Chicago Craft Beer Week is back, and it's as overwhelming as ever: the first night alone features more than two dozen tap takeovers, beer dinners, special releases, and other events. The length of CCBW has actually been scaled back slightly, to eight days (May 18-25)—down from the week and a half that's been the norm for the past several years—but the events still number in the hundreds. Many perennial favorites, like Beer Under Glass, Goose Island's Battle of the Breweries Dodgeball Tournament, and the Northwest Side Craft Beer Ride, remain unchanged (and are still good bets). This year, though, we wanted to focus on two newer and lesser-known festivals: the South Side Craft Beer Fest and Ultra Fresh II.
The inaugural South Side Craft Beer Fest was first conceived as a block party, organizer Justin Maynard says. He's the director of marketing and events for Baderbräu Brewing Company, and when the brewery's staff was talking in February about what to do for Chicago Craft Beer Week, the owner mentioned throwing a block party like they did last year. Maynard suggested a collaborative effort with other brewers on the south side—an idea that spawned not only a craft beer festival but also the Southside Brewers Association, which formed organically as south-side brewers met to talk about CCBW. "When I started working for Baderbräu, I realized that the media doesn't really pick up on brewers on the south side. We don't have the hype," Maynard says. The goal of the Southside Brewers Association is "working together and getting our name out there collectively," he says.
The festival will include 24 breweries, mostly from the south side of Chicago and the south suburbs. There are a few north-side ones as well—All Rise, Haymarket, Gino's Brew Pub—that Maynard says he invited because he's friends with the owners. "A lot of festivals happening are for-profit, but there aren't a lot that are run by brewers, for brewers," Maynard says. "We want to make the beer accessible, make the owners accessible. The brewers are going to show up with two kegs, a jockey box, and some knowledge." All the beer is being served by people who made it, and there will be live music and a VIP area with rare beers.
Maynard, who grew up in Garfield Ridge, says that "back in the day, there was no craft at all. In my neighborhood it was 75-cent Bud or Bud Light draft, and that's all you knew. Times have changed." From 2011 to 2016 Maynard worked for the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, and he says that in that time he saw the number of breweries in Illinois increase from about 25 to 200. Five or six years ago there weren't enough south-side breweries to put on a festival, but that's changed too. "The goal is to throw a kick-ass party for the south-side brewers and the attendees," Maynard says. "It should be fun." Sat 5/20, 2-6 PM (VIP admission begins at 1 PM), Baderbräu Brewing Company, 2515 S. Wabash, $45 ($60 VIP), southsidecraftbeerfest.bpt.me.
The Hop Review's Ultra Fresh II was created to showcase the freshest beer possible: everything served at the festival will have been packaged within the last five days. This is actually the second edition, but organizer Tom White says it's going to be much bigger than last year, when it was a small, last-minute affair at Bitter Pops, the beer store and tasting room where he works part-time. This iteration features 24 local breweries pouring styles that go far beyond pale ale and IPA (although there are plenty of those too): pilsner, lager, wheat, blonde, gose, and bock, plus a watermelon-and-kaffir-lime farmhouse ale.
White and co-organizer Jack Muldowney are also the founders of the Hop Review, an online beer journal that began as a way for the two friends to document and learn from their home-brewing mistakes and then evolved into an outlet for interviews with craft brewers ("We're pretty terrible home brewers," White says.) In the course of conducting those interviews White and Muldowney have gotten to taste quite a few beers right off the canning line, which has impressed upon them that most beer is best at its freshest. Hop aromas fade quickly, and the flavor of fruited beer will dull with time, White says. "That can happen over a week or so. When you drink beer at a bar, it's probably a couple weeks old. That's how long it takes to get through the [distribution] system." He adds that such beer won't necessarily taste bad; it's just not at its peak—and aside from visiting taprooms, it's hard to find extremely fresh beer.
For Ultra Fresh II, White says, some breweries are working with their distributors to make sure that the beer for the festival arrives on time; others self-distribute, so they can bring their own kegs. "It's a challenge to coordinate it all," White says. "We thought it was surprising that this hadn't been done before. We're starting to realize why." Sat 5/20, 4-8 PM, Right Way Signs, 2333 N. Seeley, thehopreview.com, $35. v