Illinois Craft Beer Bracket: Narrowing the Field Down

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Craft brewing is an art form, with the beer as the canvas and the brewer a creative individual getting in touch with their aesthetic impulses. You can taste and smell the creativity in the liquid concoctions, and your sense of sight experiences the creativity when you the artwork and naming on the cans.

(Update: to see who won the bracket go here)

Yes, March brings the Illinois Beeracket, created by the Illinois Craft Brewers guild, and I couldn’t wait to get to Revolution Brewing Company to pick my beer bracket up, and commence beer bracketology bliss. We start with the field of 24, narrow it down to the tantalizing 12, the sensational 6, and so forth.

I filled out my bracket seeding based on name brand, reputation and just basically, how cool the can looked. And as you can see, a lot of these cans look amazing. The criteria for advancing is simple- taste, and taste only. No need to overthink it, it feels good do it, and the beeracket arrives at a great time for sampling various styles of beer.

For those snowy or rainy days in the 30s and 40s, you have thick, dark stouts to drink. For the high 50s to mid 60s sunny spring days, break out the lighter beers with higher drinkability. Like I always say, Bourbon County Stout is for the winter and hard seltzers belong in the summertime and certainly not vice versa.

In this post, I’ll go through most of my favorites, and others I didn’t like as much. As of this writing, I’ve sampled about 2/3 of the beeracket, hence I’m not revealing my bracket until it’s entirely filled, and that is set to run on Final 4/National Championship weekend.

Our champion will be crowned to coincide with the actual cutting down of the nets in college basketball. Seedings are listed, but these are not done in any particular order. Vitals are listed when present on the can. So without further do, here’s the opening tip

#1 Goose Island, Lost Palate, Hazy IPA

Of course, the lone Goose offering has to be the #1 overall seed in the tournament, because they started this revolution; at least among brewers in this state. I strongly suggest you read Josh Noel’s fantastic page-turner “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business.”

The tome is to craft beer what the book of Genesis is to the bible, and I say that as a very secular and non-religious person. As for the beer itself, what can I say I’m just not an IPA guy. I’m not sensing the mango notes it claims, but I definitely pick up on the cinnamon flavors it advertises.

I see this brew falling in an upset, in the early rounds. Just like the real tournament this spring!

#2 Crystal Lake Brewing, Club 400 Ballpark Lager, Dry Land Series, 4.8% ABV

I am not sure how they can get away with so much obvious imagery evocative of the Chicago Cubs, without paying royalties to the ballclub here. There are no official Cubs logos or branding, but the colors, pinstripes, ivy, etc. is meant to make you think of being at Wrigley Field.

However, they keep it general and vague enough that I’m guessing they don’t have to pay royalties to the ballclub, and I say great for them! MLB is socioppathically territorial about protecting their trademarks, so if CLB’s lawyers got this cleared, then now I appreciate this beer on two levels.

It’s highly drinkable, like a Goose Island 312, but tastier and more interesting. The more natural Goose Island comp is Summertime Kolsch, which has been marginalized to obscurity these days, but was absolutely fantastic in its heyday. Club 400 has major final four potential.

#7 Ravinia Brewing Co. Diversey Station, Juicy Session Pale Ale, 4.9% ABV 28 IBUs

A hop forward citrusy hefeweizen, it’s very drinkable and smooth. Love the artwork on the can- the Maplewood Train Station, old school skyline and victory column. On to the elite eight.

#4 Shortfuse German Chocolate Cake Stout, 6.5% ABV

All the sweetness in this dessert feeling beer out of Schiller Park. In addition to the sugary treat mentioned in the title, it also lists notes of donuts and coconut; final four bound.

 

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#8 Nik & Ivy Fresh Brewed Beer, 5.1% ABV

Born and raised in Lockport, this one had my heart before even popping the top, as I’m originally a Palos Heights native. As the only southwest suburban beer in the bracket, they deserve an automatic bye to the next round. But seriously, I love the freshness date and serial number being handwritten in marker on the can, and “fresh” is the perfect word to describe this. I really can’t think of another beer in a can that tastes like it comes out of a tap; astounding.

Championship contender here.

#19 Imperial Oak Brewery, Movembeer Double Oatmeal Stout, 9% ABV, 30 IBUs

I really wanted to like this one, but it just fell short. I kept thinking of that line from Amadeus: “too many notes.” This one gets too cute and eventually disappoints. Not really that bad, but it’s just not great. Major potential, but unrealized. Aged in whiskey rye barrels, this was supposed to have chocolate and vanilla notes, but I only noticed mostly bitter vibes, and very little sweet ones.

#17 Sew Hop’d Brewery, Heartbot Imperial Coffee Stout, 9.9% ABV

This definitely tasted like a poor man’s Bourbon Count Stout. Actually, it’s a reasonable every day man’s BCS, because Bourbon County is so massively overpriced. (Although Jewel is practically giving them away right now for $3.99 for some reason- crazy!). Anyway, I drink my coffee black so I had high hopes here, but this was kind of gross.

 

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#12 Best Kept Secret Double Dry Hopped IPA, 8.3% ABV

I just wasn’t feeling this offering from More Brewing Co. at all, but that’s because I just do not like IPAs. I guess I’ll never be…whatever the craft beer version of a foodie is, because I just don’t like India Pale Ales, and that seems to be a craft brew culture thing.

Just give me a nice dark, very strong in ABV stout, or a light, easy drinking pilsner or kolsch…and nothing else in between. Embrace the duality and polarization! I want it all or nothing at all.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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