A Destihl tap handle, spotted in the wild at Fountainhead
  • A Destihl tap handle, spotted in the wild at Fountainhead

Destihl was founded in 2007 in downstate Normal, just 130 miles away along I-55, but until last week the brewery had only poured its beers in Chicago at festivals—and at the second South of 80 tap takeover, a Chicago Craft Beer Week event presented in May by the gentlemen who run the blog Guys Drinking Beer. But as Josh Noel at the Tribune reported earlier this month, Destihl has finally expanded into Chicago. What took it so long? According to Guys Drinking Beer, the brewery has had a distribution deal in Wisconsin since last summer, but it held off on a Chicago deal (it’s working with Chicago Beverage Systems) because it wanted to preserve the right to self-distribute on its home turf.

Recent changes to Illinois law raised the capacity cap below which craft brewers can distribute their own beers from 15,000 to 30,000 barrels per year. This means Destihl can use its new production brewery, which has been operational for a few months now, to expand into Chicago (and by the end of the year, to the rest of Illinois, Michigan, and much of Indiana) without sacrificing its ability to continue self-distributing legally as it grows. The brewery will likely be turning out 10,000 barrels per year by the end of 2013, and it’s capable of topping 20,000.

So should you care? Well, the folks at Destihl are responsible for the Saint Dekkera Reserve sour ales, which caused quite a stir at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival in 2011 and have since attracted long lines of nerds wherever they’ve appeared. These unblended single-barrel sours are spontaneously fermented, without a deliberate inoculation of yeast or other microorganisms, and spend anywhere from one to three and a half years aging in oak. I’ve had a few myself, most recently when Destihl tapped one at the Oak Park Micro Brew & Food Review—made with pineapple, mango, peach, strawberry, and blueberry, it was called “Hawaii Five-Ale,” and it gave me a pretty good idea what all the excitement is about.

But maybe you don’t like having to race a bunch of bearded geeks to a keg just to try a beer before it kicks. (I say this as a bearded geek, of course.) Maybe you just don’t care for sours. Fortunately, Destihl does plenty of other things well. The brewery’s Strawberry Blonde ale, for instance, won the bronze medal in the “Fruit Beer” category at last year’s GABF. And as it so happens, I found it on tap at Fountainhead this weekend.

Strawberry Blonde pours a bit hazy, with just the faintest blush of pink, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a head—though that could have been the work of the bartender, who carefully filled my glass to within a quarter-inch of the rim. Destihl adds whole fresh strawberries during secondary fermentation, and they announce themselves enthusiastically in the aroma—this beer smells like strawberry preserves and honey on toast.

One advantage of day drinking is better lighting. Thats the Destihl Strawberry Blonde on the left.
  • One advantage of day drinking is better lighting. That’s the Destihl Strawberry Blonde on the left.

Some preserves are heavy and cloying, cooked down to an undifferentiated sludge, but that’s not what I’m getting at—imagine the kind that has actual bits of identifiable fruit and you’ll be in the ballpark. The nose is bright and faintly floral, with a bit of peach and white grape and something green and snappy like cantaloupe rind.

Surprisingly the strawberries come through even more cleanly in the flavor, lively and gently tangy, like fresh fruit you’ve just finished slicing. I could swear the malts taste like graham crackers, but that might just be the power of olfactory memory trying to summon a strawberry tart in my mind. (Don’t pretend you haven’t been there.) Specifically a tart where the fruit isn’t stirred into a lurid goop loaded with sugar and thickeners.

The slightly disturbing artwork for Strawberry Blonde
  • Courtesy Destihl
  • The slightly disturbing artwork for Strawberry Blonde

Strawberry Blonde doesn’t have much in the way of a hop profile, but its finish is crisp and dry, in a way that reminds me of black-pepper water crackers and roasted rice tea; it balances the lushness of the fruit against a clean, mild bitterness with whiffs of spicy basil and cedar. Given that we’re in for a week of temperatures flirting with the low 90s, I’m prepared to wholeheartedly recommend drinking this beer (or several of them) anywhere you can sit outside in the breeze. Like, say, the rooftop deck at Fountainhead.

Because Strawberry Blonde is a summer seasonal, it won’t stick around long. But according to Destihl “brewery ambassador” Katy Tilley, several beers will stay in rotation all year: Abbey’s Single, Downstate Pale Ale, Ambassador Am-Belgo Double Pale Ale, Redbird Ale, Vertex IPA, Deadhead Double Red, and Hoperation Overload. “We will rotate in seasonal beers from there,” she says. “I know they are prepping an Oktoberfest this week.” Also on the way (but not year-round beers) are Nit Wit, Lawnmower Ale, Black Angel Stout, Altercation altbier, and a Belgian-style tripel.

Destihl founder Matt Potts says just three kegs of Saint Dekkera have made it to Chicago bars so far, all for special launch events, but availability will improve—Destihl’s sour program has grown dramatically, and now employs more than 200 barrels and three large French oak foudres.

For now Destihl is shipping only kegs, but the brewery hopes to have corked-and-caged large-format bottles and cans before the end of the year. Potts says canned beers will likely include Hoperation, Deadhead, Vertex, and Abbey’s Single (plus possibly Strawberry Blonde).

Haymarket and Revolution are both getting Destihl kegs, says Potts, and when I called Molly Reilly at Chicago Beverage Systems, she provided a much longer list of local accounts—including DryHop, Twisted Spoke, the Long Room, Small Bar Division, Owen & Engine, and the Map Room.

Last Monday and Tuesday the brewery hosted special tappings at Paddy Long’s and the Hopleaf, both of which will continue receiving kegs from Destihl. This Tuesday at 7 PM, Sheffield’s is throwing a Destihl party (Strawberry Blonde included), and on Thursday four year-round beers will be on tap at Fatpour. Also on Thursday, Fountainhead hosts its own Destihl event starting at 7:30 PM—manager Chris Kafcas, who’s been running the bar’s beer program since Sheffield’s alumnus Phil Kuhl left for a job at Wirtz Beverage Group late last year, says he was so eager to get the brewery’s beers flowing that he hooked up his keg of Strawberry Blonde early. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your engines!

I’ll be brief with the metal portion of this week’s post, largely because I can’t find an embeddable version of “Hello Strawberry Skies” by Chicago doom pioneers Trouble. You’ll have to risk streaming it at this potentially janky Russian site. (Nothing untoward seems to have happened to my computer, but I can’t make any guarantees about yours.)

I also found an 11-second song called “Strawberry Shortcake and Friends Holding Hands and Going Around the Gazebo With Custard and Pupcake Watching” by recently reunited late-90s Bay Area sludge fiends Noothgrush.

YouTube video

I’m gonna call it a day with that, because most of the songs with “blonde” in their titles would just make us feel bad about ourselves and each other.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.