs by early spring, hoping through may sleepless nights that their first production batches will be settled out come Craft Beer Week. And their first official pours, the first hands they shake, and the first smiles they see, will be at BUG.
This is also a chance for Chicago proper to get a look at many of the newer suburban breweries kicking off in the past year. Church Street from Itasca, Buckledown from Lyons, Triptych in Savoy all load up and strike out for the Conservatory grounds like farmers coming to market. Chicago's suburbs have been raising up new breweries at an astonishing pace the past two years. And with each town coming on-line to the movement, a new craft culture springs to life. Last year at BUG, Solemn Oath of Naperville, Illinois poured their first beers to a bewildered, but curious crowd. "Naperville?" people asked, "why Naperville?" At the time, it seemed impossible that a craft brewer could survive without the critical mass of an urban center. But Solemn Oath didn't just survive, they flourished. With a strategy combining key city accounts and a taproom in a light industrial park in Naperville, the brewery has been able to add tanks, staff up, and roll out with some of the biggest breweries in the business, including Lost Abbey who's collaboration beer, Famine, they poured at this year's BUG in commemoration of their first meteoric year.
With such a booming industry, and an increasingly fervent culture, the Conservatory was bursting at the seems with vendors and attendees. Last year, the event dribbled onto the outdoor patio to accommodate a few extra brewers. This year it consumed it. And tented areas sprawled like shanty towns further out into the conservatory grounds in multiple directions. Natural eddies form in certain rooms, helping create spontaneous run-ins with friends and colleagues, and before you know it, an hour has gone by. In a few short hours, it was nearly impossible to make your way around to every brewer, and in fact, many found that by the end, they had actually missed a few of the smaller off-shoots completely. I found Laugunitas at the very end of one of these jaunts, a double-tapped jockeybox on the edge of it all, iced down and ready to pour their IPA and Undercover. Seeing my paper soup cup in hand (this was a bit of a small scandal actually), Kevin from Laugunitas kindly swapped me out for some proper glassware.
As is wont to happen, the sun starts to set and the crowd migrates out to the West-facing patio in the back of the conservatory as though directed by some magnetic force in their bodies, or a desire to wring any last drop of summer sun is still in the sky, and any last pours of Virtue's Red Streak Cider, or Metropolitan's Arc Welder might be swishing around in a keg. Metro's Logan Lippincott, known to some as the Adonis of Chicago Craft Beer, stands with robot at his side, charming both the young and old as they pass by with Cleetus Friedman's sliders in hand.
And finally, with only so much as a faint "last call!" the lights go suddenly out. And if you were like us, venturing further out into the tented areas of the groomed forests of the conservatory, you stand with your compatriots, a little heady, full of optimism for the summer, wondering how, just how, you're supposed to tear down a jockey box in the pitch dark. And just as suddenly, Pete Crowley, Founder of Haymarket Brewpub and President of the Brewer's Guild, turns on an industrial grade flashlight, and leads the way.