June 11--The hops that Shedd Aquarium grows cannot claim pride of place. To reach them, these days, you walk around a chain-link construction enclosure, duck beneath branches in a landscaped area and scramble up onto a low ledge of the aquarium's building.
But when you finally get to them, the plants look every bit as lively as their name would suggest: great, verdant vines practically leaping up a fence behind which Shedd's dogs have a little exercise area.
They are already meeting Shedd horticulturist Christine Nye's original intent: to soften the wire enclosure's harsh look. But the past two years they have also served a more noble purpose, the primary use humans have found for this herbaceous plant species: to make beer.
Using the small crop's 8-pound yield, Chicago's Revolution Brewing turns them (plus some supplementary hops) into the very limited-run Penguin Hops, a brew that's both American pale ale and aquarium fundraiser.
"It had a nice, floral hops character" and was "very approachable," said Wil Turner, Revolution's head brewer.
The Shedd-Revolution partnership, which both sides said they hope to continue with this autumn's harvest, is one of a burgeoning number of tie-ins between Chicago's museums and zoos and sudsy beverages.
Such pairings prove that the area's institutions of cultural collection and display have been paying attention to food trends as craft beer becomes as widely celebrated (and, arguably, as overexposed) as bacon and cupcakes.
Just a few steps from Shedd's hops crop, a tap in the Field Museum's Field Bistro features a handle that's a replica of a tooth of the famous T. rex Sue. Pull it and out comes Tooth & Claw, a smooth and lovely Czech Pilsner that Logan Square's Off Color Brewing has crafted for the museum since November.
"I'm super proud of the beer," said John Laffler, one of Off Color's owners and brewers. About brewing for the museum, he said, "It's fun and it's cool, and it gets you out of the wheelhouse you're always in ... . We like scientists."
Tooth & Claw was originally supposed to be called "Sue Brew," but the museum backed away from such an overt association between an adult beverage and its all-ages attraction. The fanciful original Tooth & Claw label -- also nixed -- claimed "Hops, Pulverized Dino Teeth, Malt" as ingredients.
Later this month, at one of its quarterly tasting and beer-science Hop to It events, Field will introduce a second beer, Cabinet of Curiosities, a white India pale ale, spiced with coriander, black pepper and orange peel, crafted by DuPage County's Two Brothers Brewing.
Lincoln Park Zoo'sCafe Brauer, last year, had Boardwalk Blue on tap, a lightly fruited brew made for it by Goose Island. More recently, the zoo has partnered with neighborhood brewer DryHop on a fundraising beer called I'm Not a Raccoon!, inspired by the red panda. Ingredients include red panda diet staples bamboo and mulberry. It's already sold out.
Beyond the specialty brews, most every institution, by now, has one beer event or another. Just a sampling: Beer & Chocolate (Morton Arboretum, February), Zoo Brew (Brookfield Zoo, August), Autumn Brews (Chicago Botanic Garden, October), Hops 'n' Bots (Adler Planetarium, September).
Put together, the goal seems to be to make patrons hoppy.
Like the Field, Shedd Aquarium is even trying to merge beer with its scientific mission. Inspired by after-hours chats academics lead in his hometown area of Homewood-Flossmoor, animal health Vice President Dr. Bill Van Bonn suggested the aquarium incorporate "science pub" events into its Wednesday night Jazzin' at the Shedd summer music series.
"Folks can come to enjoy Jazzin' and during intermission we'll have a scientist presenting in the Phelps Auditorium," said Van Bonn, himself a home brewer who has used a few Shedd hops in his own concoctions. "We are actually going to set up a little pub atmosphere right outside of Phelps."
Wednesday, while the band rests, Shedd's Chuck Knapp will talk to drink-wielding attendees about his work studying endangered iguanas in the Bahamas.
The idea, Van Bonn said, is to make science more like a conversation, less like a lecture.
"It's a neat way to say, 'Come on over and listen,'" he said.
The first one is open only to members and supporters, but science pubs happen July 23, Aug. 20 and Sept. 3.
Shedd's Penguin Hops event, meanwhile, has taken place at Revolution Brewpub the last two autumns. Last year's batch of 15 barrels is long gone.
Getting the beer made, once she had the idea, was surprisingly easy, said horticulturist Nye.
"It took me 10 years to get beehives (at the Shedd). It took me six weeks to get beer," she said.
Field's events talk not just about science, but about the science of beer. At the introduction June 26 of the Cabinet of Curiosities brew, Jim Phillips, curator of anthropology, is going to lead discussion of beer vessels of the ancient world, "the whys and hows of so many different cups, tankards, bowls, pots, flagons," the museum says.
Also on hand for the Hop to It event will be Jim and Jason Ebel, Two Brothers' two brothers, and Cleetus Friedman, executive chef at Fountainhead, who worked with the brewer and museum to develop the beer.
"We thought this would be a really neat kind of vehicle to raise some funds and some awareness about the museum," said Jim Ebel, who hopes the beer will get some traction in the local marketplace. "It'll be available in six packs in liquor stores and on draft as well."
Megan Beckert, who heads the museum's food operations, said the museum wanted to work with Two Brothers not only because it has a new focus on locally sourced foodstuffs, but because "We wanted to do something with a larger brewery, someone who has got some marketing push," she said.
"It's not like we're in the beer business," she said. "It's not about that. But it is a way to bring people in and celebrate our museum, create a sense of community."
The April Hop To It event talked about the origins of beer. October's will focus on brewing techniques worldwide, while December's is on "beer styles and adjuncts -- past, present and future."
Here's a quick taste of some of the other beer-related events, most of which require tickets and serve the brews in 2- or 3-ounce pours.
Nature on Tap: Each month, at least through August, the nature museum in Lincoln Park goes adults-only, letting patrons stroll around at night with local beer from the likes of Finch's, 5 Rabbit, Revolution and Two Brothers. The June theme is bats -- with a film and an expert presenter -- and there is also a science trivia contest. June 24 at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive; 773-755-5100 or
In the Garden of Beerdom: The Chicago History Museum offers a series of "history pub crawls," led by tavern historian Liz Garibay. This afternoon tour, by trolley, is one of the more beer-specific, focusing on Chicago's history of German influenced beer gardens. July 27 at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.; $12-$14 at 312-642-4600 and chicagohistory.org
Zoo Brew: This ages 21+ evening event will feature more than 60 beers, live music and a silent auction of beer-related items. Aug. 9-10 at Brookfield Zoo, 8400 31st St., Brookfield; $10.50-$15 at 708-688-8000 or czs.org
Adler After Dark: Hops 'n' Bots: This event will feature craft-beer tasting and robots but not, apparently, craft beer made by robots. Sept. 18 at Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org
Autumn Brews: This evening event will focus on "seasonally selected beers." Oct. 2 at the Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe; 847-835-5440 or chicagobotanic.org
Drink It In: This new Beer Festival piggybacks onto the arboretum's annual Fall Colors Festival. Oct. 4 at Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; $6-$12 at 630-968-0074 or mortonarb.org
Brew Lights: An adjunct to the annual ZooLights event, this newcomer features 12 varieties of beer. Dec. 3 at Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive; 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org
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