Spring is a season of transition — of in-betweens, of medians instead of extremes. While winter calls for big, sweater-weather stouts with high ABVs and summer demands easy-drinking, light lagers, springtime has always been a season without much of a style.
Which is why this year, in the middle of the weirdest spring ever, I implore you to start drinking brown ales.
Brown ales are the Baby Bear of beers: Not too big, not too small. Not too light, not super dark. Not too sweet, but not too bitter. Hearty and comforting, but still poundable on that first 70-degree day on the front stoop.
As if anticipating demand this spring, Chicago breweries are churning out brown ales. At District Brewyards (one of our best new bars of 2019), Burnt City recently released a brown ale called The Next Big Thing, and, appropriately enough, those cans have already sold out. So we’re taking their cue and rounding up some brown ales available now that will be the next next big thing.
Hardcore Normcore Brown Ale from Pipeworks Brewing
Brown ales may be uncool compared to the avant-garde, anything-goes beers that Pipeworks is known for. But sometimes, you just need the beer equivalent of a pair of khakis. Hence the inspiration for Pipeworks’ Normcore brown ale, which was released last November. Their newest version amps up Normcore with Dark Matter’s Unicorn Blood espresso blend, making this the perfect brown ale for an early afternoon (or mid-morning — what even is time anymore?) pick-me-up.
Find it: $12 for a 4-pack of 16 oz. cans. Curbside pickup available at the production facility, 3912 W. McLean Ave., Logan Square.
If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old and Ina’s Beachwood Ale from Spiteful Brewing
Spiteful has been a brown ale ambassador since the earliest days of their existence. Nowadays they’re using brown ale as a collaboration tool — they brewed If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old for Kuma’s Corner and Ina’s Beachwood Brown for Ina Mae’s Tavern (previously home to the Beachwood Inn, hence the name). Ina's is an American-style brown ale, while the Kuma’s collaboration is more of a traditional English and pairs great with grilled burgers. Under normal circumstances, you’d have to be at one of those restaurants to sample these beers, but in a rare bit of good news this spring, Spiteful is canning them for the first time.
Find it: $12 for a six-pack of 12 oz. cans. Available to-go from the taproom, 2024 W. Balmoral Ave., Bowmanville.
West Town Brown from Midwest Coast Brewing Company
When Midwest Coast opened its taproom and brewery last September, this beer was on the menu and buzz about it immediately started trickling through the beer grapevine (grain-vine?). They’re calling it an American brown ale, meaning you’ll get the hearty, sweet malt bill of an English-style but zipped up with some extra hop bitterness. While you’re there, grab a crowler of their Gummy Bandit sour: The gummy bears that went into flavoring this beer also helped Chicago Police figure out who recently burglarized the brewery. Crazy.
Find it: Available in $8 crowlers and $25 growlers to-go from the taproom, 2137 W. Walnut St., West Town.
Barrel-aged Cherry Waves with Cherry and Vanilla from Begyle Brewing
It’s stretching our definition of an easy drinker, but this 12 percent ABV imperial is still, at heart, a brown ale — and it’s probably the most extra version we’ve seen. They start with the original version of Cherry Waves, which has a caramelly sweetness, then add vanilla, cherry, and brown sugar before letting it hang out for 11 months in Koval bourbon barrels.
Find it: $15 for a 22 oz. bomber at their taproom, 1800 W. Cuyler Ave., North Center.
Puffing Billy Brown Ale from Around the Bend
This is probably the closest thing to a classic Chicago brown ale, as it’s been reliably available from Around the Bend since 2015. ATB takes the sweet malt backbone of the beer and melds in cacao nibs — think of it as a brown ale by way of a chocolate fountain. You can pick this up from their home at the District Brewyards. While you’re there, ask their fellow Burnt City brewers when they’ll have that Next Big Thing back on hand.
Find it: $9.99 for a 4-pack of 16 oz. cans available for curbside pickup from District Brewyards, 417 N. Ashland Ave., West Town.