As in years past, most breweries didn't bring much besides their standard releases. The event definitely isn't aimed at beer nerds (more at the kind of people who think of Newcastle as great beer, I'd guess). I'm not sure I've even achieved true nerd status, and I've tried everything that Dogfish Head, Founders, Great Lakes, New Holland, Oskar Blues, and Lagunitas had available there. Still, Chicago is producing breweries faster than I can keep up these days, and between new releases, old ones I hadn't tried before, and the few experimental beers on hand, I found more than enough to keep me occupied. A few of my favorites are below.
Lake Effect (Chicago): This brand-new brewery is located in Mayfair. I was a big fan of the well-balanced, floral IPA and spicy Belgian blonde I tried, and I'm excited for the ten-odd other beers listed on their website—they've even managed to barrel-age an imperial stout.
Begyle (Chicago): Located in Ravenswood, Begyle is also relatively new; they met their Kickstarter goal just a couple months ago. In addition to selling their beer retail, they're planning to do "community-supported brewing" (CSB) based on the CSA model: people will sign up for monthly subscriptions for beer and, presumably, get whatever the brewery happens to be making. Based on their blonde ale, citrusy, crisp, and surprisingly hoppy, it may be worth it.
Destihl (Normal, IL): Their Russian Imperial Stout was one of my favorite beers at last year's festival and won the people's choice award, so I was disappointed to miss it this year (the first time I went by their booth they hadn't tapped it yet, and when I went back later they'd run out). But the 120 Shilling Scotch Ale was lovely, smoky and surprisingly light, less sweet than I expected.
Tighthead (Mundelein, IL): Both the lightly sweet red ale and the piney, citrusy IPA were very good.
Bell's (Kalamazoo, MI): The Black Note Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout, weighing in at a massive 11.5 percent ABV, tasted like vanilla, chocolate, and dark fruit, sweet but not syrupy.
Goose Island (Chicago): They had several interesting beers, not least among them the 2011 Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout. An even more massive 14 percent ABV, it was buttery and smoky, tasting a little like butterscotch. Black Mission, an abbey ale fermented with Black Mission figs and lactose sugar, was malty and fruity; Gran Gas, a golden ale brewed with spruce tips and lingonberries, was tart and piney, the way I imagine the forest floor might taste. The smokiest beer of the evening—possibly the smokiest I've ever tasted—was Casimir, a smoked wheat ale inspired by a traditional smoked Polish style. According to the program, "The brewers smoked about 600 pounds of wheat at a Polish fish market using old Bourbon County Brand Stout barrel staves and added caraway seeds and two types of rye to emulate rye bread."
New Belgium (Fort Collins, CO): They were serving the new Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout from their Lips of Faith series ("brews we feel are outside the box"); rich, malty, and a little sweet, it tasted more like whiskey than coffee.
Lakefront (Milwaukee, WI): Both the Madagascar Vanilla Bean Holiday Spice: Winter Warmer (which tasted like vanilla and marshmallows) and the Rum Barrel Aged My Turn: Brad Scotch Ale (which also had vanilla notes but tasted more like rum) are great beers for winter.
Haymarket (Chicago): The Indignant Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout, aged for seven months in Templeton Rye Whiskey barrels, was my favorite beer of the evening—even ranking above the Bourbon County Coffee Stout. Dense as motor oil, it's rich, sweet, and almost creamy, with chocolate and whiskey flavors.
Magic Hat (South Burlington, VT): There were a lot of really good stouts at this tasting—but after a while, they all started to kind of blend into each other. This was the last one I tasted, and it's a testament to the fact that it was time to go (which I then proceeded to do) that my notes on Heart of Darkness consisted of one word: "stout." But it had an asterisk next to it, which means that I liked it.