View from outside the festival

The hallmark of a successful beer festival may just be that the critics don’t have much to say about it. Chicago Ale Fest, which was initially scheduled for last September and then canceled due to “anticipated inclement weather and financial concerns,” went off without a hitch this past Friday evening and Saturday afternoon—at least as far as I can tell. I was only there for the second half of the Saturday session, but if there’s one thing people like to do it’s complain, and if there had been issues I’m pretty sure they would have been tweeted, Facebooked, and blogged about.

Most of the postfest buzz on social media amounts to a few photos of the beer tents and several selfies in front of Buckingham Fountain—which did make for a pretty spectacular backdrop. In fact, Ale Fest delivered on pretty much everything it promised: 100 breweries serving samples of 200-plus beers, live music, and food for sale. They did run out of programs and commemorative tasting glasses before we arrived (we got plastic cups with no logo), but that was halfway through the second session, and it wasn’t really a problem.

While I couldn’t name a single way the event stood out from other beer festivals I’ve been to (aside from being next to Buckingham Fountain), I don’t have any major complaints about it either—which isn’t bad for an event in its first year. The lines for beer weren’t too long, the tents were spread out enough that it was easy to get around, and everything seemed fairly well organized. It would have been nice to have a list of beers being poured as well as the breweries that were there (I eventually got my hands on an abandoned program), but that’s a complaint I have at most beer fests—and no one else ever seems to care. And I thought the music was too loud, but I always think that because I’m old.

Between arriving late and leaving a little early to try to beat an impending storm, I didn’t get to try as many beers as I would have liked. There were a few that stood out, though. One Trick Pony’s pale ale with red tea and lemongrass, Not Fade Away, caught my eye because it was brewed in collaboration with Transient and Middle Brow—both excellent brewers. Rather than fading into the background, the lemongrass and tea were front and center, creating a very herbal, dry brew, bitter in a tannic sort of way (rooibos tea is actually pretty low in tannins, but the beer still has that mouth-drying tannic quality). It took me a minute to get used the flavor, but it was refreshing, and would go down easy on a hot day. I also liked their Brabant, a Belgian golden strong ale that was much lighter and more tart than I expected given the style and the 8 percent ABV. It’s sweet, but not cloying in the way that some of the higher alcohol Belgian-style beers often are.

Atlas Brewing’s farmhouse wheat was more straightforward but equally pleasant, light and citrusy with a faint spiciness. And Ten Ninety’s newish apricot ale—a wheat beer with apricot juice added in the second fermentation—may well become one of my summer go-tos. Brewed with honey and spices, it’s barely sweet; the apricot adds tartness and fruit flavor, but not much sweetness. And at 6 percent ABV, it’s less likely to knock you out than Ten Ninety’s usual high-gravity beers.

I stopped by the booth for 51st Ward, which I hadn’t heard of before, and learned that it was started by one of the cofounders of Westmont’s Urban Legend—Tim Hoerman, who split from that brewery last year. He’s apparently taken several of his recipes with him, and some beers I associated with Urban Legend, like the Krispy Karl imperial stout, are now brewed and sold by 51st Ward (which is currently contract brewing at Church Street). I tried God Country, advertised as a Kolsch-style hybrid ale that the guy manning the booth said was brewed with “experimental hops.” I tried to find out what that meant, but the music was so loud that I had trouble hearing the guy, and all I got was that the hops didn’t have a name yet. I don’t know if it was due to the experimental hops, but the beer was surprisingly bitter for a Kolsch, with an astringent finish that I didn’t like. It might be a good Kolsch for hop-heads, though.

We finished up with samples of Around the Bend’s Silk Road pale ale with galangal, which I’d tasted at Beer Under Glass but my friend had never tried. My colleague Philip Montoro just wrote a long review of the beer, so I won’t go into detail, but the fact that I’d go for a beer I’d already tried instead of something new is a pretty high recommendation in itself.