The Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer set another record in its 12th year, fielding more than 275 entries—a jump of more than 60 from 2013's lineup. (Those of you who need a FOBAB primer can consult either of my two previous Beer and Metal columns on the festival.) This year it moved to the UIC Forum and added a Friday-night session on top of the usual pair of Saturday sessions, but in its other particulars FOBAB remained the cavalcade of amazing beer-related ridiculousness that Chicago's nerds have come to know and love.
I attended on Saturday afternoon, and for lack of a better term, I got pretty badly FOBABed. I barely made it home—I don't remember the sidewalks between the Red Line and my apartment ever being so wavy before. It's Sunday evening as I write this, so I've had a night's sleep, but I feel like a horse was standing on me the whole time. Happens to the best of us, as they say. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the best of us.
Thankfully I took notes. I don't remember writing in my program nearly as much as I apparently did, but most of the details I attempted to share with my future self are impossible to read. I did record all the medal winners, though. (I was pretty happy to discover this morning that I'd actually done it, not just imagined myself doing it.) I also seem to have taken a blurry photo of Calvin Frederickson from Spiteful Brewing in his signature short shorts, but I'm not sharing that.
Last year I mentioned what I considered to be a few of the festival's most novel beer-aging receptacles: barrels that previously contained aquavit, gin, and Tabasco. This year brewers used barrels that had held all sorts of whiskey and wine, of course (those are the old standbys in this business), as well as brandy, gin, aquavit, rum, tequila, and absinthe. (Spiteful brought two absinthe-barreled beers, in what I can only assume was a deliberately perverse gesture.) Raw or toasted virgin wood is fair game too, and the program listed beers aged on oak, cedar, beech, apple, and cherry.
August Schell Brewing from New Ulm, Minnesota, aged two of its three beers in cypress foudres, including one of the best things I drank during the lucid portion of my afternoon: a strong Berliner weisse called Dawn of Aurora, which practically glowed with a sprightly, pungent blend of cypress (like a sour, earthy cedar) and tart cherry. (It was an especially pleasant surprise considering I'd never tried an August Schell beer before.) Temperance Beer cellared its Might Meets Right imperial stout in a barrel that High West had used to age its Boulevardier cocktail, and won itself a bronze in the "Experimental" category.
FOBAB also hosted a controlled experiment in barrel aging called Barricale—more than 20 Illinois breweries were supplied with identical Wild Turkey barrels to fill with whatever beer they felt like. I assume this provided a fascinating clinic in the olfactory chemistry of the process, but I'll be honest, I didn't sample even one beer at that table.
I know it must seem like my testimony is pretty worthless, but don't fret—I won't spend much more time attempting to "review" a festival I only halfway remember. Before I get to the medal winners, I just want to name-check a few more favorites (some of which are also medal winners). Most of these beers come from Chicago, so you've got a nonzero chance of finding them on draft in the near future. I mean, you'll have to put some effort into it, but if you don't believe in putting effort into beer, why are you reading this terrible column?
Side Project's Saison du Ble, a tart, mellow wheat saison aged in chardonnay barrels, tastes of peach, pear, and white grape, despite containing no fruit. Pipeworks' barrel-aged Jones Dog won gold in "Strong Porter/Stout," and when I tried it (rather late in the day) I wrote down "super creamy and mellow." Some of that probably had to do with the vanilla beans and cacao nibs in the beer, but it can't have hurt that part of it was aged in borderline antique Heaven Hill barrels (25 to 30 years old).
I put a little check mark in my program next to Penrose's Wild V, which indicates "this is a very fine adult beverage, but I am too distracted or drunk to take any tasting notes, or else my hands are full."
I did the same for Lake Effect's silver medalist, Cerise de Michigan (a Belgian blonde aged in cabernet barrels with sour cherries), as well as for Off Color's Papillon (aka I Can Do This Too, Cory King), a wild ale aged in gin barrels. Papillon took the gold in "Wild/Brett," and it carries on the brewery's tradition of teasing industry friends at FOBAB—Cory King is the wild-ale wizard who runs Side Project.
Off Color's gin-barreled Berliner weisse with yuzu, which bears the unwieldy half-Danish name Yuzu Er'd og Begravet (I think "og begravet" means "and buried"), won gold in "Fruit Beer." Last year I noted that Off Color's gin-barreled beers had barely picked up any character from the spirits, but in Yuzu Er'd the botanicals from the gin—especially the juniper—dovetail beautifully with the citrus.
I liked the powerful flavors of caramel, whiskey, and pine in Revolution's gold-medal-winning Filibuster (a version of their Congressional Approval imperial wheat aged in bourbon barrels). And I wish I'd gone back for seconds of the Lost Abbey's Veritas 013, which not only won gold in "Wild/Acidic" but took Best of Show. It's a sour blonde aged in red-wine barrels with peaches and nectarines, and I remember a lively, zingy beer with a beautiful balance of vinous tannins and bright fruit.
Looking back on my list, I wonder: Am I burning out on barrel-aged stouts? I doubt it. I'm sure I'll be on the Bourbon County train with everybody else. I think I was just avoiding them in a futile attempt to stay reasonably functional.
Speaking of stouts! Look at all this stuff I typed into my computer for you: