Since the music of FoBAB got me all 90s nostalgic, remember Supermarket Sweep? It was a half-hour “game show”/extended commercial that culminated in the Big Sweep, wherein contestants frantically scrambled through the aisles, attempting to fill up their carts with the most expensive grocery bill possible. I loved this. In my pre-pubescent mind, this was Bacchanalia; it was the fantasy of every bored kid that’s ever hung from a shopping cart pushed at five-foot intervals by their mom. It took strategy, speed, and at least a modest background in couponing. But I loved the sheer panic of contestants debating “diapers or those fancy cheeses?” and their counterparts screaming at them to just skip the goddamn coffee grinder! Grab the Green Giant and go!
I digress. Some people treat FoBAB as the Big Sweep of craft beer events, and four hours feels like a minute and a half. Sure, no one is actually running or tossing turkeys or wearing brightly-colored, matching sweaters, but there are those panicky few that must rush to the most valuable things, filling their bellies and Untappd feeds with the rarest beers available.
Admittedly, that was me last year, running frantically up the stairs with about nine other out-of-shape dudes not able to wait long enough for the freight elevator to return. Collectively, we burst through a door and stumbled into a cardboard art show, turned back, went up another flight of stairs, and had to swim through heavy curtains before finding ourselves in the “sour room.” Then the timer began: Bourbon County Barleywine! Barrel-Aged Abraxas! Cthulhu! What happened to Side Project?!? Then after an hour of that, I found myself actually enjoying the fest – and drunk. I tried a bunch of beers with no reputation that just sounded good. I listened to recommendations. I was driven by curiosity instead of competition. That was my plan this year. Don’t have a plan. Be the worst Big Sweep contestant out there.
The 12th year of the Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers moved from the Bridgeport Art Center to the UIC Forum, adding 5,000 square feet and reportedly over 75 more beers. (On a side note, the Illinois Beer page claimed 300 barrel-aged beers while the program and Philip Montoro suggests around 275. What happened to the other beers? Did ImBIBE members drink them all? Let’s go to the beer forums and speculate!)
The UIC Forum was a more accessible location considering public transportation, and the line management was very well-handled for a frigid night. The coat check line was only slightly shorter than the Goose Island one inside the hall, but it was well-managed. The one bathroom right off the hall started to hit maximum capacity by 7:30, and lines were hard to avoid. The hall did have a few other always-open bathrooms for those willing to walk a bit, but those secrets will cost you a premium.
The move to the convention center may have been easier from a logistics standpoint, with a clear flow from entrance to festival and no trip up the industrial elevator or several flights of stairs. But it sacrificed the warm ceiling-to-floor timber and open skyline of the loft in the Bridgeport Art Center for banjo drape-lined walls and cold fluorescent lighting.
Ambiance aside, the main complaint regarding the Forum was about the areas of stagnant congestion in the middle aisles of the fest. The outer perimeter of the fest was dedicated to the Goose Island line, a modest snack stop, the stage for the awards ceremony, and the Barricale offerings. Just inside the outer edges, there were open areas to stand, and you got the feeling of reaching a clearing deep in the woods, taking in a relieved breath of fresh not-someone’s-back air.
But within some of the more interesting category areas, there was a lot of close contact, polite pushing, and countless muttered apologies. It was uncomfortable, and I was certainly not the only one to make several u-turns upon calculating that the area’s density was far higher than my desire to drink a certain beer. But, to be fair to FoBAB, nearly every fest I’ve been to in the last year had areas like this: logjams and tangled lines of human mass. And last year’s FoBAB saw much of this happen in the sour room that also held the Goose Island and food stations. So, I hope they consider some slight adjustments to the floor space before next year, because I doubt they’ll be putting up fewer tickets for sale.
Space issues aside, the event itself is still a highly enjoyable experience, worth the cost and the occasional feeling of suffocating. The mood was jovial and social; I had to stop and appreciate how the drunkenness at beer events is almost always the best kind of drunkenness. Despite having a few vocal objectors, the music selection was just right for the party. Starting with some metal, punk, and “alternative”, it transitioned into pop and 90s radio hits. Yes, there was the “Oompa Loompa” song, and 311, and the Fox NFL Sunday theme song; but they played “Motownphilly” and “Baby Got Back”, both songs that drunk white people are required to know all of the lyrics to and perform in public.
