Beer Bar Godfathers: The Map Room vs Hopleaf

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Everyone and their mom is serving a beer aficionado’s selection of micro brews and imported ales these days, but before most would dare consider beer “artisanal” there were two brew belching powerhouses in Chicago showing everyone how it’s done. The Map Room in Bucktown and the Hopleaf in Andersonville are two completely unaffiliated bars who have been taking their beer mongering seriously for almost 20 years, forgoing any trends for the sake of serving globally represented beers in a community atmosphere. These beer trailblazers were savoring hops and malts while you were shoving your face into a pitcher of Coors, and now they demand respect like aging godfathers of well-honed syndicates. I will pay my respects here and humbly dare to compare two establishments that’ll be serving craft beers in Chicago well before and well after any fads.

The Map Room – Global Beer since 1993

If the idea of drinking your way across the globe sounds like drunken heaven then you have found your bar. The Map Room is decorated like a beer hostel (minus the rooms) with old maps and National Geographic magazines for you to peruse as you drink your way through 36 brewing styles. At all times they’re stocked with 200 rotating brands of beer, 26 taps and one hand crank beer engine that manually drives the beer from a cask rather than use gas to pump it (typical to pubs in the UK).

The bar may be dedicated to travelers, but there is a hardcore mainstay of locals here who occupy their stools proudly and cooperatively devour the newest craft favorite (likely on limited edition from the brewery). While some noob is just discovering Delirium Tremens or Kwok, the regulars are quietly rumbling over their tasting notes and attempting to ignore the growing crowd behind them. This place is no secret and it gets full quick, but never too full which is no coincidence. The bouncers are merciless about keeping the Bucktown crowd to a comfortable size which means the occasional line and a bouncing policy that is downright ruthless. With a large selection of high alcohol beers, patrons who accidentally get ahead of themselves will quickly find themselves escorted into the open air. It’s a slippery slope, consider yourself warned.

The Map Room isn’t just groundbreaking with their drinks; they have rotating events and classes designed to educate and fill the belly at the same time. With a liquor license that doesn’t require food, these community impresarios focus their culinary ambitions on a weekly International Night, featuring food from a specific country every Tuesday, catered by a local ethnic restaurant and free to the public with a two drink minimum. They also offer a Beer Class once a month taught by brewmaster Greg Browne (or a visiting brewmaster) where the properties of a specific beer is discussed and then sampled. Culture never tasted so good.

Hopleaf – Belgian Ambassador since 1992

Talk to any true scholar of beer and they’ll all be able to relate to a common love affair with Belgium. But it was Michael and Louise Roper who decided there needed to be an entire bar dedicated to the importing and serving of Belgian ales, a decision supported by the masses a hundred times over. The Hopleaf now serves as a beer mecca on the border between Uptown and Andersonville, soaking up the Clark street nightlife like a sponge and leaving it’s leftovers to the neighboring establishments. The place is cut into clearly defined halves like a backwards mullet, the rustic bar and cluttered tables dolling out pub vibes in the front while a more elegant high ceilinged restaurant distributes fine eats in the back.

Like the Map Room, the Hopleaf has a mammoth selection of beer with at least 40 beers on tap and 250 types of bottled beer. The draft menu is divided in two sections, imported Belgian ales (their bread and butter) and US craft beers (for the modern beer snob). Though the owners strive for the kind of bar you can sit and read poetry in, the place gets slammed on the weekends. This will likely be alleviated by their expansion plans; having purchased the Italian restaurant next door they’re currently building out room for another 150 seats and at least 20 more taps. I like those odds.

Such lofty plans are based around the popularity of their food as much as their beer provisions. Though they try to keep their food casual, the organic ingredients served in skillfully prepared globally influenced dishes sets the stage for a higher end meal then you’d expect. They also host special event dinners in the upstairs space, creating themed multiple-course meals often featuring local ingredients and always served with beer or wine pairings. If you can’t find a seat at the bar then I’d recommend being shown to a table in the restaurant if there’s room. A tip for the waitress and a pot of steaming mussels is a small price to pay for a seat.

The Map Room and the Hop Leaf might as well co-write a book on how to open a bar with staying power. If you consider yourself beer proficient but haven’t been to one of these standbys then it’s time you got back to your Chicago roots. Your local watering hole might have some fine craft beer but these are the bars brewers are traveling to when in town and likely the first place to get sent a keg of the latest and greatest seasonal batch. If there’s a crowd you know why. If you waited for a seat it was likely worth it. So go pay your respects and I’ll see you there.

The Essentials:

The Map Room
1949 N. Hoyne

Hop Leaf
5148 N. Clark St.

David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

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