Beer Hoptacular has come a long way since it launched in 2010. In its inaugural year, the beer selection seemed . . . unimpressive. There weren’t that many breweries in attendance, especially local ones, and the ones that were there weren’t pouring anything unusual. In its second year, Hoptacular brought in more breweries but also outgrew the Aragon, where it was held—the space was so packed with people that it was difficult to move. Last year it seemed to hit its stride, moving to the Riverfront Theater and featuring more than 60 breweries.

  • Julia Thiel
  • There was plenty of cool stuff to look at.

That momentum continued to this year’s Hoptacular, held in the Lacuna Artist Loft Studios in Pilsen and, for the first time, featuring live entertainment (including live music and a “Beer Hop Derby”). Like last year, there were around 60 breweries, but more of them were local—a function, no doubt, of the fact that the number of breweries in Chicago has exploded in the past year or two. But while the event was well organized and not overly crowded, there was one change for the worse this year: the program listed the breweries that were there, but not the beers being poured. This made it hard to decide what booths to go to; as I’ve mentioned before, there’s no way to try all the beers at events like this. With luck I might make it to a quarter of the breweries before I run out of energy or time or both, so being able to prioritize is key.

I ended up aiming for new local breweries, since there were quite a few that I’d never tried before—though I also stopped by the tables of some old favorites, like Pipeworks, Half Acre, and Revolution. Below are some of my favorites from the evening.

Goose Island: The first beer I tried at Hoptacular was Gillian, a saison brewed with strawberries, white pepper, and honey. My colleague Philip Montoro has described the beer in much more detail than I could, so I’ll just link to his post. But it’s a really good beer that’s well worth tasting if you get a chance.

Rude Boy/Lake Effect: Rude Boy doesn’t exactly exist yet, but they’ve been brewing collaboration beers with Lake Effect on the latter’s equipment for several months now, and according to the Internet, they specialize in sour and barrel-aged beers. I tried their Hollow Point Brown Ale from a firkin, a warm (literally), creamy, rich beer with notes of maple and vanilla. My friend commented that she felt like she should be putting it on oatmeal, it was so creamy and sweet.

Slapshot: This is a brand-new brewery in Little Village, and I was pretty impressed with both of their offerings: Honey, You’re Blonde, a nicely hopped, well-balanced blonde ale; and 1926, a fruity, slightly bitter rye pale ale.

Une Anee: Another newish Chicago brewery (located in West Town), Une Anee makes Belgian-inspired beers—and, judging by its Less Is More saison and Maya Belgian IPA—makes them well The saison is citrusy and surprisingly hoppy, with a finish almost more bitter than the IPA’s. That could be because the IPA has a pronounced sweetness, though.

Urban Legend: Located in Westmont, this brewery opened in August. They were previewing Wino, their Festival of Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer entry: Krispy Karl Russian imperial stout aged in a red wine barrel. It smelled toasty and tasted like dates, incredibly sweet and complex, with distinctly savory notes—I tasted balsamic vinegar and (I could swear) fish sauce, which was much more pleasant than it sounds.

New Belgium: They had their Lips of Faith coconut curry hefeweizen on tap, so I tried it again to see if I liked it better that way than from a bottle. Turns out, I do. It’s not quite as intense—and, as I noted before, a tasting portion of it seems like about the right amount.

Revolution: I was surprised by how much I liked the Red Skull imperial red ale, which was fruity, rich, and nicely hopped. I kept writing down things like “full,” “well-rounded,” and “hits everywhere in your mouth”—it was getting late in the evening by that point, but I think that gives some idea of what the beer is like.

Pipeworks: It’s hardly surprising that it would be Pipeworks that was pouring the first white stout I’ve ever seen—or heard of. Hey Careful Man, There’s a Beverage Here (yes, that’s its name) is brewed with cacao, coffee, and vanilla, and looks nothing like an imperial stout. It smells like coffee, but when you taste it the coffee slips into the background; I get sweet coconut and milk chocolate instead. It’s not as heavy as most stouts, which makes it dangerously easy to drink at 10.5 percent ABV. Pipeworks also had an imperial oatmeal stout called What Lurks in the Dark; it was good, too, well-rounded and slightly sweet, with notes of chocolate, vanilla, and bourbon.

Illuminated Brew Works: A brewery so new that it’s still in the process of being licensed (at least according to their website), they had two beers brewed in collaboration with DryHop that were some of my favorites of the evening. Death Is the Real Drag is a black pepper and cherry sour beer, and even though I’m not generally a fan of cherry flavor or sour beers, I really liked its sour cherry flavor and peppery backbone. 50% Chance of Death, a saison, tastes like cardamom and pepper.

Attendees can vote on their favorite beers, and I ended up trying only one of the winners, the Pipeworks white imperial stout (which took third place). First place went to Fallen Angel, an amber lager from Lucky Monk, and second place to Not Your Father’s Root Beer, an alcoholic root beer from Small Town Brewery. I realized after the fact that I could have looked at the voting display—people drop bottle caps into clear plastic containers to vote—to see what people were enjoying, though it’s possible that people voted only at the end of the evening. Maybe next year.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Wednesdays.