Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Midwest
by Ryan Ingwersen
Initially I was going to recap the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Festival Midwest stop by mimicking a child’s letter home from camp. But I never went to camp, and that’s a hacky writing device, so instead watch this video of Allan Sherman and we can all move on with our lives (with minimal camp references):
The Festival and Camp Grounds
On their way to the new brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, Sierra Nevada is crossing the country to thank fellow brewers and fans alike, and they brought their huge, awesome party to Chicago’s Navy Pier on Sunday, July 27th. To review it simply, it was excellent. The sheer amount of great breweries and interesting beers alone made it worth the seemingly-steep entrance fee of $65, but Sierra made sure everyone got their money’s worth. The ease of access to beer, food, water, restrooms and sitting areas made this one of the most well-organized festivals this writer has experienced. Add in some top-notch entertainment and perhaps the most beautiful day of the summer, and you can almost ignore the inevitable costly fiasco it is to get to Navy Pier (you know, if you don’t live in The Loop).
The food options were varied and plentiful, with vendors and food trucks set up right on the water. Despite an array of interesting options (like pancakes), Chicagoans stuck to sausages and pizza, as indicated by the lines. Water for drinking and rinsing glasses was plentiful, with large stations outside and smaller ones being regularly refilled in the ballroom. There was no shortage of places to sit, whether at picnic tables in the blazing sun or on the concrete steps in the shade outlining the grounds.
The musical entertainment was provided by the MarchFourth Marching Band, who are the official Beer Camp touring spectacle of insanity. Imagine a mix of burlesque and stilt acrobatics (yeah, stilt acrobatics) and catchy-as-hell grooves and stomps from a group of scarily-athletic post-apocalyptic Bourbon Street circus performers. That’s pretty close. At times, I had no idea what the hell I was watching, but it was okay, because I was entertained. (Just like the most recent season of 24.)
The Collaborators (Senior Counselors)
Bell’s must have been on festival autopilot, bringing the ubiquitous Two-Hearted and Oberon. 3 Floyds did a bit better, bringing the perpetually sought-after Zombie Dust, which probably made the whole fest worth it for a few attendees. But it was their Yum Yum Session Ale, made with “a new blend of proprietary hops”, that really grabbed my attention. With an explosive array of tropical fruits and moderate hop bitterness, the taste reminded me of their retired Powder Burns IPA, but with the drinkability of a sessionable pale ale. Slated for 12-ounce bottles sometime in the near future (check the label here), this beer could become the next great irritant for your liquor store’s beer department or people who hate waiting in lines in Munster, Indiana.
Attracting one of the longer lines of the festival (which was about five minutes of waiting, really), Tampa’s Cigar City has been a mainstay on the entire tour. My suspicion is that the line was for their revered Jai Alai IPA and not their Florida Cracker Witbier, which is probably a good beer too. Hopefully Chicago fans of Revolution’s Anti-Hero had a chance to try the Jai Alai, as those two could walk hand in hand (can in can?) as a few of the best year-round IPAs for their respective regions.
Allagash Brewing Co. brought two very different beers, their Saison and Curieux. Despite having experience at beer festivals, I made the rookie mistake of ordering an 11% Jim Beam barrel-aged Tripel very late in the fest – after several IPAs and sours – and it was predictably hard to finish. (I should’ve followed the lead of Ken Grossman, who was about 3 people ahead of me and ordered their Saison.) But kudos to Allagash for bringing one of their premium barrel-aged offerings for showcase. Speaking of, Firestone Walker advertised their Opal and Easy Jack, but many of those willing to check out their booth were offered a bottle pour of Sucaba, their masterfully blended barrel-aged English-style barleywine.
One of the few easily-obtainable beers I couldn’t resist a pour of was Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, a beer that lends itself well to an ice-cold festival pour (albeit this one was a mere 4 ounces). And while most breweries played to the season with lighter, hoppier, or fruited beers, it was nice to see them pouring Victory at Sea, a coffee vanilla porter.
