The barrels might be new raw or toasted oak or have previously held bourbon, rye whiskey, rum, cognac, port or other wines, and a few beers are aged on cedar. This year you could taste several adult beverages that had luxuriated in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels, or in barrels that once held 50-year-old French cognac. Many spent that aging time in the company of fruits or spices: I tried a Flanders red ale aged with blueberries in wine barrels, an IPA aged on cedar with peaches, a strong Belgian dark ale aged in bourbon barrels with raisins, cinnamon, and dried chiles, a milk stout aged in sweet Madeira barrels with cherries, and a Belgian-style IPA aged in a cabernet barrel with passionfruit and cacao nibs, to name just a few.
The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild presents FOBAB, this year held on Saturday, November 17, with one session from 1-5 PM and another from 6-10 PM. I attended the swiftly and thoroughly sold-out event thanks to the indulgence of ICBG president Pete Crowley (who also runs Haymarket Pub & Brewery) and executive director Justin Maynard. Last year I went with my coworker Julia Thiel, which made it easier to try more beers without incapacitating myself, but this time, flying solo, I managed a mere 26, among them nine medal winners—and that's counting a couple I previewed at a kickoff party at Haymarket on Friday evening. All the winners (and the rest of my review) are after the jump.
Speaking of the Haymarket party: They were pouring the Passion House Coffee Porter, which isn't barrel aged and wasn't at FOBAB but definitely deserves a mention, not least because you can walk in off the street and order a glass (many FOBAB beers are one-offs brewed for the occasion and thus all but impossible to get anywhere else). My stomach won't tolerate coffee, but I do love the taste—and the Passion House porter has a startlingly huge, bright, citrusy coffee flavor.
Haymarket was also serving Firestone Walker's Sour Opal, which would've been a great fit for FOBAB but didn't make an appearance. It's an American gueuze made by aging their Lil Opal saison in oak wine barrels for a ridiculous four years; it tastes of green apples and tart cherries, softened by roast almond and vanilla from the wood, with a gentle lingering funk like parmesan cheese. Haymarket's John Neurauter told me the beer had never made it to Chicago before.
Anyhow. On to the festival itself! The fifth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center is a high-ceilinged space with lots of windows and skylights, and I was fortunate to be at FOBAB's afternoon session, with sun flooding the rooms. Despite the brisk weather outside, the temperature in the room reached the mid-80s, thanks to the presence of hundreds of beer-drinking mammals—but around 3 PM someone finally figured out how to get a few windows open, after which conditions were much less sweaty. Early in the afternoon both large elevators had broken down, and one trapped a small group for nearly an hour; they were brought to the stage by the organizers and delivered a lavish apology.
I didn't mind climbing some stairs, though, and despite the majority male crowd, I never waited more than ten minutes for the men's room (if you've ever been to a beer festival, you know what a mercy that is). I especially appreciated the water coolers scattered around the space, which allowed festgoers to rinse their glasses between tastings and stay hydrated—many of the roughly 180 beers on offer are quite strong, and it takes a bit of discipline to get through four hours of samples without a headache.
I arrived at around 1:30 PM (Bridgeport is a long way from Edgewater), and I was told later that by that time Goose Island's much-hyped Cherry Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout—which took Best in Show as well as the gold medal in the Fruit Beer category—was already gone. (It's coming out in bottles on Black Friday, though I'm hardly optimistic about my chances of finding any.) I also missed Perennial's barrel-aged Abraxas stout, aged 11 months in Rittenhouse rye whiskey barrels with cacao nibs, ancho chiles, vanilla beans, and cinnamon—another of the most sought-after entries and the silver medalist in the Experimental Beer division.
That's not to say I didn't drink some excellent stuff. The aforementioned blueberry Flanders red, also by Perennial, came highly recommended by Local Option brewer Noah Hopkins, and I knew it was special even before I tasted it—its wonderful aroma of berries hit me from several feet away, while it was still being poured. The malty, fruity tartness of the base beer, rounded off by the wine barrel it had aged in, complemented the blueberries perfectly. I'm honestly a little mystified that this one didn't take a medal.
My friends at Pipeworks Brewing brought a lovely sour barrel-aged version of their excellent smoked porter, which in my admittedly semicoherent tasting notes I compare to a BLT—I'm assuming because the bacony smokiness was offset by a tomato-like acidity? Who the hell knows what I was thinking. The Pipeworks guys also pointed me to a brand-new Ravenswood operation called Spiteful Brewing, who were appearing at their very first festival. They'd brewed what they called the GFY Imperial Stout, aged in a freshly dumped bourbon barrel from Evanston's Few Spirits; it was surprisingly light for an imperial but satisfyingly silky, with molasses and licorice the dominant flavors.
Upstart Naperville brewery Solemn Oath won two medals, one of which was for a beer I managed to try, an American-style double red ale called Ultramegahighfrequency that's aged for four months in Jack Daniel's barrels. It was one of my last beers of the day, I'm afraid, and my notes consist of a single word: "redwood." Make of that what you will. I also sampled Solemn Oath's Dashing Moustache, tempted by its silly name and flagrantly bizarre recipe: it's that Belgian-style pale ale I mentioned, infused with passionfruit and cacao nibs and aged in a cabernet barrel. Beers such as these are what FOBAB is all about, if you ask me—you can't begin to imagine what they'll taste like. Passionfruit beers are in my experience especially weird and unpredictable—the 5 Lizard witbier from 5 Rabbit, for instance, smells powerfully like bruised tomato leaves. Dashing Moustache smells like honey and spearmint, and even in the flavor I can't pick up any actual passionfruit; I get tangerine and wintergreen. What!
Sun King from Indianapolis also won two medals, one for Pappy Fog, a Belgian-style quadrupel aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels that splendidly balances dark fruit and mellow, buttery bourbon.
Another perfect-for-FOBAB beer came from Tampa's Cigar City Brewing, whose visit I hope means they're considering moving into the Chicago market. The Humidor Peach IPA is aged on Spanish cedar with peaches (the peachless version won a gold medal), and the intense fruit flavors tangle strangely with sandalwood and pepper from the wood—I even thought I tasted some herbiness like oregano in the finish.
Chicago lager specialists Metropolitan Brewing brought a batch of their delicious Carburetor Rye Doppelbock that had been aged in Templeton rye whiskey barrels; it tasted of toffee touched with green hay and a bit of cumin.
The most decorated beer I tried came from the Lost Abbey. Track #8 is a bottle-conditioned strong Belgian brown ale aged in bourbon barrels with raisins, cinnamon, and dried chiles; it won the gold in the Experimental Beer category and was named runner-up for Best in Show. Alas it also suffered from late-in-the-day sketchy-notes syndrome—I wrote "Wow!" and "dark gingerbread."
Even if I had the energy to review every beer I had, that would almost certainly try your patience—instead I'll move along to a list of every medal winner at this year's festival. A dubious public service, since I'm sure this information has been posted far and wide, but here you go. I've already typed it out, so why not.