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Chicago’s undisputed King of Beers

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Chicago’s undisputed King of Beers

The WISCH LIST

May 14, 2011

As he slid me my glass of Belgian beer, I sent back to my American bartender a pop quiz.

“How long have you been working here?” I asked the guy with the bushy beard working behind the upstairs bar last weekend at a popular nightspot on Chicago’s far North Side.

“You mean, tonight?” he asked, as I took my drink. “Or overall?”

“No, overall,” I replied with a slight chuckle.

“Five years.”

“And, so,” I inquired, unspooling my quiz question, “how long did it take you to memorize all the beers on the menu?”

With a smirk and a wipe of the bar with a rag, the barkeep who had just served me a glass of Grimbergen Blonde pale ale answered: “I still don’t know all of them. Every time I come in to work there are, like, 50 new beers.”

And with that, you’re welcomed to Michael & Louise’s Hopleaf Bar – better known as just “Hopleaf” – a thriving pub in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood that during the past two decades has developed a cult following thanks to its remarkably extensive list of beers.

So extensive, in fact, that even Hopleaf’s bartenders can have a tough time keeping up it. Although you can hardly blame them, considering that, according to the Chicago Bar Project, Hopleaf (5148 N. Clark St.) offers more beers than any other bar in the Windy City.

And, believe me, that’s a whole lot of bars.

But we’ll get to Hopleaf’s grand total of available beers. Let’s first spend a few minutes learning more about the bar itself, which since 1992 has been located near the corner of Clark and Winona streets, just south of Foster Avenue, in the relaxed environment of Andersonville.

Featuring nearby street parking but most easily reached by cab, Hopleaf features an exterior that’s nondescript but easy enough to spot if you keep your eyes peeled for the hand-made sign above the front door that depicts a red, three-leafed hop plant that has become the bar’s familiar logo.

It’s an icon that’s become well known among hops aficionados nationwide, as people have been known to travel thousands of miles simply to sample the laundry list of brews at this beer lover’s paradise.

What they find upon entering Hopleaf is a dimly lit front room with wooden tables and green vinyl-padded wooden booths filled with members of the bar’s devoted – and ever-growing – following.

The pub is actually much more spacious than it appears on first glance, as Hopleaf also features an upstairs bar – where a smaller, but still huge, selection of beers are available – as well as a two-level dining room in the back. In 2003, the bar’s kitchen opened and has since become known among foodies for serving perhaps the best mussels in all of Chicago.

Throughout Hopleaf, the walls are adorned with original German art deco beer posters from the 1920s, featuring exotic brands such as Solanis and Biere Titan. But it’s above the long wooden front bar where visitors will find the most important wall ornaments of all – a pair of large chalkboards upon which Hopleaf’s stunning menu of beers are scribbled.

And at last count, that menu featured 308 different beers, including 41 on tap (mostly of the Belgian variety) in addition to 267 more craft brews and imports in bottles. Or in other words, enough to drink a different one every day until next St. Patrick’s Day.

Per the Chicago Bar Project, Hopleaf offers 31 more beers than the 277 available at The Map Room in Bucktown, making it Chicago’s undisputed King of Beers. Although, don’t order a Bud at Hopleaf.

You’ll get laughed at.