ALBANY PARK — If one Albany Park entrepreneur has his way, Chicago's breweries will soon become as popular a destination with tourists as Navy Pier and Millennium Park.
With the launch this week of Chicago Brews Cruise, Rick Julien, a theater set designer and avid home brewer, is betting that his fellow beer enthusiasts' interest in craft brews will extend beyond the local pub to a thirst for knowledge about where their beer is brewed, and by whom.
Lasting anywhere from three to six hours — depending on whether the excursion's ports of call are in the city or suburbs — each cruise will travel to three or four destinations, offering a behind-the-scenes look at working breweries.
Though he hesitates to use the word "educational" — the marketing equivalent of "not-fun" — Julien is quick to clarify, "We're not a party bus."
Patty Wetli discusses how the Brews Cruise will take advantage of Chicago's craft beer scene on DNAinfo Radio.
There will be copious sampling at each brewery, and Julien will provide coolers for customers' purchases, but there's no drinking on board the Brews Cruise van.
"This is for somebody who's a little bit more on the beer geeky side of things than the college frat guy," he said.
To keep the tour from becoming repetitive — the brewing process can only be explained so many times — Julien plans to emphasize specific aspects of the craft at each location.
"Usually the first stop will be 'Beer 101,' how beer is made, from grain to glass," he said.
At the second brewery, he'll cover style, schooling attendees on the distinguishing features of so many lagers and ales — porters, stouts, IPAs, lambics, bocks, saisons and more — diversity being the hallmark of craft brewing and a huge part of its appeal.
"It's like being a foodie," said Julien, who, for the record, is a dark beer man. "I really, really enjoy the variety. Unlike what beer has been nationally for so long — to provide the same product — everybody's doing something different. There's a beer for every reason and a beer for every season."
As the tour reaches its final destination, Julien said his goal is for people to be able to apply their education. While there's no final exam, his day trippers should be able to recognize and identify what makes each brewery unique.
Cruisers could end up at Goose Island's production facility — a glimpse into "big boy land" exclusive to Brews Cruise — or Lake Effect, a small neighborhood brewer of the sort that proliferated before Prohibition. They also could check out Two Brothers' wooden tanks or received a lesson in traditional German brewing practices at Church Street in Itasca.
"There's stuff to learn at each brewery," said Julien.
Potential voyagers should be forewarned: Brews Cruise can be a life-changing experience. At least that was the case for Julien.
It was while on vacation three or four years ago that Julien first became acquainted with the Brews Cruise concept and brand, touring breweries in Asheville, N.C., with his wife Brooke.
"I said, 'We should do this in Chicago,'" he said.
After saving up money for the requisite tour van, building relationships with area brewers and studying the Brews Cruise model under the tutelage of founder Mark Lyons — there are also Brews Cruise affiliates in Denver, Atlanta, Charlotte and Charleston — Julien is finally ready to roll.
"If people sign up, we could be on the road Thursday or Friday," he said. "I only need four to go. Heck, if I get three people, I'll go."
Cruises range in price from $55 to $65. The van's primary point of departure is the Beer Temple, 3185 N. Elston Ave.