I don’t even remember how many times I’ve been to the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild‘s annual Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer. I’m pretty sure about 2011 and 2012, because I was involved in reviewing the fest for the Reader both years. But before that? I’d need photographic evidence.
Not remembering shit is a common side effect of FOBAB—all the beers pouring at the festival are aged on wood or in barrels, and brewers who repurpose spirits barrels (bourbon is by far the most popular choice) often make burly, potent beers that can stand up to extended intimacy with booze-impregnated oak. Needless to say, these beverages are more than a match for the puny human brain.
As usual I owe my media pass to FOBAB organizer and ICBG president Pete Crowley, better known as cofounder of Haymarket Pub & Brewery. This year, after 13 months writing a regular beer column, I recognized so many brewers and fellow nerds that conversations kept distracting me from whatever it was I’d intended to drink next. On the shuttle bus from the Red Line to the Bridgeport Art Center, I sat next to “Uncle Jim” Striblem, formerly of the Local Option and now a Chicago-area sales rep for Dark Horse Brewing—and then I somehow failed to sample a single Dark Horse beer, despite the clear temptation presented by the Six Pairs of Legs Maple Porter and the sour ale Where the Wild Things Macerate Raspberries. (Most of these beers are never marketed to the public, so the names can get . . . whimsical.)
Likewise I missed both of Revolution Brewing‘s medal winners, Working Mom (a strong American brown ale aged in Appleton Estate rum barrels and Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels) and Gravedigger Billy (a wee heavy aged in Woodford Reserve barrels). They took gold and silver, respectively, in the Strong/Double/Imperial Dark Beer category. I feel like I should serve some sort of penance for that. I mean, I started out avoiding almost half the tables in the venue, hoping to forestall the inevitable stout coma, but after the winners were announced late in the first session, what happened? I started the second session gamely trying to hit some medalists I hadn’t tried, but in short order my focus and alertness were significantly impaired. I’m just lucky there aren’t mountain lions around here.
In other words, when it came down to what I tasted and what I didn’t, there was an element of chance involved—and I suppose an element of incompetence. At the start of the evening session, the Allagash gueuze Coolship Resurgam disappeared within 12 minutes, and I missed it because I stood in the wrong line. I ended up getting a splash of the 2012 Samuel Adams Utopias instead.
I know I’m making myself sound really professional here. I can’t say much in my defense, except that as the Reader‘s music editor I’m almost always sober. That said, it wasn’t till Sunday evening that I remembered I’d missed Lord Mantis and Coffinworm at Cobra Lounge on Saturday night. Sorry to you too, guys.
For 2013 the FOBAB program listed 86 breweries and 214 total entries, 30 to 40 more than in the past couple years. And as usual, many brewers tried odd or novel combinations.
The gentlemen from Flat 12 Bierwerks in Indianapolis, for instance, who’d put in an appearance the night before at Northdown, brought Majestic Emu, a single-hop Galaxy pale ale aged in (as near as I can tell from the muddled program copy) whiskey barrels previously used to mature an imperial raspberry mead from nearby New Day Meadery. It tasted aggressively of juniper up front, with a finish like honeyed citrus.
The Goose Island pubs went off the reservation with Liquid Oak, a Kölsch barrel-aged with lactobacillus and muscat grapes. The Local Option opted for an unusual wood, contributing a Scandinavian wild red ale partly aged in steel and partly on silver birch; my tasting notes mention creamy toffee, buttered toast, sour cherry, dates, milk chocolate, and a delicate, spicy astringence from the birch. Bear Republic poured a sour stout called Prickly Pear Big Bear, brewed with cactus fruit and aged in wine barrels, about which I recall nothing else.
Breakside Brewery from Portland, Oregon, aged a braggot in an aquavit barrel, and Zion high-gravity specialists Ten Ninety whipped up a version of their cayenne-pomegranate imperial porter aged in a used Tabasco barrel, which I’m sorry I missed. (I’d only just heard about the practice from Mitch Einhorn at Lush—I interviewed him in October about Nomad Brewery’s Batch #1.) Another new twist this year, at least as far as I know, was the use of gin barrels: Atlas brought a strong Belgian golden aged with honey in a barrel from Few Spirits, and Off Color Brewing, founded by Goose Island alumnus John Laffler and Two Brothers veteran Dave Bleitner, aged two of their three beers in gin barrels.
