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.
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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's Cafe 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.