“I do not feel okay this morning,” was the common refrain coming from the party end of the bus-mullet at 5am. With a seven hour bus ride ahead of us, the hard decision to sleep, or make morning gin and tonics, was paralyzing.
We spent the evening before in Des Moines, IA, where truth-be-told, we weren’t expecting much in the way of a crowd. It was mostly a humanitarian stop between Nebraska and Chicago on our way to festival number four on the 7-fest journey across the US for Sierra Nevada. But when we stepped off the bus at El Bait Shop, we knew immediately that we’d underestimated the corn belt’s love of great beer and a whole hog roast. The parking lot and bars were slammed, and a perfect summer sunset was already in motion.
“Dude, I just want to say thank you for making incredible beer,” said one partygoer as he took my hand. “Ninkasi is some of my favorite stuff. I’m so psyched you guys are here.” I pointed the grateful soul in the direction of Jamie Floyd, the owner and brewer at Ninkasi in Oregon. I’d say he confused me for a brewer because of the beard, but then, Jamie has the baby-est of baby faces.
El Bait Shop is one of the finest bars I’ve ever set foot in. Outside, the lot was filled with a constellation of those bright green Sierra Nevada Pale Ale cans. Inside, a hundred taps poured everything from local upstarts, to regional kings, to one-off Hill Farmstead collabs. And of course, Sierra Nevada Beer Camp beers.
The most impressive aspect of El Bait Shop, however, was how much it actually felt like a bar. So many new craft spots, especially in urban environments like Chicago, tend to skew toward concept bars. These super modern, often sterile places have their beer service on lockdown, their education high-minded, but their vibe can often be aesthetically overburdened, or vacant. El Bait Shop, on the other hand, is what bars used to feel like — part road-house, part BBQ shack, and all business. Don’t get me wrong, it’s as high-concept as many others. It’s just executed better. I'd try to convince you that the wall devoted to long-gone WWF wrestlers, with an altar to The Nature Boy, Rick Flair, is perhaps the defining keystone for the rest of the decor — but then I’d be hard-pressed to account for the neighboring wall, occupied by a "Where the Wild Things Are" mural. It’s stunning.
Next door is the High Life Lounge. Also owned by Jeff “Bruno” Bruning, this concept started as a time capsule, only serving beer originally made before the late seventies. “That meant we didn’t serve Bud Light for a long time,” said Bruno. “That was tough, because we knew it’d be a top seller for sure. But it was important that the concept was established before we opened things up — that it was truly know as the High Life bar.” Since then, he’s gone on to bend the rules a bit, serving some craft beers, although restrained to massively popular brands like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
The space itself is as dialed-in as EL Bait Shop, offering a museum-like view into the places your parents hung out. Shag carpet, back-lit triptychs of old Stroh’s ads, even the leather bar stools evoke a time when people bought rounds and delivered terrible, but ambitious, pick-up lines instead of Tinder. I’m not saying this is preferable, I’m just saying this is how my generation was conceived.
After a case of High Lifes disappeared, and more than a few Tangmeister shots re-appeared (it’s just what it sounds like), we collectively talked a member of the group out of a solitary 10-mile walk home in the corn-rowed night and got back on the bus, together.