Chicago beer festival rolls out barrels, hospitality

As rain fell outside of Chicago’s Bridgeport Art Centre, a growing line of anxious craft beer enthusiasts meandered across the parking lot with no end in sight.

We had scoured the Internet for months to secure five tickets to the eleventh annual Festival of Wood and Barrel-aged Beer (FoBAB). Back in August, the tickets sold out in three minutes flat.

But at the eleventh hour, we were still down one ticket. Even so, we were prepared to beg, borrow or steal to complete our Canadian contingent –a pack of six in total.

As it turned out, however, drastic tactics weren’t necessary. In fact, we didn’t have to muscle our way into the festival at all. Instead, we politely explained our predicament to an event organizer. Playing the congenial Canadian card definitely paid off.

Not only did we land a free ticket to the event’s coveted first session, but we also gained VIP entry. Once inside the Skyline Loft, a buffet of more than 200 barrel-aged beers from about 100 U.S. breweries was on offer, thanks to our hosts the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

FOBAB 2013-3

Barrels and beer: Chicago’s craft beer community came together for the eleventh annual Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer, or FoBAB (the “Wood” is silent).

Aging beer in repurposed barrels imparts characteristics of the barrel’s wood and the wine or distilled spirit it once contained. The barrel’s bugs – tenacious microorganisms that house themselves in the wood’s pores – encourages the beer to take on pleasurable flavours of tartness, sourness or funk.

Le Bretteur from Michigan’s Bells Brewery, for example, was fermented in French Oak Chardonnay barrels with Brettanomyces yeast. The beer was crowned FoBAB best in show.

Microorganisms like “Brett,” as it is lovingly known by brewers, are celebrated in the craft beer community. Vintners, on the other hand, view the bacterium as a spoiling organism.

As well as flavour-enhancing microorganisms, FoBAB also showcased barrel-aged beers boasting bold flavours from fruit, coffee, chocolate and chili peppers, among other natural additives.

Berries and sour ale were the driving ingredients behind Dark Horse Brewing’s Where the Wild Things Macerate Raspberries. Likewise, Off Color Brewing’s mouth-puckering Radlersnake was a blend of beer and tart citrus. The shandy was a twist on the traditional German Radler, and was aged in gin barrels with wild yeasts.

The perfect pairing of bourbon and chocolate was coupled in Upland Brewery’s Teddy Bear Kisses – an Imperial Stout conditioned with cacao nibs and aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels.

FOBAB 2013-4

Strutting their stuff: Chicago’s Goose Island was one of about 100 U.S breweries to submit entries into the festival.

Meanwhile, Goose Island infused its stout à la minute. The Chicago mainstay tapped its legendary Bourbon County Stout into infusing chambers filled with Intelligentsia coffee beans and ancho chiles, pouring it directly into our taster glasses.

FoBAB promised a vast range of wood and barrel-aged beers from all over the U.S. Most were rare, exotic and unavailable commercially. The festival delivered on that promise, but offered so much more. 

As well as being spoiled for beer from the top tier of the U.S. craft brewing industry, we were also treated to the unmatchable hospitality and camaraderie of the Chicago craft beer community.

The festival also offered a glimpse of what the future of craft beer in Canada might hold. See for yourself.

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One comment

  1. How wonderful that you got in as a VIP! Great post. I am learning so much about the world of craft beer.

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