Chicago is my ancestral home (or close to it), and as such I pay quite a bit of attention to the Chicago craft beer scene. It helps that said scene is absolutely exploding right now, as home to dozens of breweries that are in the planning or licensing stages. Chicago Craft Beer Week has been one of the great developments that came along with this rapid expansion. Currently wrapping up its third year, the 11-day “week” is a fantastic way to celebrate all of these new breweries as well as the other midwestern ale factories whose beers are found in the city.
Unfortunately, I only had one weekend (one day, really) to spend in the city for CCBW this year, so I picked the event that seemed best to me on the day I was there–the first-ever Mash Tun Festival in Bridgeport, organized by one of my favorite Chicago beer bars, Maria’s Package Goods & Community Bar.* The organization appealed to me: a single $40 ticket bought unlimited sampling of most beers, a set of four tickets for special pours (more tickets available), a commemorative glass, snacks and a copy of Mash Tun, the new craft beer journal for Chicago and namesake of the festival. I like that. Getting lots of stuff for my money = good.
*An aside: Maria’s really is an awesome bar. Not only do they not even try to cater to non-craft drinkers (they offer “$2 random shitty beer” on the menu), their beer-to-go store in the front of the venue often has hard-to-get local stuff that has long sold out of bigger package stores like Binny’s. If you’re looking for something that nobody else has, check Maria’s. Unless, of course, I’m also looking for the same beer as you, in which case, go to hell.
What is not good is when you show up at a beer festival and what is being poured is pretty different from what was advertised. You may recall that I once went into this in depth in a post titled “How Not to Run a Beer Fest,” and this festival shared some of the same problems. Overall, however, it was a much, much better time than any bad festival could be. In short, the features they did have greatly outweighed any negatives. I’ll get to some of the issues later, but first let me detail for you some of the interesting beers I had at the event. Also, this picture of a horse at the Bridgeport Art Center, where the festival was held:
Now that we got the horse out of the way, on to the beers. These notes will be very brief, as there was not an overall beer program to take home (which would have been nice), and I just jotted down brewery names and beers on a crumpled piece of paper. So yes, these impressions are from memory.
Fuzzy Line Beer Co.
This homebrew collective was one of the standout groups at the festival, and I can’t even tell you where they’re from. I assumed (incorrectly) that I would be able to track down information about them posted SOMEWHERE online, but literally the only reference I could find was a writer at The Chicagoist mentioning their appearance at this same festival. So I think it’s probably safe to assume they’re from the “Chicago area.”
With that said, they brought a really great, varied lineup of beers, from an IPA to a French saison, a spiced saison, a berliner weisse with lemon syrup and an imperial mild (which I still think is a silly way to describe a beer). The one that really stood out as unusual though, is that they brought along their own homebrew sour, made without the benefit of barrels or anything of that nature. I asked someone behind their table how they managed to pull off a sour at home, and he said they simply let crushed grain steep in water for several days before the brewing process. Crushed grain, ironically, is one of the favorite foodstuffs of certain bacteria and wild yeast, which is what these homebrewers then used to innoculate their wort.
The sour was particularly interesting in that it wasn’t “flavored” in any real way, nor did it really have any malt besides base malt. Instead of the intense sweetness or fruitiness that many have to counteract the sour, it was more like a moderately soured German helles than anything. Really the effect was just a blank canvas to show you exactly what lactobacillus does when you put it in beer, and I very much appreciated the chance to see it in action.
Former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall’s Virtue Cider was on-hand, and I had a chance to try their long-awaited English draft cider Redstreak. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it–it was very refreshing, pretty dry and just bursting with fresh apple flavor. I often feel like ciders have a certain “artificial” aspect to their flavors, but this tasted like nothing so much as alcoholic, fresh-squeezed apple juice–and that’s pretty much what I figure a hard cider should taste like! Contrary to my past tastes, I could imagine myself sitting in an outdoor beer garden on a hot summer night, tilting back a Redstreak.
They had an 8.3% abv “American black ale” called “Wookey Jack” on that I hadn’t heard before. The hops did not disappoint. I also got to try their bourbon barrel-aged oatmeal stout, Velvet Merlin, earlier in the afternoon at Maria’s. Merlin was a beer I’d been hearing about for a while and I was very excited to catch it there. It is part of an interesting new trend in brewing, which is the barrel-aging of non-imperial-strength brews. Think of it! All the flavor of bourbon without having to be drinking a 10% abv imperial stout.
This was actually the first chance I’ve ever had to try World Wide Stout. It didn’t particularly stand out from any of the other imperial stouts I’ve had, but my taste buds may very well have been deadened by this point.
