Belgian Fest 2016
Goose Island Clybourn made you a gift, Chicago. It’s an organized and well-curated beer event with no glass boots full of märzen or live bands drawing seas of asses and elbows. It’s the type of fest that feels right on a Sunday afternoon – casual and friendly but with enough delicious beer to make four hours disappear in a blissful haze.
No, Side Project wasn’t there, and Transient sat this one out, but almost every brewery brought something special for the event. There were quite a few one-offs, casks, and taproom-only beers and very few examples of breweries just playing it safe. So for this I’ll focus on the highlights, of which there were many, and I’ll do it with an appropriately-American country-of-origin-confusing loose framing device.
Perhaps I was the only one surprised to see a handful of representations of this style that always seems to lag behind its more popular farmhouse sibling, the saison. But Bière de Garde has been gaining in popularity for the last decade with American craft brewers. Locally, Two Brothers, Whiner, and Off Color have recently made some impressive takes that all vary greatly – but none of those breweries were represented at the fest. Here were the best three at Belgian Fest:
Revolution – Bastille | 6.4%
Copper and amber in appearance, the aroma has such big esters that I could mistake it for a Belgian dubbel. The flavor is more traditional but blasted with bolder flavors befitting a Revolution joint. A touch of caramel sits atop a lot of estery fruits in the flavor like apples, bananas, and pear. But the finish is nice and not heavy, with even a light suggestion of tartness.
Corridor Brewery & Provisions – Funkadelic #4 | 8.5%
This was outstanding. Somehow this is a bit easier drinking than the Revolution despite the higher ABV and addition of brettanomyces. Mixed with a darker caramel-like note, the tropical notes from the brettanomyces taste doused in plum liqueur. There’s some of that soiled hay barn funk on it as well, adding another layer to the complexity.
But the yellow jersey goes to…
Cruz Blanca Cerveceria – Dos Rubias | 6.8%
Maybe this one is cheating, because on the Bière de Garde spectrum, this one leans way closer towards the golden-blond style that is much more akin to saison. Further confusing the style, Jacob Sembrano threw in some lactobacillus and honey. What results is a tart lemon honey ale with a barely-there wheat-like malt flavor. There’s a noticeable honey sweetness and lemon curd before a touch of minerality moves in, and the finish is pristine and dry. It certainly seems far-removed from the bready and malty dark Bière de Gardes, but it manages to retain its farmhouse roots.
As in the American baseball cycle, I attempted to drink a single, dubbel, tripel, and quad – yet, zut alors! – there was no quad available. But I took my swings anyways, made great contact and it was an enjoyable few trips around the bases. (Damn can he fit ONE more baseball metaphor in here?)
Sketchbook Brewing – Streetside | Belgian Single | 4.8%
Like lemongrass and lightly salted crackers, there is a slight banana ester note in the taste, but the finish is crisp and dry. This is an everyday drinker, refreshing and subtle, but not absent of flavor.
Temperance Beer Co. – Quotidienne | Belgian Dubbel | 7.7%
Looks like a sangria in the glass, but tastes a little something like craisins with significant sweetness, bread and caramel malt, banana esters, and a little phenolic clove bite. It’s one of the many reasons you should visit their Evanston taproom regularly.
Revolution Brewing – Threesome | Belgian Tripel | 9.9%
This beer is modeled after the Westmalle Tripel, and it has a huge banana ester-forward flavor with notes of pear and apricot with a little spicy phenolic character that covers the astringency from the booze after the first two sips. It may have been just a tripel, but it tasted more like a homerun. (THERE IT IS.)
Initially I planned on doing some “saison insanity” tasting by sampling all 11 versions I counted in the program, but it was a Sunday afternoon, and I still had to go home to my kids. So here are the highlights from the rest of the pack:
Smylie Brothers – Who the Funk is Brett Pulver? | Rye Saison | 5.4%
This rye saison spent about ten months in pinot noir barrels and features an addition of a brettanomyces mixtape from Omega Yeast. Craig needed convincing from the brewers that no fruit was used in the barrels. The pinot character is large on the aroma and flavor, but its tannic dryness in the finish enhances the saison and brett’s fruitiness with each successive sip. We agreed that this was the best beer at the fest – a complete surprise that also remains comfortably low in alcohol. There’s more of this in barrels, but it’s likely still many months away – but get yourself to this beer if it shows up there in Evanston.
