Plaid and Canvas: Hunting for the Best Beer in Chicago

Jason Diamond talks with Michael Kiser, the founder of a site that, well, hunts for good beer

beer good beer Michael Kiser Chicago Good Beer Hunting photography Illinois

Beer.     Photo: Michael Kiser

Chicago is undoubtedly a beer town, and has been since the city’s incorporation in 1833. From the Old Style signs at every bar to the Schlitz globe on top of the Shubas Tavern, its iconography is ubiquitous. You go to Chicago and you drink beer the same way you drink bourbon in Louisville, wine in France, or vodka in Moscow. Sure, you can deviate a little and sample from the impressive whiskey collection at the Logan Square inn/restaurant Longman & Eagle, and you should by all means drink a martini if you’re going to eat a steak in the city known for its meat, but please realize that first and foremost, Chicago is a beer drinking city.

But the city’s beer culture has changed, especially in the last decade since the second Mayor Daley (current-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor) decreased the number of taverns in the city and, in a 20-year period, successfully saw the amount of liquor lisenses drop from about 3,300 in 1990 to 1,200 as of 2009. As noted by Whet Moser for Chicago magazine, Daley’s efforts and a number of other factors led to “more drinking at home, more drinking at restaurants, less drinking altogether, two abstemious mayors, and the changing demographics from tavern drinkers to pub drinkers, and the city's down to about 10 percent of its old number of taverns.”

Even though there are fewer places to drink it, beer in Chicago is not on the decline. A new crop of craft breweries popping up in the city has made Chicago one of the places that every beer lover must visit, alongside cities like Portland and San Francisco. While breweries like Metropolitan and Three Floyds have been wooing fans across the country with their ales and stouts, one man, Michael Kiser, has been elevating beer to an art form in a totally different way.

“The day I visited Best Place, a pub inside the Pabst brewery in Milwaukee,” Kiser says, “was the day I realized ‘people need to see this.’” Soon after, he created Good Beer Hunting, a site that combines Kiser’s photographs and musings about the beer he drinks, the places he drinks the beers at, and the people he drinks them with. If you appreciate good beer or good photography, Kiser wants you on clicking over to his site.

ON MY FIRST VISIT to Good Beer Hunting, I thought I had stumbled upon some really clever, beautifully shot, totally improvised catalog shoot for some high-end menswear company, or some other clever marketing stunt aimed at getting people to buy something—I just wasn't sure what. But when I started digging around, I realized it was actually just one guy taking these beautiful photos, and not the work of some branding guru trying to entice men of the 25-40 demographic with a taste for vintage workwear and brews. Kiser sees every photo he posts on his site as one connected story where the players and pieces might not all match, but it’s all part of something bigger: “The aesthetics of any movement, whether it's jazz, pop art, or craft beer, are what define its legacy and I felt like I had accidentally found myself in on the ground floor of that story.”

It isn’t hard to grasp what exactly those aesthetics are. The food Kiser shoots alongside the beer always looks delicious. When he takes pictures inside a brewery, he makes sure the beer-making machines are given the same treatment as the brew masters. And, most importantly, the people drinking the beer always look like they’re really enjoying life. Kiser says his photography is “less about getting the perfect lens and lighting, and more about anticipation, human empathy, and intuiting the moment.”

Last year, Kiser found himself at an odd point with Good Beer Hunting. I had been asking myself a difficult question for almost a year,” he says. “If Good Beer Hunting were to do something in the physical world, what would that be?"

The answer: summer camp for adult males.

KISER AND HIS FRIEND Max Wastler of Buckshot Sonny's Sporting Goods invited about 25 of their guy friends to a spot in southern Wisconsin called “Camp Wandawega.”

They swung from swings, hung by a roaring fire, sat on docks, and, of course, drank a lot of beer. Local breweries made Kiser and co. special brews for their retreat, and local chef Pete Repak cooked up a feast of smoked quail, pork cheek, short ribs, green beans, horseradish potatoes, campfire beans, cornbread, and chocolate pecan pie. “It was unstoppable,” Kiser says. He has received requests from fans to do a similar event for the public, but he'd rather keep this concept dedicated to his close group of friends and the spontaneity of it all, and explore other concepts for his fans. 

When you start looking at Kiser’s site (and once you start, it’s difficult to stop), it becomes apparent that while the photographer lives in one of the leading craft beer scenes in America, he wants his work to be part of a larger city-making story about Chicago. “We did it with the railroad, slaughter and meat packing, and we did it with air travel,” Kiser says. “Now we're doing it with the transportation and consumption of craft beer.”

Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats, and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.

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