CHAOS is another Chicago-area homebrewing club, and quite well organized in comparison to something like Fuzzy Line. It makes me scratch my head when I think about such things–if a group like CHAOS can figure out how to create a website and a Facebook page, why can’t a homebrew group like Fuzzy Line? The reason they’re there is to increase their exposure and visibility in the area. Wouldn’t it be good for someone who enjoyed their product to be able to look up more information about the group online? CHAOS appears to agree with me.
I tasted a number of things from these creative”alchemists of sud.” Notable were their kombucha tea-infused sour, the imperial dark wheat and their homebrewed cherry sour. I must say, as a general word of advice–if you ever go to beer festivals, do not pass by the homebrewer club tables. Chances are, if they’re well-organized enough to be a club, they’re probably making fantastic beer. Homebrewers are also not afraid to try things that are very off the wall, or beers that would be nearly impossible in a full-scale manufacturing environment. You can’t help but realize what a beautiful process this really is when you consider that a homebrewer working on his home stove can make a beer just as good as a multimillion dollar corporation.
These guys are from Gary, Indiana but fancy themselves a Chicago-area homebrew collective/small-scale contract brewer. They actually own office space in the city, which I don’t particularly understand, because as far as I can tell they have little to no income or reason to have an office. I can’t really imagine what the space is used for, because the brewing doesn’t appear to happen in Chicago. I asked why they had it and the person behind the booth stared at me blankly and then said it was “to do work at.” Oh, why didn’t I think of that? In conclusion: I don’t know.
As far as beer goes, I was only able to try a Belgian IPA, but it compared favorably to popular offerings in Chicago, such as products from Haymarket Pub & Brewing.
The only beer I was able to try from Three Floyds was a doozy. It’s called Hell’s Black Intelligencer, and it’s a 6% abv. oatmeal coffee stout. This is delicious, ultra-tasty stuff that for the life of me tasted like alcoholic, sweetened iced coffee. If you ever get a chance to sample this one, you’ve got to make it happen. This was probably my favorite thing of the day.
Beejay and Gerrit from Pipeworks were on-hand as they always seem to be as these sorts of events, and I had a chance to try several new, solid beers that I’d yet to taste. To date, the only completed product from Pipeworks I had was the palate-crippling Ninja vs. Unicorn DIPA, and these two beers were decidedly on the other end of the spectrum. On-hand were an unnamed Belgian saison and their 20% smoked porter, which can be found at a few places in the city. As usual, quality is top-notch around the board. And by the way, when I mentioned something earlier about rare beers you could find at Maria’s, these are the guys I’m talking about.
Powell Brew House
They had a black IPA. It was good, I think? To be honest I don’t really remember. WHOOPS!
And there you have it. There are probably a few things I missed, but as I said, this is the product of jotting down notes on a scrap of paper.
It was undeniably a good time, but I was troubled by some of the apparent omissions. The website and Chicago Craft Beer Week event page before the event list a number of beers that were supposed to be there that I never saw poured, among them, selections from Great Lakes, Founders, Unita and Lagunitas. I did not see a single beer from any of these breweries poured throughout, and I was there the entire time.
Adding to my confusion is this wrap-up post from The Chicagoist, in which the author describes Great Lakes as having been there, and the tasting of a Founders beer. I emailed the site to ask about when and where he got that beer, and if I was somehow incorrect, but got no response.
I can say for sure that I know I’m not entirely wrong, in any case. I know this because I literally saw kegs of untapped Lagunitas beer sitting with ice on them throughout the entire event. Apparently, nobody ever just arrived to tap and dispense them. So the unopened kegs of Gnarlywine and Waldo’s Special Ale (which was one of the things I really wanted to try) just sat there throughout the entire event. I know they didn’t get opened because I stayed until closing time of the festival.
In my eyes, that kind of thing is not acceptable. When you advertise having certain beers on-hand, you should make sure you have them. Of course, event coordinators can’t control whether a brewery actually gets beer to them, so the occasional missing brew is inevitable. But the fact that they actually had beer on hand that just didn’t get served, well that’s a serious omission. I didn’t complain about this during the fest itself, by the way, because I asked an organizer in the beginning if everything listed on the website would be there and he assured me that they would cycle in throughout the day. It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave that I realized how many things were missing.
As I’ve already said before, though, these things were certainly not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the festival. The joy of Chicago Craft Beer Week is infectious and irresistable. It’s best not to fight it.
What should you take away from this? If nothing else, it should be that Maria’s is awesome. If you’re in Chicago, and you’ve visited the other beer bars, and you don’t mind hanging out on the south side for a little while, you need to get out there.