Goose Island StoutFest 2021
Scheduled for Sunday, March 15th, 2020, Goose Island’s Stout Fest was maybe the first beer fest to be cancelled last year. I recall being saddened, but not that surprised. I also recall that at that exact point, I owned no masks and hoped we’d be back to normal by mid-April. Thank god I make no important decisions.
The very fact that we’re able to have a beer “fest” like this one is something of a miracle. Though there is no actual social scenario with zero percent risk (and speaking as someone who has refused to do any eating or drinking indoors at restaurants or bars for over a year now), the organizers at Goose did everything they could to provide a safe environment. Set outside in a ventilated tent in the parking lot (and on a fortunately 60-degree day), groups of two were spaced more than 6-feet apart, and there was limited traffic from servers.
Beers were pre-poured (which is fine because stout) and set out on barrels – which served as the slightly small tables for two. The 2-ounce pours were arranged alphabetically, on a laminated mat with each brewer’s logo beneath each of the 14 taster glasses. No beer information was provided ahead of time – beers were introduced by a video presentation from the brewers played from the centrally-located flat screens in the tent. (An informal audience reaction poll concluded that Pipeworks won the prize for best short ensemble film.) The serving mats had a QR code that led to the voting page, asking each of the 40 patrons in our session to cast their vote for the Stoutly Cup. It truly could not have gone any smoother.
If this is the immediate future of beer fests, then sign me up. The people at the Goose Island Brewhouse found a way to bring back the essence of the beer fest while adapting to the moment, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have been invited. But I’ll happily pay the cost of admission when given the chance to experience something like this again.
A Beer Fest Happening. While limited in the number of attendees and brewers attending, it was just nice to get out and enjoy some socially distant beers with others. The weather cooperated, and Goose Island kept the tent flaps open to provide some airflow. You could go at your own pace as well, which gave it a certain beer fest normalcy.
All the Beers! Every year without fail I miss one of the better or highly regarded beers at the fest. Not so this year! All 14 beers were poured out on a mat in front of you. It was a highlight both of us mentioned, although it did take away a little of the luster of finding that hidden gem at the fest and recommending it to everyone.
Sobriety. StoutFest usually takes place in the late morning/early afternoon and gets done by late afternoon. Due to the nature of the beers, your whole day was probably ruined. Wandering aimlessly around World Market, going to Bed, Bath & Beyond for bathrooms due to the line, trying to find food – none of that. While I kind of missed drunkenly filling out my beers for the Stoutly Cup quickly because the sheets were due in 5 minutes, I was able to go home and be kind of productive the rest of the day! Controlling the amount of each pours, not allowing seconds, thirds or fourths and simply not drinking the ones I didn’t like led to a calm, enjoyable and above all else memorable day.
Space. Done out of necessity, it was nice not being crammed in with as many people as possibly could fit in the brewpub. I like room.
Maybe Next Year
Brewers Not Being There. One of the highlights of StoutFest for me is being able to chat with the brewers as they pour their beer. Eric and David from More were there and I think I briefly saw Trevor from Old Irving, but no other brewers were there due to social distancing guidelines. It makes sense, but I just missed it.
Table Space. Almost everything above – good and bad – was out of Goose Island’s hands and they did the best they could with it. One barrel for two people makes sense if we’re there for a pint or two, but with 14 beers apiece, a small tray of food and swag, there was precious little room to put anything down or move things around. A little side table (if practical) would’ve been ideal. Or do what the guy near us did and go by yourself, doubling your pours and space instantly!
