Oak Park Micro Brew Review 2019
If your only experience with beer fests is attending the Oak Park Micro Brew Review each year, you’d think they were all run smoothly, with plentiful water, reasonably clean and available port-o-potties, and smiling brewery employees pouring a great mix of standard and specialty beers. That is not always the case. So the 12th year of the OPMBR offered an excellent value for a pretty spotless day of beer drinking. Rains threatened to spoil the fun, but other than some very early storms, it became an idyllic late summer evening.
Even in a beer climate that seems to value the same three overly-sweet beer styles above all, the selection of beers this year seemed to be one of the most diverse in recent memory. This could in part be due to the new brewing competition for the year, the Iron Brewer, wherein twenty brewers were randomly assigned a beer style to brew. In years past, the competition would be all breweries replicating a particular recipe, executing their take on one style, or featuring the same hop. Just adding these twenty different styles meant you got to sample some breweries playing a bit outside of their comfort zones, and it made for a great opportunity to acknowledge how talented so many of these brewers are in their craft. I sincerely hope they continue this version of the competition next year.
This year’s winner of the Iron Brewer was none other than Lil’ Beaver Brewing with their Lil’ Bit More Wonderful, a chocolate milk stout made with hefeweizen yeast and banana, coconut, and chocolate. Coincidentally, minutes before the awards announcement, we had just gotten a pour of that beer and talked with Chad Bevers about his seeming luck in pulling the “Experimental” category as a brewer who makes a few beers that would disintegrate a physical copy of the Reinheitsgebot. But the beer itself is remarkable, carrying the full flavor of its adjuncts on a lightly chewy body boosted by the hefeweizen yeast, while hitting below 6% alcohol. This was certainly my favorite “experimental” beer at the fest.
What follows is a list of the best beers I was able to try at the 12th Annual Oak Park Micro Brew Review. I absolutely did a terrible job of trying all the beers and breweries I had set out to – my beer fest acumen has atrophied a bit. But this baker’s dozen of beer was absolutely worth the cost of admission, and I share them in no particular order, because they were spectacular and deserve all sorts of hyperbole dumped on them.
13 Standouts from #OPMBR2019
Cinnamon Coffee Crunch | White Milk Stout w/ Saigon cinnamon, Tahitian vanilla bean, and Dark Matter coffee | 6% | Old Irving Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL
Seemingly a sequel to last year’s show-stealing Cinnamon Prost Crunch, this beer made me somehow think that I’m making a life mistake by not pairing my morning cup of black coffee with a big bowl of cinnamon cereal swimming in whole milk. The rich coffee roast of the aroma pleasantly envelops the nose as you sip through the milky rich bowl-leavings of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Telegraph Hill | California Common | 7.1% | One Lake Brewing | Oak Park, IL
There was a time not long ago – like, prior to 2016 – when there were no breweries from Oak Park actually pouring at the village’s signature beer fest. Operating out of a striking brewpub on the corner of Lake and Austin, One Lake Brewing is the newest addition to Oak Park’s small brewing community. They specialize in more traditional beers that are flavorful, clean, and pretty true-to-style. This California Common is a tad higher in ABV than most, but you’d barely know that from drinking it. A slight toasty caramel malt sweetness is present up front before some earthy and woody hops give it a touch of bitterness on the end. This is one definitely worth visiting the pub for a pint.
Dæmon | Belgian Golden Strong Ale | 8.5% | Lo Rez Brewing | Chicago, IL
This is a beer I have every time Lo Rez is pouring it at a fest. Frankly, I’m a bad person for not having bought this in cans or for not visiting the taproom bimonthly for a fresh pour. For that, I am truly sorry, because I absolutely love this beer. It’s reminiscent of Duvel with its beautiful balance of floral and fruity hops, light peppery phenols, and a disappearing alcohol content.
Tavern Cut | Double IPA | 7.5% | Hop Butcher for the World | Chicago, IL
With the diverse selection, I found that I didn’t drink a lot of New England-style IPAs. Or maybe it’s because I started the fest by drinking this beer, a returning favorite from Hop Butcher, and didn’t really need any more. Chewy and sugary all the way through, this one pulls no punches. Big tart passionfruit collides with citrus and pine before it leaves just a feathery bitterness to fight back against the cotton candy sweetness.
Squee!! | Czech pilsner fermented w/ wild yeast from blueberry skins | 5% | Off Color Brewing & Metropolitan Brewing | Chicago, IL
Put this with “Eeek!” as another well-punctuated collaboration with Off Color that expertly plays off of the respective strengths of each brewer to produce something amazing and wonderful. Don’t expect a blueberry sour bomb just because you saw that berry and “wild” listed in the paragraph-long style descriptor. This is a beer drinkable enough to fit in with most Metropolitan offerings while adding a little sweet honey, wine tannin, and lightly tart blueberry juice in the middle before a crisp and dry finish.
