I’m a little tardy at posting by thoughts about Chicago Beer Fest. Okay, two weeks late. But when it comes to craft-brewed beer, it’s always better late than never.
It’s not surprising that there was a block-long line of craft brew lovers waiting for the doors to open for the three-hour afternoon session of the Chicago Beer Fest, held in the main hall of Union Station on Saturday, March 31.
The city’s long but once sepia-toned history of beer making has been revitalized in recent years, by the rise of the pioneering Goose Island “microbrewery,” and more recently by the rapidly growing field of competition that includes Revolution, Half-Acre, Finch’s and Metropolitan, to name just a few.
And taps around town have been taken over by craft brews from around the Chicago metropolitan area and across the country. These beers offers a palette of styles and flavors (and alcohol clout) as an alternative to the same-old, same-old of the mass-brewed American lagers.
The participants at Chicago Beer Fest, which concluded with a separate three-hour session that night, were a mix of local producers and national breweries such as Lagunitas of Petaluma, Calif., and New Belgium (maker of the popular “Fat Tire” brand) of Fort Collins, Colo.
I decided to focus almost entirely on beers brewed in Chicago or elsewhere nearby in the Midwest. One exception I made was for Lagunitas, because I like their beers a lot, and because I spotted that their regional brand ambassador, whom I’d met at some previous events, was pouring. My decision to include Lagunitas along with my lineup of local micros turned out to be unexpectedly prescient: Just this past week, news broke that the company is planning to build a new production in Chicago, which will be the city’s biggest current brewery upon completion.
Rule #1 of any “open bar” tasting event is to pace yourself. Still, I managed to squeeze 10 pours into the cute little 5 oz. plastic mug that each attendee was handed upon entry, which is the equivalent of three pint glasses, or four 12 oz. bottles or cans. So, you’ve got to be careful out there.
There’s Good, and Then There’s OMG! With so many well-established successes in the craft beer world, it seems to be getting harder and harder from anyone to make a really bad beer. So one of the best things about these sampling events is that the great beers stand out from the merely good.
I had sampled a couple of modest beers when I decided to take a quaff of the Dragon’s Milk Stout from New Holland, which is producing a fine line of beer and distilled spirits in Holland, Mich. This was a bit of a cheat, because I’d had Dragon’s Milk before at my favorite local tavern, and I’ve long been a fan of bourbon-barrel aging and the unique flavors that the wood imparts to beer.
But it was the comparison to what I’d already tasted at the beer fest (and most of what I tasted after) that made the Dragon’s Milk pop as my best in show. Rich, complex, with a great mouth-feel, New Holland’s description of this beer as its “crown jewel” is justified. A great sipping beer, which is a good thing, because at 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), it packs about twice the punch of the yellow beers most people drink by the gallon.
This undoubtedly gives away my preference for strong, dark beer, but my runner-up favorites were the Satin Solstice by Central Waters of Amherst, Wis., a beautiful, pitch-black Imperial stout (7.5% ABV) with a chocolate malt flavor profile, and the 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style dark ale by the new (established 2011) and relatively tiny 5 Rabbit brewery of Chicago, a nicely balanced and subtly spicy beer with a copper-ruby color.
Uno Nuevo Cerveceria. Because the market is getting more and more crowded with microbreweries experimenting with different blends of hops, grains, spices, botanicals, fruit and other ingredients, it is becoming more of a challenge for them to claim their own niches. That is not the case for 5 Rabbit, whose claim as the nation’s first Latin American craft brewery has not been disputed.
In a phone interview a few days after the beer fest, Issac Showaki — a native of Mexico who co-founded the brewery with Andres Araya, a native of Costa Rica — explained there is no single Latin-style of brewing, but they are adapting ingredients common to regional cultures to their beer recipes. For example, the 5 Vulture ale I tried includes ingredients typical to the Mexican region of Oaxaca, such as dark-brown piloncillo sugar (which is used to soften the bitterness of the chocolate used in mole sauce) and a hint of ancho chile.
Showaki said that as 5 Rabbit seeks to establish itself and grow, its first target will be craft beer geeks looking for something new and different, but he says he and his partners see a long-term opportunity in cultivating the nation’s rapidly expanding Hispanic demographic, “because there is no craft beer for Hispanics.”
Was It Worth It? The event cost $40, so if you calculated the cost per amount consumed, it would have come to about $13 a pint (a very expensive glass of beer). But I got to sample 10 different beers; got some face time with brewers and their reps; and unexpectedly ran into a friend.
Of course, I could have brought down my per-unit cost by drinking a lot more. But that would have been wrong.