Here’s a beer that’s making the rounds of Chicago’s craft taps: Lagunitas “Frisco to Chicago” Zephyr. This beer is named for the famous California Zephyr train line that still takes passengers from Chicago to San Francisco; and not too far from Lagunitas’ home digs at Petaluma, CA. No relation, though, to the long-standing Zephyr Golden Ale on the house menu at Flossmoor Station. It’s a special collaboration with Chicago bars The Publican and Big Star, and is a one-time batch of 200 kegs available only on tap.
Lagunitas describes the beer as “Brewed in the historic steam beer tradition (without refrigeration);” to use the un-trademarked term, a California Common. This is an American hybrid style of beer made in California for over a hundred years. While brewers tried to create the popular German lager style there, they had no access to cool caves or nearby ice for lagering, so they just let the brew ferment warm, usually in open fermenters. The lager yeast used and re-used for this beer adapted to these conditions, while hard-to-get German hops might be substituted by hardier local varietals, like Northern Brewer. This style of beer nearly died out except for Anchor Brewing, which trademarked the term “steam beer,” and used it as the cornerstone of their revival in the1960s and 70s. While Anchor Steam gets along with a sessionable 4.9% alcohol by volume, the Lagunitas beer adds more oomph with a 7.66% abv.
I got a chance to drink a pint on draft while escaping the beastly heat and humidity at Zest at Lemon Tree Grocer. I had it before I knew what style it was supposed to be, so I picked up the malty and spicy smell and presumed I had a saison, an ale with a similar very warm fermentation. In the glass, it showed an auburn color, with a few bubbles feeding a thin head. I caught some unfiltered yeast in front with the first sip, but found it full of warm ale character. I had guessed the citrusy character came from Cascade hops, though some other reviews I read afterward claimed they were Nelson Sauvin (sorry, folks, beer geekspeak wanders in at times). The finish had a nice warming alcohol feel. Perhaps too much alcohol for the hot day I was drinking it in. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy it in a friendly, air conditioned beer establishment, sit for just a bit longer before venturing outside in the hot summer air.
Zephyr is turning up on taps at several accounts. I’ve tracked it in Chicago at Kelly’s Pub, Rocks Lincoln Park, and Monk’s Pub, plus Limestone Brewing in Plainfield, Brixie’s in Brookfield, Front Street Cantina in Naperville, and more. Beer Menus has many more current places listed, but always call a place with the listing to make sure it’s still available.
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