“Shit beer can be deadly.”
These are words to live by for sure, but also the diehard slogan proudly worn by Chicago’s world-class beer bar Local Option. With European influences stretching from its beer list and house brews to the sounds of heavy metal often engulfing every last square inch of its Lincoln Park space, the bar scrawled this prophetic slogan in German alongside its massive skull logo draped across its main wall. For new customers who aren’t able to translate it, it doesn’t take long for them to figure out that Local Option takes its beer über seriously.
The bar originally opened in 1986 with its current owner, Tony Russomanno, taking over in 2005. With prior experience in running Chicago restaurants and bars as well as a vast knowledge of European beers, Russomanno immediately carved out his vision for Local Option. Above all, he was and continues to be inspired by what breweries and bars do well and what they don’t do, and applies that to his business. From the outset, he was committed to reserving his beer menu for showcasing new Chicago breweries as well as rare and hard-to-find labels.
While he was also able to offer a great selection of drafts and bottles from overseas, he wanted to share German beer recipes that were as fresh as possible with his customers. In 2011, Noah Hopkins, a fellow homebrewer and American craft beer expert, was brought in to add a new dimension to the business. While the two work together closely as beer buyers for the bar, they also have built what has come to be known as Local Option Bierwerker.
After testing their recipes on a pilot system, Russomanno and Hopkins scale them up to brew on location at breweries that they have come to admire and trust over the years (Dog Brewing, Against the Grain, Dark Horse, Central Waters). Focusing on balanced, German-influenced beers with delicate flavor profiles, the duo has amassed a lineup of lauded, extremely unique beers that has made it clear that Local Option is just as serious about its brewing division as it is about the bar itself. Dampf Loc, their first beer, is an all-barley ale inspired by “Dampfbier” originally crafted by medieval peasant inhabitants of southeast Bavaria’s Black Forest; Morning Wood is an oak-aged ale that uses different coffee beans for each batch; Blood Ov The Kings is an ale brewed with copious amounts of red wheat; and Kentucky Common is a modern interpretation of a pre-prohibition ale. Local Option also brews a saison (collab with Evil Twin Brewing), pilsener, gose, double IPA (12.5% ABV!), maibock and a barrel-aged Weissenbock (collab with Central Waters Brewing).
This year’s production is estimated at 2000 barrels with distribution split between Chicago and New York (a small portion was also recently exported to Western Europe and the UK). Bierwerker beers can be found at 15-20 beer shops in the city and suburbs and more than 180 bars.
In my opinion, though, the best place to enjoy Local Option beers is nestled comfortably in the clutches of its lair…errr bar. If the music doesn’t grab you (Brand Ambassador Alexi Front is a Swedish death metal aficionado), the friendly, knowledgeable staff will make you feel at home. With 31 taps that have seen about 800 different, carefully selected brands pass through its lines, Local Option’s draft board commands the spotlight. You can always count on a perfect mix of European, local and national labels that raise an eyebrow and get your mouth watering. Plus, the staff has earned a reputation for its passion, persistence and keen attention to the overall craft beer experience, so brewers know their beers will be presented to customers in the best light.
Food is not glossed over either. Inherited from the previous owner, the menu and chef rock out Cajun-influenced dishes that rival any other in the area. Their Creole wings, po’ boy sandwiches, muffaletta, jambalaya and knockout tacos are a craft beer’s best friends.
Local Option’s recipe for pleasing its customers has earned it acclaim across media of all kinds, most notably on RateBeer’s “Top 50 Beer Bars in the World” list for the last three years. It’s also recommended in Christian DeBenedetti’s The Great American Ale Trail; The Craft Beer Lover’s Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation.
If you haven’t checked out Local Option, this Friday’s “2nd Annual Fuckin’ Catalina Wine Mixer” is a perfect excuse to finally head over. Starting at 3pm, a beer geek’s dream list of beers will be tapped, and attendees can enter into a guitar shred-off contest to win a Shiner Epiphone SG guitar. The bar holds events on a regular basis that make you say to yourself, “How did they get all of these amazing beers for one event?!” Of course, it’s best to not ask questions and just enjoy Local Option for the many splendors it bears.