The first, Radlersnake, is a lemon radler that spent what I’m guessing was a long weekend in a gin barrel with unspecified wild yeasts; Cherry Trouble, unsurprisingly, is Off Color’s “gose,” Troublesome, aged in a gin barrel with cherries and brettanomyces claussenii. If you looked for those beers at Northdown on Friday night, though, you would’ve seen them identified as “Screw You Jeremy Danner” and “Tom Korder Is a Jerk”—Laffler’s way of tweaking two friends. Korder, a former Goose Island colleague, is now brewmaster at the long-gestating Penrose Brewing in Geneva, and Danner (who shares Laffler’s love of dinosaur socks) is brewmaster at Boulevard in Kansas City.
At FOBAB I met a couple who’d made a habit of returning to Radlersnake as a palate cleanser, as though it were a little dish of lime sorbet. Cherry Trouble, which won the silver medal in the Fruit Beer category, pulled off a startling alchemy that all but vanished the cherries—fruity, spicy, funky, and tart, it tasted like apricot, white grape juice, and coriander.
Off Color, like Revolution, scored two medals with just three entries: the other was Scurried, a version of the Scurry kottbusser aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, which took silver in Classic Styles. If it has a smart-ass name, I don’t know it.
One brewery whose acquaintance I was especially eager to make at FOBAB this year was Saint Louis gypsy operation Side Project, run by Perennial head brewer Cory King in space he rents from his bosses. Launched in September after more than a year and a half of work, it specializes in barrel-fermented and barrel-aged beers, and though they’re bottled as well as kegged, the batches are painfully small. (“Nanobrewery” isn’t sufficient for the likes of Side Project and Transient Artisan Ales. How about “femtobrewery”? Or “zeptobrewery”?) Still, FOBAB was at least the third time Side Project beers have appeared in Chicago since debuting in September at West Lakeview Liquors’ Cantillon Zwanze Day with Saison du Fermier, fermented with brett in chardonnay barrels.
Side Project’s white peach American wild ale, Fuzzy, won gold in the Wild/Acidic category—with 35 entrants, FOBAB’s most hotly contested division. It might’ve been my favorite of the three dozen I tried throughout the day, though it’s a fool’s errand to rank so many vastly diverse beers even when sober. Fuzzy is incredibly bright and juicy, with a vivid tartness that’s softened by a gentle undertow of vanilla and almond from the oak chardonnay barrels in which it’s matured. The fruit flavor is so intense that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that King uses some sort of exotic neutron peach—the kind where a teaspoon of puree weighs ten billion tons.
I also tried Side Project’s two other FOBAB offerings, Saison du Fermier and a blueberry Flanders red, and though they were both lovely, I’d like to move on to some other standouts before I wear out my welcome.
Deschutes brought the Dissident, which I’d never seen in Chicago before; a Flanders-style sour brown brewed with dark candi sugar and Montmorency cherries and aged in pinot noir barrels, it tastes like Milk Duds, sour cherries, nutty oak, and leather. Except, you know, in a good way. Firestone Walker’s Agrestic Ale, also new to me, turned out to be similar, except minus the fruit—it’s a version of their warhorse DBA that’s fermented and aged in a complicated mix of oak barrels, some previously used for beer or wine and others freshly charred. Toasty and vinous, it finishes like buckskin and Stilton.
I liked all three Perennial beers at FOBAB: La Boheme Kriek, a Flanders red aged with sour cherries in cabernet barrels, reminded me of butter cookies, tart cherries, and cinnamon. Savant Beersel, a brett-fermented Belgian-style pale ale brewed in chambourcin wine barrels with chambourcin grapes, combined flavors of balsamic vinegar, butterscotch, and grape jam, which I realize sounds revolting. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one. The insanely sought-after barrel-aged Abraxas stout, brewed with cacao nibs, ancho chiles, vanilla beans, and cinnamon and matured in Rittenhouse rye whiskey barrels, won the gold medal in the Experimental category, but I got to it too late in the day to properly appreciate it (or at the very least too late to take any useful notes).
