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Beer City

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If the Map Room, the Bucktown beer mecca, has an archetypal customer, then Jonathan Surratt must be it. On a recent afternoon he sat at a table there, drinking a hard-to-find Belgian pale ale (Von Honsebrouck's Brigand) and scrutinizing a map--a Chicago beer map, no less--on his laptop. "I could do this all day," he said, scrolling west on Irving Park past an icon for Mike's American Ale House.

Surratt launched his Web site, beermapping.com, last October. Using Google maps, the site marks beer destinations--breweries, brewpubs, bars, and stores--across the country. So far he's listed some 3,158 locations in 22 cities; the national brewery and brewpub map covers more than 1,400. All are select, drawn mostly from publications for beer aficionados. The Chicago map has 138 listings. "People will say, 'There are 400 bars in my neighborhood and only 4 on the map'," says Surratt, a 32-year-old e-commerce student at DePaul. "Well, if I were to put every place that had PBR on tap what good would that do?"

Thanks in part to a brief mention in an NPR story on Google maps, beermapping.com now attracts about 1,000 visitors and at least ten new submissions a day. The site's most fervent enthusiasts tend to be beer lovers planning trips, but even knowledgeable Chicagoans can use it to find a good beer store near a BYO place (see this week's listings) or a quality bar in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

The project was made possible by Google's decision, back in June 2005, to release the code to its mapping interface. The open code allowed anyone to customize any map for anything, and that's pretty much what happened: gmapsmania.com, which tracks the phenomenon, estimates there are at least 3,000 polished customized maps, or mashups, in existence. Drvino.com, a popular wine Web site by recent Northwestern PhD Tyler Colman, has had a map of Chicago wine stores up since February. "It's a pretty time-consuming interface," he says. "I kind of wish that my tech department in Bangladesh had banged it out, but I had to do it myself." Surratt, who made his initial maps by looking up the longitude and latitude of each location and pasting that data into Microsoft Excel (he's since streamlined the process), echoes that assessment: "It took forever. It really took forever.

"The thing that's kept me going, because I have a short attention span, is the e-mails I've gotten from brewers," he adds. "Greg Koch from Stone"--the founder of Stone Brewing Company, a near legendary craft brewer in San Diego--"wrote and said, 'This is a great thing you're doing for small brewers.'" At a cheese and beer tasting at Goose Island, brewmaster Greg Hall heard who Surratt was and said, "Oh, you're the beer mapping guy!"

Surratt did his early drinking growing up in North Carolina, but he didn't get into beer seriously until he started working at a swanky Chapel Hill restaurant, where he became friends with a sommelier who'd been a brewer at Goose Island. Surratt started home brewing only to give it up after a few years. "There's a lot of cleaning involved," he says. But he stayed active in North Carolina's beer community, among other things building a Web site that urged the repeal of the state's 6 percent cap on the alcohol content of beer. (It was lifted last summer.) After following his wife to Chicago in the spring of last year, he figured mapping the city would be a good way to explore it. "I didn't know much about the area--I'd been here once," he says.

There's no advertising on the site, although Surratt has received feelers from companies ranging from Anheuser-Busch to a business that makes keg filters. "I'm not against advertising per se, but all this costs is my labor and about $13," he says. Surratt's not even sure whether the site's success will help his e-commerce career--he might just leave it off his resume. "I'm wary of including too much info about beer," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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