Chicago Brews: When is Local Local? 

One unintended consequence of the craft beer boom is to make travel, even business travel, more interesting. Granted that's not saying much, but every little bit helps. Your corporate handlers may not allow you enough time to take in all the sights wherever you go, but they pretty much have to let you eat. I think it's in the Constitution — somewhere in the back.

I found myself in Chicago the other week, wandering out of my hotel room in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and into a place called The Hidden Shamrock. The place looked — words fail me — exactly like a bar called The Hidden Shamrock in Chicago ought to look: a narrow, dark room with cheesy '80s music on the playlist, and a friendly but inattentive barman focused on a group of Midwestern woo-girls. Which I couldn't hold against him.

I asked my usual travel bar question: "Can you recommend a local beer?" This always gets locals excited. True, in Chicago, the townies always get excited about the home team — they might talk funny, but they are loyal to a fault. They will have opinions on "their" beer; they'll ask you what you like, what are your go-to's. If they know your hometown brew, then the fun really starts. Only one time did this question ever end up with a lousy beer being set before me. It was in Georgia, and someone had been getting clever with peaches. It tasted like the IHOP of beer.

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Of Memphis' craft breweries, only one, Wiseacre, is available much beyond Shelby County. What tends to throw you in a place like Chicago is that some of their heavy-hitting locals are available nationally. It was cold and raining, and the barman pointed me to a Lagunitas Imperial Stout. In truth, Lagunitas is headquartered in sunny Petaluna, California, but that didn't seem to matter, as he pointed over his shoulder in the direction of the company's Chicago brewing facility. All the bartender knew — other than he'd rather be talking to the girl in the pink cowboy hat — was that the brew coming out of that tap was made in town by some people who rooted for the Cubs even in the lean years. Ergo, said the barman, it's local.

And why not? You really don't want to be too pedantic about these things. Lagunitas Imperial Stout is rich, like a Guinness milkshake, with a big, toasty malt finish and chocolate notes. The ABV is a whopping 9.9 percent and is described by the people who make it as "dark, thick, and scary."

But Lagunitas, while a great beer and available in Memphis, wasn't as local as I'd had in mind. And despite the weather at the time, stouts and porters are like the tweed of the beer wardrobe — I just feel silly putting them on after Easter. The next one I tried was a Tuna Extra Pale Ale from a brewery calling itself Half Acre. It has two breweries, both in Chicago, and one nearby in Lincoln Park. Why do they call it Tuna? According to the website: "We don't know. Just say it, 'I'll take a tuna.' It feels good. The ocean is a magical place." I can't argue; I've read my Hemingway. Although that sounds like something the Key West/Havana Papa would say, not the kid from Chicago.

At any rate, the Tuna Extra Pale Ale is a great, light quaffer. At 4.7 percent ABV, it won't knock your melon if you drink it at summer (or Hemingway) speed. It is easy on the hops, so it won't get bitter in the heat. The citrus zest lightens things up with an almost sweet finish. It would be a winner on a hot day — or whatever these people call summer up here — while watching the Cubs not quite make it.

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