Sierra Nevada’s own Ken Grossman didn’t have the look of a man entering the second week of a cross country tour, with oh-so-casual stops for whitewater rafting and donkey racing. He was truly amongst his people, shaking hands, having conversations, and posing for pictures with anyone that asked. He spent at least an hour pouring at one of the Sierra stations. The Single Hop Equinox IPA, which should be out now in bottles as a part of their Harvest series, was sweet floral hops with some earthy undertones; an example of what Sierra’s been doing so well for over three decades. And it tasted even better when handed over by the man we can thank for craft beer as we know it. I think I awkwardly said, “Thanks. You’re a legend!” when I took my beer. (Fortunately, later, I redeemed myself by having a coherent conversation with him while taking in the March Fourth Marching Band.)
By almost complete accident, I overlooked the booths of Oskar Blues and Victory – both breweries that I enjoy semi-regularly. I was eyeing a pour of DirtWolf for later, but sacrifices had to be made, my friend.
The most notable absences included Russian River and New Glarus, though their collaboration beers were both available on tap. Either of those breweries would’ve drawn longer lines than seen at any other booth pretty much regardless of what they would’ve brought. I did grab the Yvan the Great Beer Camp collaboration, a beer I own but have been saving to share with a friend. It was a remarkably clean yet flavorful Belgian blonde that tasted like the base beer for something Russian River would put in wine barrels.
The Young and Local (The Cabin Leaders)
More than a celebration of Sierra Nevada, the Beer Camp tour was conceptualized as a way to celebrate the collaborative and supportive culture that exists with brewers and fans. With a program listing just under 100 breweries – all bringing at least two offerings – I probably spent the first ten minutes just deciding on where to start. For the most part, I ended up sticking with up-and-coming local breweries.
The two local breweries on my must-stop list did not disappoint, offering the best one-two punch of beers at the fest. The two most stunningly flavorful and original beers I had were both from Transient Artisan Ales, the Lansing-based gypsy brewery. Their Gose (which really should be renamed to explore the rapidly emerging trend of wacky Gose puns) had a medium wheat body with tons of lemon flavor, ending with a big dose of salt. It was reminiscent of the Leipziger Gose with the flavor turned up. The Obelus Motueka citrus saison was bursting with lime zest and orange, accentuated by the tropical fruit notes from the Motueka hops. They later tapped the Cranberry Maigre, a Berliner weiss, and I sadly didn’t get around to trying it.
Middle Brow Beer Co. had their yeasty Belgian farmhouse Robyn with a touch of funk, and they were offering it through a randall of oranges and Mandarina hops. They also brought along the last keg of Junta, a table oud bruin collaboration with Transient (which Nick Burica from Middle Brow has said will be brewed again, but with cherries tossed in.) I had to point out to Nick that I waited longer in line to get my Junta than to get my Ken Grossman-poured Sierra beer, which is true.
Plainfield’s brand-spanking-new Werk Force Brewing (from the people behind Chicago Brew Werks) were pouring their Citra-hopped oat pale ale, Oats Made Me Do It and a hopped-up imperial red called Bad Polaroid. The latter lived up to its citrusy-hop promise, but a big dose of caramel malts to smooth out some of those IBUs. Pig Minds from Machesney Park, known for their vegan brewpub (hooray!) and offensive beer titles and labels (boo?), had an above-average West-Coast style IPA, Sweep the Leg, and a big bad quad called Crazy Bitch that I had to skip due to it’s high alcohol content.
Did I mention how cute the snifter tasting glasses were? I just wanted to eat them up. Here’s a picture of one full of Bad Polaroid:
Lombard’s own Flesk Brewing has been around for over a year now, and I’d have to admit to having a few early offerings that weren’t too promising. But then I had a pour of their Coat of Arms, a Mosaic-hopped Imperial IPA that was easily one of the highlights of the day. I even approached a few strangers and marvelled about it, saying they should check it out. Which isn’t something I would do if sober, necessarily, but I stand behind it! The vibrant tangy orange of the Mosaic hops is in perfect balance with the bitterness, meaning I’ll need to snag a fresh 4-pack soon.
Another surprise of the festival came from Smylie Brothers Brewing Co. and their Purple Line Express, a Bavarian wheat with blackberries, blueberries and hibiscus. It poured a light pinkish-purple (almost comparable to Ken Getty’s insane homebrewed Strawberry Kiwi Hibiscus Berliner, which should’ve been on tap at this festival, dammit) and smelled heavily of sweet dark blackberries. Both of the berries came through clearly on the flavor but were dried out by some of that hibiscus, finishing with a wheat beer mouthfeel. I will certainly be seeking this one out again.
