Taste away (while being mindful of social distancing) at this year’s FOBAB. Credit: Yutacar/Unsplash

It’s exhilarating just to anticipate the annual Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer (FOBAB). I don’t know if it is the prospect of being surrounded by so many high ABV (alcohol by volume) beers that brings this out in me or the fact that there was only a virtual version last year. The sheer thought of that much barrel-aged beer in one space is enchanting. 

The Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer is celebrating its 19th year this fall, and it has come far from its humble beginnings. The event was held completely online in 2020 due to concerns around COVID-19, but this year the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild (ICBG), creators and hosts of the festival, have moved FOBAB to the spacious Credit Union 1 Arena near the UIC campus. Like many other large events in this pandemic era, the organizers also limited the total number of in-person participants allowed at the arena, and those folks will be required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken up to 72 hours prior to entry.

If you have never attended FOBAB, or if you have never attended a large beer festival in general, first of all—welcome. It’s a hoot and a holler and here’s how it works. With your $85 (plus processing fees) ticket, you get a delightful little glass sampling cup emblazoned with the FOBAB logo, and a lanyard certifying your admission. Past sampling cups have been shaped like little beer barrels (and were adorable). The first year I went, the cup was metal and had a carabiner clip on it, and lots of folks clipped it to their lanyard and got very boozy with beer down their front sides. That’s the type of party this is. Once you get on to the main floor, volunteers in FOBAB garb are standing behind tables with placards above them stating which beers they are pouring taster glass-sized samples of, while around you mill a mix of brewers, craft beer enthusiasts, and the beer-curious. 

“I’m excited to get back this year to see some of my favorite people . . . I probably haven’t seen for almost two years at this point,” said John Laffler, head brewer and co-owner of Off Color Brewing when we spoke on the phone. 

There is no limit on how many samples you can get. Everything is free so at a fest like this you really have to keep your head on a swivel. I will often tell the festival volunteers that pour the samples, “Just a little sip!” or else they will fill your tiny cup all the way up. For context, the typical single serving of beer is a 12-ounce pour (of a 4-to-5.5 percent alcohol by volume beer, like Metropolitan’s Flywheel or Half Acre’s Pony Pilsner). When you raise the ABV, you’ll want a smaller serving: for example, a typical single serving of wine is a five-ounce glass for sometimes 10 to 12 percent ABV). 

Almost every beer you are going to sample at FOBAB can easily be over 10 percent ABV, and the little cup they hand you is probably around five ounces to the lip. A good rule of thumb for most people when faced with this kind of access to alcohol is sticking to one drink per hour to stay safe. Since the Saturday session of FOBAB runs for four hours, that means four full servings. With varying high levels of ABV going on here, you have to be careful what you go in for. You don’t have to drink every drop of the beer they pour you. I often don’t. There are dump buckets and water fountains positioned throughout the floor. 

The hall at FOBAB is typically separated into sections of beer types. At past festivals, most of the main floor beers were bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts, and this year will have variations on that theme like strong ales, barley wines, porters, brown ales, and even barrel-aged meads and ciders.

The Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer
Fri 11/12, 6-10 PM, Sat 11/13, 1-5 PM, Credit Union 1 Arena, 525 S. Racine, $85 per day, tickets and more information available at fobab.com.

Each year breweries from around the country submit some of their most rare or most expensive beer to be judged in competition. Entering the competition takes a lot of preparation. Entrants (from all over the country) brew a new high ABV stout or barley wine, put it into a bourbon barrel, and wait for at least 90 days. Then they keg it and send it to FOBAB for the chance to be crowned best in show.

The overall best in show award is a unique element to FOBAB. In most other beer competitions, beers are awarded gold medals per style. You usually can’t compare a German-style pilsner with a fruited sour. These beers are beers like a Fiat 500c and a Chevy Corvette are both cars. Now, which one is best? Hard to judge, but FOBAB does it. 

One of the interesting breweries that will be featured at FOBAB this year is Schiller Park’s Short Fuse Brewing. Short Fuse won two silver awards at the 2021 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), a well-established national competition that happens annually in Denver. In addition to the two beer awards (for their “Vocal Jam” experimental brew and their “Tropical Hurt Locker” fruited American sour), Short Fuse won the overall award for best brewery in the country that parses out between 2,001 to 5,000 barrels per year. 

I connected with Short Fuse owner Nick Teague by e-mail to hear about their big win at GABF, and their expectations for FOBAB. “Yes, we had a great GABF this year . . . it was beyond what I could have even hoped for as far as medals. Something most people outside the brewery don’t know is that about a year and half ago we replaced the entire brewing staff and brought in a new head brewer, Brian Lagro,” Teague wrote. “Brian came over from Goose Island and our lead brewer Craig Kofod worked with him to improve everything we do . . . we feel very good about our chances at any competition and see a very bright future with those two in charge of our beer.”

Teague continued, “As for FOBAB, we hit the reset button on our entire barrel program last winter and filled our barrels with beers made by Brian and Craig . . . I think it is one of the best beer festivals in the country and am glad it is coming back in some form. The Guild always does a great job . . . I would guess attendance will be a little lower to accommodate social distancing and I know they moved it to the Credit Union 1 Arena to give more space per person and have an outdoor option. Hopefully more bathrooms too!”