The Beer List
Casa Humilde Cerveceria – Tempestad Coconut/Cacao (Imperial stout w/ roasted cacao and toasted coconut)
Cruz Blanca Brewery – Señor Bandito 2020 (Imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with sweet cherry, cinnamon, and spices)
Exit Strategy Brewing Company – Rufus’ Best Boy Breakfast Porter (Imperial oatmeal porter with Sandhill coffee, maple, and milk sugar)
Goose Island Beer Co. – Double Barrel Bourbon County Brand Stout 2017
Goose Island Clybourn Brewhouse – Goose Egg* (Barrel-aged imperial stout w/ chocolate and Cadbury creme egg filling)
Half Acre Beer Company – Vanilla Big Hugs 2020 (Coffee stout w/ vanilla beans)
Hop Butcher for the World – Bananagram (Imperial stout w/ banana and chocolate)
Lil’ Beaver Brewery – Whole Lotta Wonderful (Imperial milk stout w/ chocolate, coconut, and milk sugar)
Maplewood Brewing Company – Cuppa French Vanilla (Imperial stout w/ cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and Metric coffee)
Mikerphone Brewing – One Man Wrecking Machine** (Double milk stout w/ cocoa nibs, toasted coconut, and bourbon vanilla beans) **This beer was only poured at the March 21st session. The March 28th session featured Imperial Smells Like Bean Spirit: Jamaican Blue Mountain.)
More Brewing – Mehndi Special Reserve 2021 (Imperial stout aged in Weller barrels for 16 months)
Old Irving Brewing Company – Dark Incantation (Imperial stout w/ piloncillo and Hexe coffee)
Pipeworks Brewing Company – Your Brain on Brunch with Coffee (Imperial stout with maple syrup, Dark Matter coffee, fenugreek, vanilla, lactose, and cacao nibs)
Werk Force Brewing Company – Bourbon Barrel Aged Mint Chocolate Chip Sleepy Bear (Bourbon barrel-aged stout blend w/ cacao, vanilla, peppermint, and spearmint)
And the Stoutly Cup goes to…
Cruz Blanca Brewery for Señor Bandito 2020!
This is not the first award for Cruz Blanca, who last took the Brewers’ Choice award in 2019. The Bandito is an excellent beer from a brewery that goes bold with flavors, and usually does so with complex barrel blends and unique ingredients. Despite early (and very informal) exit polls suggesting More could take it, the win for Cruz shouldn’t be a surprise. The beer is a standout at a festival – it makes an instant impression with even a small sip. The cherry and spice is as pronounced as it was when first released, and the rich chocolate base of the stout is not lost in the bourbon barrel, only enhanced. Congratulations to Jacob, Todd, and the whole Cruz Blanca crew for taking home the cup this year. Here’s hoping we can all be in the same room together when they return to defend the cup next year.
Now, onto our personal highlights.
Craig’s Top 7
7. Dark Incantation | Imperial coffee stout w/ piloncillo | Old Irving Brewing | Chicago, IL | 8% ABV
While not as heavy or big as my number three beer, Old Irving’s coffee stout got the job done, with chocolate notes provided by the beer and big coffee things coming from the Hexe Coffee. Despite using cane sugar, Dark Incantation never came off as too sweet. One the easiest beers to finish in this lineup.
6. Double Barrel Bourbon County 2017 | Barrel-aged stout | Goose Island Beer Co. | Chicago, IL | 17.3% ABV
The first double barrel Bourbon County still knows how to hold court. While not as oak forward as the packaged 2019 release, DB BCBS 2017 still is very barrel and wood forward. It still retains its smoothness and still has all the qualities you know and love about Bourbon County (chocolate and vanilla with some leather and tobacco). I even snuck a smell at it before it was announced and thought it was either Birthday or Prop 20, as it had a fair amount of fruit on the nose. A hefty one for sure, but a lovely treat and surprise at the fest.
5. Mehndi Special Reserve 2021 (Batch 01) | Imperial stout aged in Weller bourbon barrels | More Brewing Company | Villa Park & Huntley, IL | 12% ABV
Similar to the Double Barrel above on the aroma, Mehndi Special Reserve exhibited the same fruitiness on the palate as well. While not as chocolatey and vanilla-y as the Mehndi 2020, the smoothness and barrel integration are still there, but with a bunch of cherries, raisins, and plums thrown in for good measure. Very similar to Birthday BCBS, with possibly a better beer and barrel integration.
