There's a big sign on the wall at Eataly reading "Great wine starts in the vineyard." It's a statement that encapsulates exactly what I like about beer.
Wine, to me, is grapes, yeast and good marketing. Beer, however, is democratic, blue-collar, industrial. Everyone can start with the same basic ingredients, but thanks to a long series of very specific decisions including decimal-level degrees of temperature, adjuncts and minute-by-minute hop additions, each beer is a product with definite intent. Beer doesn't worry about bad weather or weak terroir.
Eataly's main beer decisions were made as collaborations between Dogfish Head, Birreria Baladin and Birreria del Borgo, and brewed by Tyler Prokop. Starting in New York, he cleaned casks and swept floors to work his way up to the full-time brewmaster position in Birreria's brewhouse. When not brewing the core beers, he comes up with his own recipes, most recently a 4.6% oyster stout made with Blue Point oysters.
Behind the glass walls of the heavily ventilated space, Prokop labors on a gleaming steel and copper marvel of a 5.5-hectiliter Italian brewhouse. Even when not in service, people were taking photos of it on a busy Saturday afternoon, but while he's brewing, "it's like working in a zoo a little bit," he explains. "They tap on the glass."
Prokop is tasked with creating Gina, a pale ale with Italian thyme; Sophia, a Belgian witbier with peppercorns; and the Fl!p, a play on an old-timey beer cocktail involving rum and a searing-hot poker that made for great photos during the media previews but unsurprisingly didn't make an appearance during my visit. It also has a name only P!nk could love.
If you've ever labored through the infamous Mamma Mia Pizza Beer, you know mostly what the Gina is about—the thyme overwhelms the aroma and flavor, leaving you with not much more than a sticky bitter herbal beer. The Sophia is more successful in that it has crisp and clean flavors, though the promised peppercorns are nowhere to be found. Prokop is already tweaking the recipe to make those sharp notes come to the forefront; it might push this traditional middle-of-the-road interpretation into something more fun.
The best of the bunch is the Fl!p, and as a meeting of the minds between Mario Batali and Sam Calagione, it works pretty well. It's got a rich complexity that stands out from the other two offerings, featuring a rich earthiness from the cardamom paired with a subtle and pervasive ginger candy sweetness along with a little caramel and toffee on the finish. I'm not familiar with saba, or "mosto cotto," a grape-must reduction that often serves as a food marinade or dressing, so I won't pretend to have picked up any balsamic notes or sweet-vinegary additions. But I can tell you the beer is the best of the three even without an iron rod dipped into it.
I have to stop short of calling Birreria "the best beer bar in River North" (hello, Clark Street and Melnick's!) and on a weekend afternoon, a peaceful, relaxing spot for a drink it most certainly is not. Thankfully, though, it does have at least one beer worth seeking out. You can sample all three in a flight for $8 (or with food pairings for $16), but skip the others and grab a pint of Fl!p for $7, then one of Prokop's seasonals as well. Maybe that will motivate the Eataly powers that be to allow him to stretch his legs a little more.