What else? Good Lord, this is a long post. How about a few more medalists? The Lost Abbey’s Track #13 (bronze in Strong/Double/Imperial Dark Beer), an old ale aged in cognac barrels, tastes like creme brulee, dried apricot, and fallen oak leaves right after a rain. New Belgium’s Le Terroir Dry-Hopped Sour Ale (silver in Wild/Acidic) is wonderfully bizarre, combining flavors of spruce, green mango, caramel, and pickled watermelon rind. Three Floyds’s Barrel Aged Blot Out the Sun (silver in Strong Porter/Stout) brightens up its backbone of molasses, dark chocolate, and bourbon with a bit of cedar. And Sun King, from Indianapolis, aged a Belgian-style tripel in a Pappy Van Winkle barrel to make Lonesome Dove (gold in Classic Styles), which beautifully balances honey, fruit, and booze—I could taste peach, cantaloupe, and toasted marshmallow.
Anyway. That ought to hold me till next year. I’ll post all the winners below, in case you’re in that tiny subset of readers who care but haven’t already got the information.
Bronze: Jack Stout, Wild Onion (Lake Barrington, IL)
Silver: Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout, Perrin (Comstock, MI)
Gold: Bourbon Barrel Stout, Central Waters (Amherst, WI)
Bronze: Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island (Chicago, IL)
Silver: Barrel Aged Blot Out the Sun, Three Floyds (Munster, IN)
Gold: Cthulhu, Goose Island Clybourn and Wrigleyville Pubs (Chicago, IL)
Bronze: Erik, Atlas Brewing (Chicago, IL)
Silver: 1100 Wheatwine, Fitger’s Brewhouse (Duluth, MN)
Gold: Cockeyed Cooper, Uinta Brewing (Salt Lake City, UT)
Bronze: Old Mouldy Toad, Rock Bottom Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Silver: Scurried, Off Color Brewing (Chicago, IL)
Gold: Afternoon Delight, Sun King Brewery (Indianapolis, IN)
Bronze: Tequila Barrel Aged Gubna Imperial IPA, Oskar Blues (Longmont, CO)
Silver: Downward Spiral, Widmer Brothers (Portland, OR)
Gold: Grand Cru, Rock Bottom Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Bronze: Track #13, the Lost Abbey (San Marcos, CA)
Silver: Gravedigger Billy, Revolution Brewing (Chicago, IL)
Gold: Working Mom, Revolution Brewing (Chicago, IL)
Bronze: Clare’s Thirsty Ale, Haymarket Pub & Brewery (Chicago, IL)
Silver: Cherry Trouble, Off Color Brewing (Chicago, IL)
Gold: Backyard Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island (Chicago, IL)
Bronze: Bourbon Barrel Aged Aztec, Breakside Brewing (Portland, OR)
Silver: Ross’s’s’ Melange, Avery Brewing (Boulder, CO)
Gold: Barrel Aged Abraxas, Perennial Artisan Ales (Saint Louis, MO)
Bronze: Misanthrope, Surly Brewing (Minneapolis, MN)
Silver: Sour Wheat, Goose Island Clybourn and Wrigleyville Pubs (Chicago, IL)
Gold: Le Bretteur, Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, MI)
Bronze: The Dark Side, New Belgium/Upland (Fort Collins, CO, and Bloomington, IN)
Silver: Le Terroir Dry-Hopped Sour Ale, New Belgium (Fort Collins, CO)
Gold: Fuzzy, Side Project Brewing (Saint Louis, MO)
Bronze: Cyser VanDoom, Vander Mill Ciders (Spring Lake, MI)
Silver: Hard Knocks, Apple Knocker Hard Cider (Cobden, IL)
Gold: The Mitten, Virtue Cider (Fennville, MI)
Backyard Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island (Chicago, IL)
Le Bretteur, Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, MI)