When I first heard about District Brew Yards I was skeptical. A three-brewery-in-one, pour-your-own brewpub led by Burnt City Brewing — which just pulled up the stakes in Lincoln Park after two decades — did not sound like something that would work. More than anything, it sounded like a crazy, maybe desperate, business model for one brewery (Burnt City) that needed to turn things around and two others (Around the Bend and Bold Dog) that needed a taproom. But District Brew Yards is far from the awkward creation I assumed it would be, and works surprisingly well with room to grow.
The pour-your-own setup will be familiar to anyone who has visited Tapster or Navigator; District uses the same technology. When you arrive, you open a tab and are given a plastic debit-like card to use. That card is inserted at the taps to activate them. Beers are priced by the ounce, and each beer is priced differently (typically, heavier or specialty beers are priced higher than, say, pilsners or lagers). The taproom itself has four main stations, one for each brewery and a “Fourth Wall” that is currently empty but has taps ready to go for collaboration beers in the future. Each station has ten taps and are manned by an attendant ready to answer questions or provide recommendations. Each station also displays recommended glassware, of which there are about five different kinds (curiously, District does not stock flight glasses). Most of the seats are laid out in large communal tables, although there are some smaller high tops by the windows. Make sure to get there early, though, because when District fills up it very quickly becomes standing room only.
There is food, too — barbecue to be exact. Normally, I would review the food, but truthfully the barbecue is simple and serves more as a way to satisfy tipsy cravings than as a well-rounded food program in its own right. I tried the brisket, elotes, and mac and cheese on my visit. It was good and served its purpose well, but ultimately no one will be going out of their way for it.
The beer is the main attraction here, of course, and for the most part it is done as well as you would expect. Given that there were 30 on tap I couldn’t (and didn’t) attempt to try all of them, but I did try a sampling from every brewery. The biggest surprises were the strong offerings by Bold Dog, a low production brewery that is making some pretty solid brews. The milk stout Divinations was particularly tasty: a common stout at heart that was especially fresh and had nice chocolatey undertones with some coffee notes as well. Burnt City’s best brew was Tropic Thunder Lizard Grand Cuvée, which wasn’t a cuvée in the literal sense but which was very fruity, contained some nice tropical notes, and was sessionable for the style. Lastly, Around the Bend makes a surprisingly tasty — and highly recommended — cream ale called Vera, which is brewed heavily with pistachios and ends up tasting like a cream soda in the most respectful way possible; it is a true cream ale without being a milkshake. Before leaving you have the opportunity to buy canned beer-to-go.
District hasn’t done anything new, per se; food halls use the same concept for a different product. But the execution is fun, the beer is good, and the atmosphere is unique. In a beer flooded city like Chicago, District Brew Yards stands out. In time it may prove to be a pioneer of a new kind of beer hall.
Stars: Three (out of four)
Price: $ (out of four)
Atmosphere: Industrial, minimal, loud
417 N. Ashland Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
Star guide: one - poor, not worth time or money; two - mediocre, worth a visit on occasion; three - very good yet with issues; four - exceptional quality
Price guide: $ - cheap; $$ - affordable; $$$ - special occasion; $$$$ - rare opportunity