Dark Energy | English mild ale w/ coffee | 3.8% | Around the Bend Beer Company | Chicago, IL
The molasses-slow renaissance of the English Mild with American brewers is exciting for a miniscule portion of beer fans, but I am absolutely one of them. Even though it’s almost wispy in its lightness, the chewy flavors of burnt sugar, roasted coffee, and raisin grab hold of your palate.
Banana, Ooh Na-Na | Milkshake IPA w/ bananas, cinnamon, and vanilla | 7.5% | Mikerphone Brewing & WeldWerks Brewing Co. | Elk Grove Village, IL
Mike Pallen is an expert at marketing his beers. Not only is he one of the most genuinely personable people in beer, his childlike playfulness when it comes to ingredients can galvanize social media in a way few other brewers can. It’s only fitting he’s met an equal in WeldWerks’ Neil Fisher – another incredibly personable guy who loves to get a bit wacky with ingredients at times. This beer absolutely should not work. It’s a bad idea. The term IPA means nothing anymore. Goddamn is it delicious, though. Like, I’ve never had a beer that tastes like this. It’s barely a beer. But I was tempted to lick the inside of my glass when I was done. It’s sweet and indulgent, but they employed some serious flavor aliens to pull this off. Good God.
Love At First Bite | Berliner Weisse-style w/ tart cherry and lactose | 4.2% | Wolfden Brewing Co. | Bloomingdale, IL
Though I thought the “iceman pour” I received of this beer was a bit unnecessary, I ended up drinking the whole damn thing. Tart from the outset like a Berliner should be, this beer evolves into a gentle caress of lactose and a light tickling of cherry. That sounds uncomfortably erotic, as where this beer is cheery and delightful and not at all weird like that description.
Gin Barrel Aged St. Lawrence Gose | Gose aged 1 year in gin barrels | 4.8% | Lake Effect Brewing | Chicago, IL
Lake Effect is the best Chicago brewery that you’ve heard of but don’t purchase nearly enough. This is a hill I will die on. What Clint and company do with barrels should be notorious by now, and they do a lot without being pigeonholed. This gose is reminiscent of herbal bitters, but with a tart citrus acidity and barely-there booze, so it ends up being this crazy combination of barrel expression and light sourness. Lovely.
Melon Mint Flamingo | Berliner Weisse-style w/ Italian melon and mint | 4% | Cruz Blanca Brewery. | Chicago, IL
My wife and I are always looking for the most refreshing summer cocktail beer at this fest, and this one exceeded our expectations. The combination of under-ripe melon and fresh mint almost gives this one a cucumber skin and lime flavor. Either way, it’s refreshing in a way that makes you feel impervious to the harmful rays of the sun and uncontrollably drawn to flower-print swim trunks.
Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout (2018) | Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout w/ vanilla beans | 14.9% | Goose Island Beer Co. | Chicago, IL
I was expecting SPF and Next Coast (which was there), but Goose brought this and Midnight Orange for the lucky festival-goers as well. This beer “famously” won our BA Vanilla Stout blind tasting, and I haven’t had it since that episode. This reinforced everything I already knew: it’s seriously underrated in BCBS lore and is the perfect expression of cupcake frosting vanilla on a rich chocolate body with a smooth and restrained bourbon malt finish. (I also drunkenly bothered Todd Ahsmann, who was peacefully lining up for a Hop Butcher pour, to talk about their Phase Three collaboration. I have regrets.)
Milkshake Alfresco | Milkshake IPA w/ strawberry, lime, and lactose | 6.2% | Energy City Brewing | Batavia, IL
The beer world needs another “Milkshake IPA” like it needs another music metaphor. But I will say that this style is the saccharine radio pop that “the kids” listen to while you stubbornly maintain that everything new is actually derivative and therefore valueless. Some people are able to shut their brains off, look past obvious marketing ploys, and just let the sweetness flood the pleasure centers of their skull. This beer is that song that makes you cringe for a second before you slowly crank up the volume and start quietly singing along. Sweet lactose hits right away before the fullness of the mouthfeel softens up the sugar pangs. Then gentle waves of strawberry and very lightly tart lime take over to ease up even further, with a little kiss of tropical fruits and resinous bite from the hops on the end to make it much more drinkable than it should be.
Gin Barrel Aged Straw Foeder Aged Saison | Foeder and gin barrel-aged saison | 6% | Imperial Oak Brewing | Willow Springs, IL
This was an early pour for us, as Imperial Oak is a must-stop for us at every fest. This saison has seen a lot of wood, and it is wake-up juice for the palate. All the flavors are big, from the juniper-accented oak tannins to the over-ripened pineapple and fruity esters. The finish is surprisingly tart and dry, making repeated sips a breeze.