Embracing the Flagship at Hopleaf

Embracing the Flagship at Chicago’s Hopleaf

Beer Bar & Restaurant
Hopleaf Bar
Embracing the Flagship at Hopleaf

In the early 1970’s when I began working in bars, a “flagship” beer was usually the only beer a brewery made; at least until all the big breweries jumped onto the light beer bandwagon.

There were not many breweries then and only one overwhelmingly dominant style, a dumbed down version of the German Pilsner style Lager. Imports were rare, ill cared for in transit and usually not in the condition to show their best attributes; there was one stout, Guinness; American Ale was Ballentine; and Weiss beer was very exotic. The first bar I worked in had one American curiosity, Anchor Steam.

As in almost every other aspect, the concept of a flagship beer among a stable of offerings was pioneered by Anchor, who released their Porter in 1972, an annual Christmas Ale in 1974, and the first American IPA, Liberty Ale, and Old Foghorn Barleywine in 1975. Forty-nine years later, Anchor Steam remains the brewery’s flagship and, as intended, my appreciation for Steam drew me to their Porter, which remains my favored choice of the style to this day.

Many of us were introduced to better beer in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the availability and viability of import beers improved and some even began coming to our shores in kegs.

Bass Ale, Pilsner Urquell, Harp, Becks, Hacker-Pschorr, St. Pauli Girl and others created a thirst for something different, and soon a few American brewers created a nascent craft beer culture.

These small independent brewers usually offered more than one product but had one beer, a “flagship”, which paved the way for other offerings and provided sales volume to subsidize more experimental or unfamiliar styles. The flagship beer also established a brewery’s identity.

When I opened my bar, Hopleaf in Chicago, in 1992, most bars here had one or two draft lines and a very limited selection of bottles. The predecessor at our location offered Heilman’s Old Style and Special Export on tap and three or four standard mass market beers in cans. “Microbrewery” beers, as they were then known, were just beginning to find an audience…but not so much in our neighborhood. Over time, what set our bar apart was that we decided to phase out all the “macro” beers and carry better beers exclusively, something no one else had done here.

We relied on the drawing power of a few known imports and the flagship brews of domestic newcomers to bring customers in. Among the domestics we offered were Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam, Big Shoulders Porter from the now long-defunct Chicago Brewing, Celis White and one, Bell’s Amber, that proved to be quite a boon. Then then flagship beer of Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery, Bell’s Amber was then something of a cult beer in Chicago, so popular with a select crowd that I had a neon Bell’s sign made, the only such sign at the time. People going by on the #22 Clark Bus would see it, pull the cord, get off, and dash to our door for a pint. Flagship beers could do that then.

As the burgeoning craft beer movement grew, we built our business on all the craft brewery flagship beers that came our way, first in a trickle and then a tidal wave. Allagash White, Shelter Pale Ale from Dogfish Head, Three Floyds Alpha King, New Belgium Fat Tire, Firestone Walker DBA, and many more. There were also flagships from local breweries like Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter or Anti Hero from Revolution.

Michael Roper behind the Bar at the Hopleaf.

Over time, a couple of interesting trends were born of the stampede of brewery openings. First was that as breweries grew the number of beers in their brewing schedule, the flagship beer that defined their early identity often was often displaced by another offering. In the case of Bell’s, their Amber was overtaken by Two Hearted; Alpha King displaced Zombie Dust for 3 Floyds; and Shelter Pale Ale faded to the point of limited availability as 60 Minute IPA rose to rule the roost. Ultimately, the customer chooses the flagship and these days the customer is fickle.

That fleeting attention span has today threatened the whole concept of the brewery flagship, with some breweries shunning the very idea. With the avalanche of brewery openings that has brought us more than 8,000 in America alone, breweries, many small and nimble with a constant stream of new releases, have cultivated an audience uninterested in flagships. This mania for the new, the hyper local, the singular and unrepeated brew has not only pushed aside many flagship beers, but also many of the great “legacy” craft breweries, as well; some of today’s younger drinkers dismiss even a classic like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as “my dad’s craft beer”.

As these trends took hold, I decided that Hopleaf would remain a bastion of those legacy breweries, domestic and import. While what we carry from them may not always be their flagships, we believe that classic breweries are still very relevant. In a normal pre-Covid February, and on occasions throughout the year, I like to revisit the flagship beers from our favorite breweries, introduce them to a new audience, and tickle the memories of our long-time customers. These beers are benchmarks, standing up well over the test of time and in blind tastings against all comers.

Most flagship beers have earned a place at our tables and many have been tweaked and actually improved over their reigns. In such uncertain times, it’s nice that we still have something as tried, true and reliably delicious as a flagship beer.

Michael Roper is the owner of the Hopleaf Bar in Chicago, Ill. He opened the iconic beer bar and restaurant in 1992 along with his wife Louise.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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