People keep declaring that bacon is over as a trend, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. BaconFest Chicago expanded to three sold-out sessions this year (its seventh), selling 4,500 tickets. And the Bacon and Beer Classic, a national event that launched last year, came to Chicago for the first time this past Saturday with two sessions at Soldier Field: one in the afternoon and one in the evening. I don’t know if the tickets sold out, but the length of the lines for food at the afternoon session were a testament to the popularity of the event (or maybe to the fact that there were a lot more places serving beer than food).
I was one of the judges for the session I attended (some of the judges, who must have more stamina than I do, also judged the evening session), and was assigned the category of pilsners and lagers, which included a couple Kölsch beers, a few pilsners, and quite a few Oktoberfests (also known as marzens, which are amber lagers). It’s not easy to compare light pilsners to malty marzens, but some of the other categories didn’t look any easier to judge: ciders and sour beers, for example, or wheat/pale/amber ales, in which IPAs went head-to-head with amber ales.
Complicating the judging even further was the fact that many of the breweries had switched up the beers they brought; several that were on my to-try list weren’t pouring anything in my judging category. That did mean, however, that I ended up with a couple favorites that I might not have tried otherwise: Relentless Ride, a full-bodied, spicy saison with juniper berries and basil from Flossmoor Station; and Count Orlock, a not-too-sweet black pumpkin wheat ale from Urban Chestnut with a very subtle pumpkin flavor. Ale Syndicate’s Trinken Lowen, a pale ale brewed with alt yeast in collaboration with the Radler, shouldn’t have been on my sheet either (it was listed as a lager, which it’s not)—but I did enjoy the beer’s sweet, citrusy notes and dry, barely hoppy finish.
And Lake Effect Grapefruit Snow wasn’t on my list but I tasted it anyway and was glad that I did. I’ve tried the Chicago brewery’s Lake Effect Snow witbier before and thought it was solid, but I was impressed by the clean, fruity flavor and grapefruit intensity in this seasonal variation, which is fermented with 100 percent brettanomyces yeast and has fresh grapefruit added to the beer just a few days before it’s packaged. The brewery representative explained that Lake Effect also does watermelon and ginger-lime versions, all of which are served almost exclusively at summer festivals.
Back to the pilsners and lagers: I’ve stopped expecting much from Goose Island’s mass-marketed beers, so I was surprised at how much I liked their new Four Star pilsner, which had a little more malt and hops than I’d expect for such a light style of beer, as well as an unexpected hint of walnut. Around the Bend, on the other hand, has been impressing me for at least a year with their Silk Road pale ale with galangal—which wasn’t in my judging category, but their Kölsch, Ghost of ‘Lectricity, was. It’s not the first time I’ve tried the beer, but it is the first time I’ve had a chance to take a few minutes really appreciate its mild citrusy, wheaty flavors and barely bitter finish; it’s an easy-drinking beer with a flavor that slowly develops over time.
Two of my favorites—including the one that won the pilsner/lager category—were marzens brewed in Chicago’s far suburbs. Tighthead’s Oktoberfest, brewed in Mundelein, was nutty and chocolatey with lots of complexity; it’s one of the best Oktoberfests I’ve tried, and I’ve tasted plenty. In the end, though, fellow judge Nick Gavrilos and I settled on Noon Whistle’s malty, smooth marzen brewed with cherry-smoked malt—making it a rauchbier (also known as a smoked beer), albeit one with just a hint of smoke.
Choosing winners among the bacon dishes being served was more difficult—a lot of the food suffered from sitting out and getting cold. My personal favorite was a crispy quesadilla from Crazy Bird Chicken with gooey cheese, duck bacon, and just a touch of raspberry sauce, followed closely by a maple-glazed pineapple-and-bacon doughnut from Firecakes. There wasn’t much consensus among the judges on the best savory dish, though, and the prize ended up going to a bacon sausage from Big Fork Brands that wasn’t anyone’s first choice. All the winners from both sessions are listed below.
Best Sweet: Firecakes Maple Pineapple Bacon Donut
Best Savory: Big Fork Brands Bacon Sausage
People’s Choice: Public House Bacon Chili Mac & Cheese
Best Sweet: Ms. Tittle’s Chocolate Beer Bacon Cupcakes
Best Savory: Red Door Pork Belly with Bacon Caramel Glaze and Green Papaya Salad
People’s Choice: Ms. Tittle’s Chocolate Beer Bacon Cupcakes
Best Overall: Public House Bacon Chili Mac & Cheese
Best Pilsner/Lager: Noon Whistle Brewing Oktoberfest
Best (two) Wheat/Pale/Amber Ales: Ten Ninety Brewing Angry Dragon Pale Ale and 4 Hands Brewing Co. Resurrected IPA
Best Robust Ale/Stout: Founders Brewing Breakfast Stout
Best Spiced/Seasonal/Fruit Beer: Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. Harvest Patch Shandy
Best Cider/Sour Beer: Uncle John’s Cider Apple Cherry Cider