4. Whole Lotta Wonderful | Imperial stout with chocolate, coconut, and lactose | Lil’ Beaver Brewery | Bloomington, IL | 13% ABV
We knew Lil’ Beaver was participating and, before the beer got announced, I said I hoped it was Whole Lotta Wonderful. Score! It’s definitely on the sweet side, but the copious amounts of coconut keep it from going over the sweet cliff. The lactose makes this beer a smooth ride across the tongue, and the beer itself is like drinking a Mounds/Almond Joy bar. I saw Chad Bevers holding a can of it in his presentation video for the beer, so I’m hoping this one makes it up to Chicago at some point.
3. Cuppa French Vanilla | Imperial stout w/ cacao nibs, dark roast blend coffee, and vanilla | Maplewood Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 12.3% ABV
We knew it was going to be a Cuppa. We just didn’t know if it would be barrel-aged or not. Turns out it wasn’t, but Cuppa French Vanilla was easily the coffee stout beer of the fest. The coffee was pronounced and roasty, keeping it a little less sweet than Lil’ Beavers entry. The vanilla never became too over-bearing, complementing the coffee well. The chocolate, in my opinion, brought up the rear but still showed up a little. Just don’t expect a fudge bomb. Expect a morning cup of coffee with some marshmallows!
2. Goose Egg | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ chocolate and Cadbury egg creme | Goose Island Brewhouse | Chicago, IL
When head brewer Jon Naghski announced this one, I thought it was the recently released one that sold out in the UK. So I FREAKED OUT. Then he said while it wasn’t that one, this one was barrel-aged. So I FREAKED OUT AGAIN. Jon took one of Goose Island Clybourn’s barrel-aged stouts, added some chocolate and Cadbury egg creme and came up with Goose Egg. (Our name for it. It’s on Untappd now. Hope it stays!) The beer is amazingly smooth, while still imparting a wealth of creamy chocolate. It also never gets too sweet, and was probably behind both the Cuppa and Wonderful in terms of overall perceived sweetness. While it doesn’t take exactly like a Cadbury creme egg (or it’s vastly superior relative the Cadbury mini egg), there’s enough going on to make it a winner in my book. But seriously, you think combining a barrel-aged stout and a Cadbury chocolate anything would not impress me?
1. Bourbon Barrel Aged Mint Chocolate Chip Sleepy Bear | Bourbon barrel-aged stout blend w/ cacao, vanilla, peppermint, and spearmint | Werk Force Brewing Company | Plainfield, IL | 11.5% ABV
Confectioners delight at StoutFest for me this year. In order to supplant Goose Egg, you’ve got to bring it. Werk Force brought it. Sweet, but not overly do. Lovely barrel character to add some depth and roundness to the Sleepy Bear base. It legitimately smelled like a Thin Mint. And then backed it up by tasting exactly like one, only with some booze present. I immediately looked to see if this got packaged and was available. (It is on both accounts.) Mint’s a tricky thing to nail in a beer. Too little and it doesn’t come through; too much and it tastes like toothpaste. Get it just right, like Werk Force did here, and add some chocolate and some barrel-aging and you’ve got an absolute winner. The Temperance Peppermint Hot Cocoa Might Meets Right strikes a similar cord, but it’s just not as big and flavorful as this one. Last mint beer I had this good? Perennial’s BA 17 from some time ago. I’ll take a case.
Ryan’s Top 7
7. Dark Incantation | Imperial coffee stout w/ piloncillo | Old Irving Brewing | Chicago, IL | 8% ABV
This beer’s drinkability immediately leaves me at odds with my own rankings, because it was the only beer here that could convince me to crack two cans in one sitting. But it’s also a bit lighter in touch compared to the rest – and I’ll admit the 10%-plus stouts were hitting me just right that day. This beer is about as good as an everyday coffee stout can get. The aromatics are big roasty coffee beans and chocolate, while the flavor brings an equal measure of bitterness and richness. The chocolate coming off the base is undeniable, and the coffee bean brings some blueberry to the experience as well. This is an extremely wise 4-pack purchase for those inevitable 40-degree April days.
