I don't intend this as a knock on the festival by any means—if anything it's the opposite. But Belgian Fest is a pretty cozy shindig, so I can't safely presume that the majority of the folks bothering to read this have attended. I'd actually been to only one such event at Goose Island Clybourn before—namely Stout Fest in 2010—and because that was where I first encountered the nascent Pipeworks, named best new brewery in the world by RateBeer early this year, I went into this Belgian Fest hoping to make a similar find.
As it so happens, I did, and Pipeworks figures into the story. But I'll get to that in a moment.
First I want to single out a few beers that color inside the lines, so to speak—beers you could see as homages to or re-creations of traditional Belgians. (I tried fewer than half the offerings at the festival, so please take it as a given that this isn't an attempt to name "the best" but merely "the stuff I got to that I particularly liked.")
De Stihl's tripel was full and balanced, with a deep complexity I've rarely encountered in American iterations of the style. Atlas Brewing and brand-new operation Une Annee (which focuses on Belgian styles) both had golden strong ales; the former tasted powerfully of honey and Chinese red dates, aka jujubes, and the latter (a collaboration with DryHop) of baked pineapple, candied grapefruit peel, green pear skin, and spearmint.
Two dubbels especially pleased me as well: Haymarket's Mother Jones, whose flavors of black cherry and plum I'm used to encountering at such intensity only in the much richer, stronger quadrupel style (tragically absent from the fest), and Revolution's Tango, similarly plummy but with notes of stewed date and brioche.
At this point in my note taking, I seem to have run into a gentleman named Michael Quinlan, who's about to open a bar in the old Bin Wine Cafe space in Wicker Park: Links Taproom, at 1559 N. Milwaukee, will allegedly have 32 handles of American craft beer, four casks, and four wines on tap, and it should be in business by the end of October. I ended the day too impaired to recall any other specifics of the conversation, but I have a Links business card with Quinlan's name on it. Plus there's a website! It must be true!
Anyhow. Where was I? Time to discuss some of the nontraditional Belgian-style beers I put in my face, I think.
Goose Island made a great showing, as you'd expect at a festival that's basically in their living room. They brought eight beers, of which I had at least a sip or two of seven. Halia, a tart farmhouse ale aged with peaches in spent cabernet barrels used to mature Juliet, will hit the market in large-format bottles in October, and if you have any tolerance at all for fruit beers or wild ales, you ought to consider ponying up at least once—its carefully orchestrated interplay of winey, peachy, sour, and astringent makes it a close second in its series, behind Lolita. (I'm not factoring in Gillian, which I haven't tasted since it was called Scully. Yes, the X-Files reference is intentional.)
Of course I dropped in on my buddies at Pipeworks, who were pouring just one beer, a strong Belgian golden called Pineapple Bling—they'd loaned the other half of their jockey box to Drew Fox of 18th Street Brewing, whose Chloe French saison is brewed with hibiscus and blood orange, giving it a subtly tart, fruity finish to balance its richly yeasty breadiness.
Fox had some good news to pass along. He's finally got a space in Gary, a block or so from the Miller stop on the South Shore Line at 5725 Miller Avenue, and he plans to open his taproom in mid-October—only a couple months after the date he had in mind when I wrote about 18th Street in January, which in this permit-intensive business is pretty good.
It was Gerrit Lewis at Pipeworks, though, who first recommended to me the tiny new brewery that would turn out to be my favorite of the day. (Do you like how I made you read through practically the whole post first? In the newspaper business we call that "being a dick.") He insisted that a hoppy French saison called Romani, by Transient Artisan Ales in Lansing, Illinois, was the best beer at Belgian Fest, hands down.
Chris Betts, who runs Transient, also brews at the One Trick Pony microbrewery and taproom in Lansing, just over the Indiana-Illinois border from Three Floyds' home in Munster. Transient is a gypsy operation, without a brew house of its own (hence the name), and for now Betts is using One Trick Pony's facility—an arrangement he acknowledges as odd.
The Transient Facebook page has only existed for a few days, and Belgian Fest was the first time any of its beers had been tapped in Chicago. All the same, Betts tells me he hopes to have kegs in Chicago bars within four to five weeks.
Every one was subtle, delicious, balanced, and complex. Romani, made with exclusively European hops, smelled of banana, apple, and peach; it tasted of honeydew, pineapple, white pepper, sage, tart white grape, and fruity saison yeast. The Obelus Brett saison, fermented with brettanomyces (and brewed with plenty of Galaxy hops), sparkled with flavors of lemon, juniper, white wine, peppermint, and pineapple, with a gentle whiff of funkiness underneath like straw and blue cheese. A "farmhouse pale" called Asterisk matched vivid aromas of tangerine and blood orange to flavors of cedar, buttery pastry, and cilantro. A so-called amber saison that isn't called anything yet tasted like brown bread, apricot jam, cardamom, and iced tea with lemon. (Betts says most of his beer names are provisional and likely to change.)
Insofar as you give a shit about anything I say on the topic of beer, I hereby implore you to try everything you can find from Transient when those kegs start showing up here next month. The population explosion among Chicago craft brewers means that sooner or later the runts of the litter will start dying—so it's worth making an effort to spend your beer budget carefully, to make sure you're supporting the geniuses in the biz.
And now it's time for the metal! Or the grindcore, in case you're one of those people who doesn't consider grindcore metal. Easy choice today: It had to be Portland band Transient, whose lead singer, Krysta Martinez, recently replaced Grace Perry in Phoenix death-metal outfit Landmine Marathon. Tomorrow on Six Weeks Records they release their first full-length, after years of splits and EPs, and Pitchfork is streaming the advance track "Positivism." (You'll have to click through to hear it, thanks to the site's proprietary player.)
You can listen to the 2011 tune "Smash Therapy" right here, though. It's from a split with fellow Portlanders Elitist, now called Bastard Feast due to a dispute with progressive LA metalcore band Elitist.