This beer is why we ate Thai food for dinner post-Belgian Fest. My initial reaction to the smell was a bit frightened and confused – it smelled like a medley of Thai ingredients: pepper, tamarind, and lime came to mind. The beer itself uses rye and Thai long peppercorns, but the flavor carries no spice or acridity: fruity and floral with the pepper more reminiscent of cardamom or allspice. An ever-so-slight bite from the rye and peppercorns finishes it out. Weird yet completely delicious, this one will stick in my memory for a while.
There aren’t many smoked beers I’ve ever liked (they taste like campfires and ham to me). In this, the smoke is the perfect compliment to the lemongrass and cracked pepper notes in the saison. The smoke has the courtesy to show up at the beginning and then let itself out before the end, lest it become bothersome on your palate. There hasn’t been a Cruz Blanca beer that I haven’t liked, and I thought I was tempting fate on this one. But nope, this beer makes me want tacos stuffed full of roasted peppers and mushrooms.
Goose Island Clybourn – Abbey Plum | Belgian Abbey | 8%
This take on an abbey is easy to drink and a bit tart, but with enough full esters to bolster it up to its 8% level before finishing with a light plum juice note. It was sandwiched between my repeated attempts to kick the Cran Bruin keg, to no avail.
Though their cask of Live/Dead (a blend of Middle Brow’s Robyn with a Foeder wild ale from Transient Artisan Ales) was an oaky and fruity dream, their grisette was the most revisitable. The mix of unripened peach flavor gives some bitterness, the white peaches soften it out a bit before the coriander provides another light poke of bitter at the end. If you’re looking for a peach bomb, this ain’t it – it has more complex flavors and a mouthfeel like silk juggling scarves. And damn if their new 20% Robyn blend of Karin wasn’t spectacular as well, but this Lula Cafe collaboration stole the show for me, only followed by Nick’s red Toms and Bryan’s Selleck-esque mustache. There’s a reason we always include Middle Brow in our write-ups: they consistently bring it when it comes to festivals.
This is a beer special to the Ditka restaurant chain, so I was expecting a safe play on a subtle wit tailored for casual beer drinkers. Instead, Hop Butcher used Wakatu hops and lime zest in a stroke of genius (only the naive would garnish their wit with an orange!) The hops bring a bitter lemon-lime character only enhanced by that zest, all atop a pretty, pillowy wit body. All that and I think brewer/co-owner Jude might be the most intensely personable person you’ll meet. Never skip their jockey box at any fest.
Corridor Brewery & Provisions – Coffinesque Streets | Saison |5.8%
A clean and classic saison with that Saison Dupont yeast flavor, lemon zest and coriander – the perfect citrus-to-pepper ratio. The body is on the medium side of light, and the finish is nice and dry.
Twisted Hippo – PLUMpass & Move Aside (let the mango through) | Saisons | 6.9%
The aroma of both saisons was vibrant with their featured fruits, but the flavor of each settled in nicely next to a lightly peppered, soft saison body. Really wished I hadn’t waited until the very end to try these as I would’ve liked to have more.
But, to prove that I’m fair, I have to point out the fest’s various inadequacies. So, yeah, about that. Inadequacies. Hmm. Well, Webster’s defines inadequac….wait – I got one! One of the urinals was out of order, causing me to have to wait 15 seconds to use the restroom once. The fest guide could’ve had a map of where the breweries were located even though it wasn’t hard to just go walk around. Security could’ve prevented Nick from Middle Brow from performing his Seinfeldian acapella version of our podcast’s old theme song for a second time. Sometimes the pours were a little big. That’s it.
The absence of a line-drawing big name brewery (a la Side Project) might’ve been my favorite thing about the fest. This fest moved at dad-speed – casual and conversational – and I’ll be missing that a bit while wading through the masses and lines at FoBAB. I must advise you to attend any event Goose Island Clybourn holds – they’ve got it figured out.