6. Your Brain on Brunch | Imperial milk stout ale with coffee, maple syrup, lactose, fenugreek, and vanilla | Pipeworks Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 10.5% ABV
Craig, of all people, had criticisms of this beer’s maple syrup dominance. Overdone syrup is something I usually abhor, but here it is playing nicely with the varied breakfast flavors. The addition of fenugreek not only brings out more of the maple, but it adds something that reminds me of breakfast sausage along with the roasty coffee and vanilla frosting. Drink this while the sun is still up.
5. Goose Egg* | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ chocolate and Cadbury egg creme | Goose Island Brewhouse | Chicago, IL
*Craig tried to create an Untappd check-in for this, but the stupids over there consolidated this much better name into an entry called, “Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout Cadbury Creme” which is not accurate at all because the base beer is not Bourbon County plus it’s a dumb and stupid name. Although inspired by the Goose Island London pub’s Cadbury creme stout, this special brew is a gimmick that is thankfully light on the gimmick. The Cadbury creme is only adding the slightest rich vanilla character, but the beer is this bourbon milk chocolate drink that gets smoother with every sip. Jon keeps cranking out those Ghost Whales!
4. Cuppa French Vanilla | Imperial stout w/ cacao nibs, dark roast blend coffee, and vanilla | Maplewood Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 12.3% ABV
Only bested by the Old Irving in terms of coffee aroma, this beer gets the edge because of how big it is while remaining balanced. It’s not deceptively low in alcohol or deceptively anything else other than a big ass French Vanilla stout. It tiptoes across cloying but never loses its balance. It’s big, aggressively roasty, and eased out by a dash of vanilla creme. It’s one of my favorite Cuppas I’ve had so far.
3. Señor Bandito | Imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with sweet cherry, cinnamon, and spices | Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | 11.5% ABV
Not pulling any punches, this Luchador has maybe gotten even better with age, almost six months from its November release. It’s a cherry cage match, all angles of sweet and tart from the variety of cherries used come through at varying moments, while the cinnamon is the consistent ground upon which everything rides. It’s also rich with a chocolate-y base stout, and it’s one I wish I had a bottle of to share with my best vaccinated buds.
2. Bourbon Barrel Aged Mint Chocolate Chip Sleepy Bear | Bourbon barrel-aged stout blend w/ cacao, vanilla, peppermint, and spearmint | Werk Force Brewing Company | Plainfield, IL | 11.5% ABV
As of my writing, I don’t know who won the Stoutly Cup for 2021, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised – or disappointed – if Werk Force took it. Though I revere one beer a bit more for reasons you’ll read below, this is one of the best runner-ups you could ever have. I don’t think a barrel-aged mint stout has ever worked this well. Call it cliché, but it’s liquid Thin Mint with a light bourbon chaser. And like a palate-cleansing dessert, it’s easy and smooth and refreshing, while undeniably full of flavor. I won’t forget this one anytime soon.
1. Mehndi Special Reserve 2021 (Batch 01) | Imperial stout aged in Weller bourbon barrels | More Brewing Company | Villa Park & Huntley, IL | 12% ABV
I gave my Stoutly Cup vote to More because this is one of those beers that sets a high bar and then clears it. Barrel-aged More beers are already pretty “special,” and this one outdoes Goose Island at their own game. Though the special barrel-focused Bourbon Counties have been highlights every year since 2017, More is here saying, “check this shit out” and doing something that can stand with – or above – many of those BCBS variants with far fewer resources. This beer imparts a lot of fruit along with its rich chocolate body, but it’s smooth from beginning to end. There are no empty spaces in the flavor – it’s delectably full and complex through and through. I’ve never had a bad Mehndi, and all recent evidence points to them getting even better.