Beer – Home
The Goose Island line wrapped around half of the convention center, but it was maybe a 15-minute wait with a free shot of Dark Matter coffee. One of my first beers was the Goose Island Bourbon County Vanilla Rye, which tasted of pure sweet vanilla at first before smoothing out into a rich chocolate middle with a slightly spiced rye finish. To be honest, I was hoping for a pour of this year’s Proprietor’s Bourbon County, but it had already run out – and this was just around 6:30.
Here’s where the Big Sweep people were a bit disappointed. At the Friday night session, due to all of the beers being available to brewers, judges, and ImBIBE members for a good amount of time before general admission ticketholders were let in, many highly-desired beers were gone or on their last pours. Even though I’m of the belief that there’s enough good beer at FoBAB that missing some highly-touted thing can be easily forgotten, I do think it’s in the organizers’ best interests to explore ways to ease this problem. If I’m thinking about next year, the Friday night session tickets will be much less desired than either Saturday session. But they’ll sell all the same, so perhaps a change won’t be made.
Local Dungeon Master Jon Laffler and his amazing Off Color Brewing beers brought home two gold medals – and I drank neither of them. But I did have their Dino’snores which is their already incredible imperial marshmallow stout aged in Buffalo Trace barrels. The creamy marshmallow flavor still came through prominently, but there was an ending of chocolate and bourbon-soaked graham crackers.
Winning a bronze in the Experimental Beer category, Temperance’s Boulevardier Barrel-Aged Might Meets Right was full of complex malt flavors and some herbal, fruity notes almost reminiscent of Campari (or just the power of suggestion). It was an easy highlight, along with the Manhattan version of the same beer. The Une Annee Raspberry Sanguinaire Premiere had the hue, smell, and taste of pure raspberry juice, with a light body and subtle hint of barrel.
The Barricale submission from Chris Betts and Transient Artisan Ales was the Bêtise sour brown aged in Wild Turkey barrels (which were the standard for Barricale, provided to breweries by Goose Island). It stood up with some of the best sours at the fest, full of dark sour cherries, toasted oak, and light vanilla. Middle Brow’s Who’s That Girl? is their Abbey farmhouse Robyn with peaches aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels with wild yeasts. The flavor of peach was fresh, and there was a dry cereal grain finish that makes me excited about the future 375mL bottle release of it.
Another friend of the show, brewer Dave Williams from Horse Thief Hollow, was in attendance, and he recommended their Oak Aged UnCorked, in addition to the beer I was anticipating, the Barrel-Aged Cheval Deux. Starting with the UnCorked, it had a crisp green-grape flavor accentuated by big, bitter Nelson Sauvin hops. The Cheval Deux smelled of pure sweet potato pie with a few savory spices, and it tasted smooth and buttery-sweet.
Beer – Visitors
The two breweries that won the fest for me (keeping in mind that I had no Abraxas or Side Project beers) were pouring from bottles. Seattle’s Fremont Brewing had my two favorite dark beers in Bourbon Dark Star and Bourbon Abominable. The Dark Star had a thick body and dark chocolate mouthfeel with some exquisite caramel bourbon notes on the finish and just enough alcohol to let you know it’s there. The Abominable was almost the same in terms of mouthfeel, but the flavor brought out some more bitter and roasty notes.
Upland Brewing from Bloomington, Indiana won me over with their Rambutan and Permission Slip – two of my favorite sours of the fest. The complex barrel blend of the Rambutan was evident, but the sour-sweet of the rambutan fruit was floral and reminiscent of grape. The Permission Slip had a more vinegar sour start but some nice dragonfruit sweetness to hold back some acidity. Nearby, the Trinity 365 Day Sour was even more vinegar and white wine grapes, absolutely deserving the silver it took home in the Wild Beer (Acidic) category.
New Belgium Brewing is one of the most consistent and innovative sour producers in the country, and I feel it isn’t always seen that way. The Le Terroir is always a stunning beer, using just the right amount of hop bitterness to play tug-of-war with the acidic sourness. The LOVE Cherry Felix had a just palate-numbing amount of delicious cherry tartness before finishing dry. It was also a treat to have the Firestone Walker Abacus 2013, a vintage I remembered loving and was happy to confirm that again. It would later take the bronze in the Barleywine category.
The expansion was, in my opinion, a great thing; more people got to experience one of the premier beer events in the country. Tickets were available for almost an entire day rather than just 15 minutes like the year before. For those Big Sweep FoBABers, many a tear was shed for beers not had. But it’s neglecting the significance of having many other great beers that may never be made again. Your FoBAB experience is your FoBAB experience; you’ll never try everything you wanted to, and you’ll always have beers that you’ll talk about like craft beer lore for generations to come.