One lesson I’ve learned from attending a few festivals here and there is that if Haymarket Pub and Brewery are pouring beers, you drink those beers. Their Sorachi Ace-hopped Ombibulous 7.0 gave off a big hit of lemon on the nose but had some odd herbal notes on the flavor that makes the Sorachi Ace a challenging hop for some drinkers. The Mash Made In Heaven VI, a white peach Wit, delivered enough peach to be almost schnapps-like, but the wit character dulled the sweetness on the end, making for an easy drinking fruit-forward summer beer.
Attracting a pretty significant line (and a healthy amount of fans wearing their T-shirts despite only having an online store for, like, a month), Pipeworks brought their freshest offerings: Pipeworks Simcoe (the beer formerly known as Simcoe Ninja)and Citra Saison. I skipped the Simcoe after having had a bottle the night previous (which was delicious yet Stone-like in its aggressive hop and booze wallop), but I thoroughly enjoyed the Saison. The Citra hop was prominent on the aroma, and it defined itself as a saison on the flavor due to a distinct yeast quality and mouthfeel. My biggest knock against it was the 9% ABV, as I usually like having a few saisons in a sitting, and this one will put you out quick. The Transient offering did this aspect quite a bit better, even though it’s up there at 7% ABV.
With so many options, I missed out on a few breweries and beers that I wish I hadn’t: MobCraft had a lot of good buzz from other attendees, and I was intrigued by Empirical’s scientific approach. But my biggest regret was missing Bloomington, Indiana’s Upland opening a few bottles of LightSynth and DarkSynth, two stellar sour beers, during the course of the fest. People were literally shaking drops from the bottles into their tiny snifters. I swear I wasn’t one of them.
Sierra Nevada portrayed themselves as being a little bit crazy for doing this, but the meticulous planning and coordination that must have gone into just this one singular event (there are six others, you know) proves it was the product of a company with a very clear vision. And the amazing thing is, they never really made it about themselves, even though they had every opportunity to do so. I kind of wished Camp would never come to an end.
Now here’s a big giant list of beers that were available at the fest. This was culled together from my notes and shoddy memory, so I also consulted Untappd for some coordination. This list does not include the Beer Camp collaboration beers, which were all on tap and can be seen here. But I’m missing many others, I’m sure. (E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of ones we should add!)
3 Sheeps Brewing Co. – Really Cool Waterslides IPA, Baaad Boy Black Wheat
4 Hands Brewing Company – Contact High, Single Speed Session Ale
5 Rabbit Cerveceria – 5 Lizard, Paletas #1 Guava
Against the Grain Brewery – Galangal Action
Ale Syndicate – DuSable Hoppy Saison, Municipal IPA
Allagash Brewing – Saison, Curieux
Alltech Lexington Brewing – Bourbon Barrel Stout, Bourbon Barrel Ale
Alpha Brewing Co. – Odd Ball, Cantaloupe Sour
Arcadia Ales – Cereal Killer Barley Wine, Rapunzel
Argus Brewery – Pegasus IPA, EZ Rider
Atlas Brewing Co.- 2nd Anniversary DIPA, Invincible Armor Robust Porter
B. Nektar Meadery – Zombie Killer, Kill All the Golfers, The Dude’s Rug, Slice of Life, Black Fang
Baderbrau Brewing Co. – Lawnmower Lager
Ballast Point Brewing – Victory at Sea, Sculpin
Begyle Brewing – Crash Landed, Free Bird
Bell’s Brewery – Two Hearted, Oberon
Berghoff Brewery – Shambler, Oak-Aged Old Ale
Big Dawg Brewhaus – Ragnar, Fenrir Blood Orange Mead, Schroper’s S.O.B.
