Chicago’s craft beer explosion is showing no signs of slowing down with more and more breweries opening every month. The days when Goose Island was nearly the only game in town are easy to remember, but in just a few years it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the breweries we have’and that’s not a bad thing. Every trip to visit my surly corner liquor store owner and his overpriced wares is ripe with new discoveries.
One new discovery is the Bowmanville / Edgewater-based Aquanaut Brewing. I recently took a trip up to their brewery to meet the staff and try some beer.
Many new breweries in Chicago get started by seasoned brewery employees, from the likes of Goose Island, who go off on their own after learning the trade. Aquanaut’s master brewer Eric McNeil, on the other hand, got his start home brewing from his apartment and showing off his beer under the name Strange Pelican. As popularity grew, McNeil started looking for spots in the Fulton Market area.
Fulton Market didn’t pan out, but an opportunity arose when Chicago brewer 4 Paws called it a day and sold off their warehouse space and equipment. The team had their space, but ran into a problem when Pelican Pub & Brewing thought the Strange Pelican name was a little too close to their own. Pelican Brewing is based out west and doesn’t currently distribute in Illinois, but the end result was a name change. The newly christened Aquanaut Brewing started production and officially released their first beers in November 2014.
Though a small brewer that’s still legally able to self distribute, Aquanaut has a substantial warehouse space at 5435 N. Wolcott Avenue. It’s not the polished, visitor-friendly Revolution Brewing facility, where Olivia Wilde works as depicted in Drinking Buddies, but it’s a pretty striking space with its brick walls, glistening steel tanks, huge ceiling, and lots of natural light.
At this point, it’s more space than Aquanaut needs yet most of that space is being occupied in one way or another. A small upstairs area is used as a staff meeting room, a painting space for McNeil’s fianc’, and a work space featuring a wall of old suitcases and bags converted into speakers.
Below, Aquanaut also lends some of its space to other brewers’ like the aptly-named Transient Artisan Ales. Outside, there’s quite a bit of green space surrounding the warehouse where there’s flower, vegetable, and fruit gardens, hops growing up the side of the building, and there’s even a beehive.
It’s a pretty wild, scrappy place right now with a lot of promise for the future. Right now Aquanaut is about to setup a mobile canning line and looking into adding some grain storage onsite. Even further down the line, the team is interested in a tap room where they could potentially pair their drinks with some traditional English appetizers.
With so many breweries opening all the time, it’s important to find one’s niche. McNeil has done so by favoring traditional English-style ales. While these styles do exist, they’re not a primary focus in Chicago and can be heavily Americanized if they are present. Aquanaut stays closer to their English inspiration and keeps their beers well balanced, which also makes them great beers to sip at dinner. They’re flavorful without resorting to gimmicks like insane alcohol levels and absurd amounts of IBU’s.
Besides brewing beer, McNeil has a background in graphic design and takes care of most of the artwork for Aquanaut. That’s definitely a plus these days when the art adorning a bottle can be just as important to buyers as the beer inside. Aquanaut’s artwork uses aquatic science fiction imagery done in a Victorian style that, like the beer inside, is cool, but not comically over the top.
During a visit to Aquanaut, I was lucky to be able to try their beer straight from the tanks’the freshest beer I’ve ever had. Currently Aquanaut has three year-round beers with one seasonal:
MoonRay Porter: This London Porter wasn’t carbonated when I tried it and a bit yeasty, but still had a smooth, creamy feel to it with a bit of a roasted coffee flavor. While it pours out looking like a thick stout, this was easily drinkable and not very bitter.
The Search Extra Special Bitter: A ‘bitter’ is an English version of a pale ale with the ‘extra special’ indicating it has a slightly higher alcohol content. The Aquanaut ESB is earthy and floral with just a hint of bitterness tempered by caramel malts. This is a very drinkable beer that’s well suited to warm weather when you’re thirsty, but want something with a bit more punch.
Maiden Voyage Rye India Pale Ale: The strongest ale offered by Aquanaut is still evenly measured thanks to strong tropical fruit flavors. I’m generally not a fan of super intense IPAs with names like Hopzilla or Hopsecutioner, but the Maiden Voyage lives up to its name by providing a slightly intense yet pleasurable adventure.
Misterioso Coffee Porter: I’ve previously tried Aquanaut’s seasonal coffee porter. Made with Bow Truss Coffee Roasters beans, care of Aquanaut co-founder Phil Tadros, is similarly smooth to the MoonRay, but pushes the roasted coffee and chocolate flavors. While full of flavor, the porter isn’t overwhelming and easy to sip.
Where to Find Aquanaut
Aquanaut is still self distributing their beer, so you can only find it in the city limits. They have a presence from Andersonville to Pilsen on tap at bars and restaurants like the Bad Apple, the Betty, Billy Sunday, Bohemian House, Dusek’s, Monk’s, Sheffield’s, Twisted Spoke, and a bunch more (here’s a full list of where Aquanaut is on tap). Aquanaut also sells bottles, and soon cans, wherever good beer is sold.
Aquanaut Brewing Company
5435 N Wolcott Ave