- Nick Murway
- Tasting flight of all nine of the beers on draft at the Whiner taproom
The most obvious indication that there's a taproom inside the Plant is that the P on the Peer sign atop the former Peer Foods meatpacking plant in Back of the Yards has been flipped to spell "beer." Though Whiner Beer has been brewing inside the massive building since fall 2015, it still looks like an unlikely spot to have a drink, much less a tasting flight of craft beer. But walk in the front door and up a long ramp, and chalkboard signs direct you toward a spacious room filled with Edison bulbs, massive concrete columns, and wood tables with built-in planters.
Bright yellow tap handles adorned with cheese-munching mice pour a variety of beer from Whiner, located down the hall. The brewery is integral to the operations of the Plant, a vertical farm and food business incubator that aims to eventually be a closed-loop, zero-waste system: Whiner's spent grains function as a growing medium for the mushroom farm also located on-site, and will feed the anaerobic digester once it's up and running. (In 2011, I wrote about the Plant and the first brewery slated to move in there, New Chicago Brewing Company, which then turned into Ale Syndicate and found another home.) An aquaponics farm, kombucha maker, coffee roaster, and bakery also call the building home.
- Nick Murway
- The P on the Peer sign atop the former Peer Foods meatpacking plant in Back of the Yards has been flipped to spell "beer."
It's an unusual space, so it's fitting that Whiner brews unusual beer: French and Belgian styles, many of them barrel aged and inoculated with wild yeast or bacteria to turn them sour or funky. Sour beers have exploded in popularity recently—a year ago, when I asked local brewers what they were most looking forward to drinking in 2016, every single one mentioned at least one sour—but the average consumer may still find them challenging. After all, a sour flavor is often an indication that something has gone bad; many breweries go to great lengths to avoid the yeasts and bacteria that turn beer sour, like lactobacillus, brettanomyces, and pediococcus. Last year Goose Island recalled its 2015 Bourbon County Brand Stout and three BCS variants after discovering that they'd been infected with lactobacillus. However, Goose Island is also well known for its lineup of wine-barrel-aged wild ales—which Whiner co-owner Brian Taylor helped develop when he worked there several years back.
- Nick Murway
- Bright yellow tap handles pour a variety of beer from Whiner.
All this is to say that under the right circumstances, wild yeast and bacteria can be used to create some very desirable beers. And Whiner has done just that, from the entry-level Le Tub—a refreshing, easy-drinking blend of sour and nonsoured saisons that's barely tart—to the Fur Coat, a Belgian-style dark ale with a bite sharp enough to make your mouth pucker a little. In fact, none of the core lineup of four beers is particularly challenging. Besides Le Tub, it includes Et La Tete—an apple-infused kolsch that's surprisingly tasteless, the only real disappointment of the nine beers on tap—and Rubrique a Brac, a biere de garde with brettanomyces that tastes like a brown ale that was left in a barnyard, light in body but with a slightly funky blue-cheese finish. I was most intrigued by the Miaou, a Belgian-style dry-hopped wheat aged in cabernet barrels and fermented with brettanomyces, which starts out grassy, earthy, and dry but develops a subtle sweetness and wine flavor as it warms up.
The rest of the taps change regularly—and thanks to the $3 tasting portions available for all the beers, it's possible to try everything in the taproom on one visit. In addition to the Fur Coat, the somewhat less sour Pretty Bird is a yeasty, funky, and entirely enjoyable barrel-aged saison. The two sweetest beers on the menu turned out to be among the least interesting: a saison called Fast Food was redolent of creamy bananas and bubble gum, pleasant enough at first but cloying after a few sips; Candy Darling, a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged wild ale with plums, had plenty of woody, smoky barrel flavors but also delivered a bit too much of the sweetness suggested by its name. The kettle-soured saison Soupe Du Jour, however, had a fascinatingly complex flavor, funky and less sharp than the Pretty Bird or Fur Coat, rounded out by yeasty notes and pineapple.
- Nick Murway
- The Miaou, a Belgian-style dry-hopped wheat aged in cabernet barrels and fermented with brettanomyces, starts out grassy, earthy, and dry but develops a subtle sweetness and wine flavor as it warms up.
As good as its beers are, Whiner could offer patrons a little more guidance on what to order. The menu descriptions are brief and don't give much indication of what the beer will taste like. And the bartender, who stayed glued to his phone except when he was serving customers, wasn't particularly approachable. Still, what the brewery is doing with wild yeasts and barrel aging is undeniably fascinating, and the results speak for themselves. v