Blue Nose Brewery – Archer Ave., PIPA
Boulevard Brewing – Hibiscus Gose, Saison-Brett
Brickstone – Hazy After 5, HopSkipNImDrunk, APA
Capital Brewery – Fishin’ in the Dark, Ghost Ship White IPA
Chain O’Lakes Brewing – I’m Bock, The Colonel’s IPA
Church Street Brewing – Devil’s Advocate, Heavenly Helles
Cigar City Brewing – Jai Alai IPA, Florida Cracker Wit
Country Boy Brewing – Knotty Pine
Dark Horse Brewing – Barracuda Blue, Crooked Tree IPA
Destihl Brewery – Raspberry Berliner Weiss, Matt and the Giant Juicy Mango IPA, Raspberry Wheat
DryHop Brewers – Shark Meets Hipster, Death Rides a Horse
Empirical Brewery – Superluminal, Infinity: IBU Overload
Figure Eight Brewing – Ro Shampo, Lost Saint
Finch’s Beer Co. – Wet Hot American Wheat, Hardcore Chimera
Firestone Walker Brewing – Opal, Sucaba (bottle), Easy Jack
Flesk Brewing – Coat of Arms IIPA, Haus Hefeweizen
Flossmoor Station Brewing – Barrel-Aged Dubbel, Kaleidoscope Eyes Double Rye IPA
Founders – Dissenter IPL
Goose Island Beer – Recommended, SVE Kolsch
Granite City Brewery – Belgian Strong Ale, DIPA
Great Lakes Brewing – Spacewalker
Greenbush Brewing – Star Chicken Shotgun, Sunspot
Hailstorm Brewing – Jesus Toast, Prairie Madness
Half Acre Beer – Daisy Cutter, Akari Shogun, Navaja
Haymarket Pub and Brewery – Obibulous 7.0, Mash Made In Heaven VI
Hopvine Brewing – India Brown Ale, Brew Monkey
Horny Goat – Honey Wheat Pale Ale, Double IPA, Watermelon Wheat
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing – Orange Shandy, Big Eddy Imperial IPA
Lagunitas Brewing – Fusion 23
Lakefront Brewery – My Turn #009 – Pilo, Extended Play
Lunar Brewing – Moondance IPA, Blueberry Wit
Middle Brow Beer Co. – Robyn, Junta
MKE Brewing – Outboard, O-Gii
MobCraft Beer – Candy for Breakfast, Batshit Sour
Nevin’s Brewing – Hop Loaf Two Eye Pa, Sesh IPA
Northwoods Brewing – Floppin’ Crappie, Walter’s Premium Pilsner
Old Town Abbey – White, Blonde Ale
Penrose Brewing – Devoir, P2
Piece Brewery – Top Heavy Hefeweizen, Camel Toe
Pig Minds – Crazy Bitch, Sweep the Leg
Pipeworks Brewing – Citra Saison, Pipeworks Simcoe
Rock Bridge Brewing – Rye You Little Punk, Spree
Revolution Brewing – Rosa, Dos Osos
Saugatuck Brewing – Neapolitan Milk Stout, Michigan Wheat
Shipwrecked Brewery – Summer Wheat
Sierra Nevada – Hoptimum, Knightro, Pale Ale, Single Hop IPA Equinox, Guildy Pleasure
SlapShot Brewing – McLaughlin’s RedEye Porter, Leather Leisure Suit
Smylie Brothers Brewing – Farmhouse, Purple Line Express
Solemn Oath Brewery – Eigengrau, Butterfly Flashmob
Spiteful Brewing – Case of the Mondays, God Damn Pigeon Porter (chocolate banana), GFY
Sprecher – Abbey Triple, Oktoberfest
Stevens Point Brewery – Whole Hog RIS, Cascade Pale Ale
Stockholm’s Vardshus – Older but Weisser, Kolsch, State St. Pilsner
Summit Brewing – Pilsener, Saga
Temperance Beer – Restless Years, Escape Artist
Ten Ninety Brewing – IPA, Half Wit
Three Floyds Brewpub – Zombie Dust, Yum Yum
Tighthead Brewing – Irie IPA, Old Kaya Dog
Transient Artisan Ales – Obelus Motueka, Gose, Cranberry Maigre
Triton Brewing – Rail Splitter IPA, Wit or Wit Out You
Two Brothers Brewing – Domaine DuPage, Engine No. 1
Tyranena – Down N’ Dirty, Rocky’s Revenge, Scurvy
Upland Brewing – Hill Walker Saison, Campside Summer Session, Dark Synth (bottle), Light Synth (bottle)
Urban Chestnut Brewing – Mercator
Urban Legend Brewing – The Creature, Sweet Lacey
Victory Brewing – DirtWolf
Werk Force Brewing – Oats Made Me Do It, Bad Polaroid
West Sixth – Lemongrass American Wheat
White Flame Brewing – Double Tap, Super G IPA
Wild Blossom Meadery – Pirate’s Blood, Blueberry Nectar