Welles Park Craft Beer Fest

When the weather is nice, an outdoor beer festival is a magical place to be. When a steady, cold drizzle falls continually—as it did at Beer Under Glass, the May 14 kick-off event for Chicago Craft Beer Week—it’s a little less appealing. Fortunately, some of the beer was actually being served under glass this year, so it was possible to take shelter in the Garfield Park Conservatory and continue drinking (unlike last year, when ongoing repairs to the conservatory meant many breweries had to set up on the waterlogged lawn, earning the event the nickname “Beer in the Mud”). And the rain did keep the lines down at the outdoor beer tents. It didn’t seem to dim anyone’s spirits much, at any rate.

Weather-wise, though, Chicago Craft Beer Week’s closing event last Saturday—the Welles Park Craft Beer Fest—had all the luck that BUG didn’t. Abundant sunshine and a cool breeze made the day warm but not too hot, tailor-made for sitting in the grass and drinking beer. The event isn’t exactly new, but this is the first year it’s been in Welles Park; aside from some initial confusion about where the entrance was, things seemed to go smoothly.

It’s similar to Beer Under Glass in size and scope, with a few minor differences: food isn’t included in the admission price (but there were food trucks and other vendors selling food), admission is a little cheaper ($55 general admission, $75 VIP, versus $60/$90 for BUG), and it lasts an hour longer (1-5 PM, or noon-5 for VIPs). In addition to getting in an hour early, VIP ticket holders get $10 in food vouchers and have access to a special area with tables, chairs, and a few beers that aren’t poured at the main event (nothing that unusual, though). Not that it’s a competition, but in terms of bang for your buck I’d choose the Welles Park festival over BUG: it features nearly all the same breweries, and while food isn’t included, I’d actually rather spend five or ten bucks on a sandwich than wait in line over and over for little bites of free food. That just wastes time that could be devoted to drinking. Of course, the weather might also have influenced my opinion.

  • Julia Thiel
  • Walter Ornelas of Banging Gavel with his beer Randall

On to my favorite beers, some of which were so good that I tried them at both events. I’ll start with Banging Gavel, which is contract brewing with Church Street in Itasca for now. Brewmaster Walter Ornelas was pouring Chicanery, a Russian imperial stout, through a Randall—essentially an infusing chamber attached to a draft line, which in this case was filled with coconut and cherries. The beer’s flavor will vary depending on how long it sits in the Randall, and I noticed a big difference between the two events. At BUG it was creamy, smooth, and chocolatey with lots of cherry flavor and a bit of coconut (I think it had been infused longer, since I was one of the first people to taste it); at Welles Park it was much more bitter and roasty, with very little cherry or coconut.

  • Julia Thiel
  • Around the Bend, with a set-up that’s a serious step up from pouring out of a cooler

Another new brewery, Around the Bend, is planning to open on the south side, but in the meantime they’re leasing space at the Ale Syndicate brewery. They’d just gotten their license the day of BUG, which was only the second event where they’d poured their beers. I liked Ghost of ‘Lectricity, a light, crisp kolsch-style brew, but it was their pale ale, Silk Road, that stood out. Brewed with galangal—a rhizome that’s a little like ginger in flavor—it’s spicy, citrusy, and just a bit floral.

Middle Brow Beer Company isn’t new (it’s going on three years old, though its first beer came out just over a year ago) but its Moscow Mule Kombucha is. The brewery collaborated with kombucha maker Unity Vibration to create a gluten-free beer that was officially released at the Dan Deacon show at Thalia Hall on May 16. I tasted it at both events, but it was at Welles Park that I most appreciated it—probably because it’s a great warm-weather beer. Or as I overhead a brewery rep telling another attendee, “It’s summer in a glass. If you don’t like summer, don’t drink this beer.” Tart with lime and more like kombucha than beer in flavor, the brew has a spicy ginger kick and just a touch of mint—which is more a cooling sensation that suggests mint than an actual flavor. It barely tastes alcoholic, which could be dangerous since it’s 8 percent ABV.

I’ve been hearing good things about Scratch Brewing for a while, but these festivals were the first chance I’ve had to try their beers, which are brewed with locally farmed and foraged ingredients (including vegetables, nuts, herbs, and wood) in downstate Illinois. I didn’t take careful notes, but there wasn’t a bad beer among the eight or so I tried at the two events; standouts included a biere de garde brewed with chanterelle mushrooms, a basil ale, and a tripel brewed with wild yeast from the air around Scratch’s garden.