We arrived at 11:40, expecting a line but only seeing a group of three bearded guys kind of hovering around the entrance, as if to say, “Are we the line?” Sidestepping them, we walked in to be pointed towards the back of the brewpub. Despite a posted 12:00 starting time, we were let in to join an already thickening throng of exceptionally tall men – and a few of their diminutive girlfriends – holding their dainty taster glasses out like little porcelain teacups.
While the space was still pretty open, we said hello to a few regulars and sidled into the Goose Island Brewpubs line for a pour of Nutulhu, a hazelnut-version of their bourbon barrel-aged oatmeal stout Cthulhu. Tasting like one of those International Delights flavored coffee creamers, it was a hit on the first few sips but started to get too sweet in the last few, just like how diner coffee starts great then gets a bit shitty.
But hey, this event is looking excellent from the start. I had to scoff when Craig mentioned Hunahpu Day, which is the craft beer version of saying “MacBeth” before a performance. Cynicism kicks in. This shit’s gonna get messy. Too good to be true.
Our next target was 18th Street Brewery pouring three barrel-aged variations of their Hunter double milk stout (which is supreme on its own). We discovered the meat locker where they crammed the rest of the breweries, but at this point in the fest, it wasn’t too crowded.
18th Street founder Drew Fox was pouring the beers behind a lovingly-messed display of coffee beans and free stickers. (I was ON that free sticker game, son.) He was dressed appropriately for the room, like an affable Sherpa helping me navigate my drunkenness. The barrel-aged vanilla Hunter was creamy and balanced exquisitely between vanilla bean ice cream and wheat bourbon with roasted dark malts. We would return for the barrel-aged coffee Hunter later, and it was another revelation. Soon there will be only one place to light your face, and it’s Gary, Indiana. Gary, Indiana….
Heading back into the bar area, it was noticeably more crowded. But it did not matter once we grabbed a Tart Cherry Indignant from Haymarket. This beer did things to my mouth that normally require a hefty fee. The tartness of the cherry goes from juicy to dry like a Prince guitar solo, and the chocolate and bourbon throw down the flavor bass line. I want to be draped in velvet and drink nothing but this. Put this on par with their equally excellent Claire’s Thirsty Ale with raspberries. Haymarket is easily one of the best barrel-aging breweries going.
Heading back to our table, it was asses and elbows everywhere. The average height of the event had seemingly raised to six-foot-five, and I felt a keg-and-a-half high as I looked for a ledge to perch my arm on to finish my Indignant. This was working out alright, despite a growing fear of being trampled or getting my beard caught in a vintage belt buckle.
To speed this review up, I’ll hit on some highlights: 4 Hands Brewing from St. Louis brought Madagascar, which was delightfully vanilla-forward, and Eclipse, a milk stout with raspberries that somehow reminded me of sangria. Having Abraxas out of the bottle was a huge disappoint….ah who the hell am I kidding? It was Abraxas and stood out as my personal second favorite thing I had, despite having had it many times before. Solemn Oath’s The Most Important Beverage of the Day was a great concept, mixing orange and coffee to make a whimsical breakfast stout. Despite getting very little orange (and whimsy), the coffee presence on it was one of the biggest of the day.
Spiteful’s barrel-aged Mrs. O’Leary’s and Backside Congrats were nice, but I was hitting stout overload at this point. I’ll get to that more later. Pipeworks’ Gerrit’s Weirdo Smoked Stout with pretzels and chocolate got my attention, and I let Gerrit know that he made me enjoy a smoked stout for maybe the second time ever. YEAH, I TALK TO BREWERS LIKE WE’RE BUDS, SO? Speaking of, the guys at Ale Syndicate were very cool, even accepting my drunken offer of an ABV Chicago business card (which was the only one I handed out all day – pfft, promoting). Their Omega Midnight stout was a great dry foreign stout that actually stroked my palate the right way. They also had the most kickass swag, including a keychain bottle opener. (OMG I LOVE THOSE.)
Thankfully, it never turned into a nightmare. There were about 50 people too many at the event, causing a noticeably crowded two hours. People were given ballots for the Stoutly Cup, and many were strewn and trampled on the ground. (They did announce winners which were expected if you spoke with enough people at the fest: Nutulhu and Indignant were the respective one and two, with another beer that I honestly can’t recall getting third – possibly Abraxas.) The bathrooms were upstairs with a significant line building later in the event. Water was plentiful, and the aforementioned free swag will be stuck to many a MacBook or beer fridge in Chicagoland.
So, back to the topic of stout fatigue. I drank an obscene amount of stouts in the first three hours of the event. I was drunk. The fourth hour was excruciatingly slow, and I may have been occasionally licking the inside top of my mouth like a cocaine addict. Flavors were getting harder to pick out. Intricacies intended by breweries with less experimental stouts were coming across like a wash of malty water. People were dared to touch mullets. I came to dislike a complete stranger based on his personal snifter glass and blazer combo making him look like the kid that throws a party when his parents are out of town and wants to greet his guests like a pubescent Hugh Hefner.
But it was too much. The beers were intensely good. I had things I probably won’t have again. It cost like $60 (including cabs) which I still owe Craig as of this writing. I spilled an entire glass of Bourbon County Coffee on my crotch. Too much. If it weren’t for notes, I’d barely remember a good portion of the beers I had. It’s been a full day, and I can’t imagine the next time I’ll have a stout. But hey, go next year if you can. Just don’t plan on feeling right for a few days afterwards.