Two years is equivalent to a decade in Chicago beer, and StoutFest returned from its last appearance in 2016 to a very different Goose Island Clybourn Brewhouse with a new crop fo breweries ready to take home the coveted StoutFest cup. And to a much, much, much lesser extent, those breweries were also unknowingly vying for a Golden Hoagie in our grand tradition of making stupid and arbitrary awards. (Yes, we retired the Crotchee – which disappointed some brewers – but it just felt like it was time to stop giving out pictures of my Central Jeans Region to people as some sort of award.) The Golden Hoagie was created to honor Craig’s “Rebel with a Sandwich” tradition of sneaking in his own mid-fest meal and shameless search for a comfy bench to chow down upon.
It took about two minutes (and two stouts) for the adjustment period to the new layout and aesthetic to wear off, and it was just like StoutFests of old, with a few exceptions. Compared to 2016’s collection of 41 breweries, the 2018 edition listed only 28 (with two that were no-shows). 11 of those 28 were not present in 2016, and in fact, 8 of those were not even really breweries back in 2016. Speaking of that, both the StoutFest cup and the Brewers’ Choice award went to More Brewing Co. who are continuing their stellar Shohei Ohtani-like rookie campaign (too soon?) Concurrent with More’s very popular offerings, the trend towards heavily-adjuncted pastry stouts was on full display. You couldn’t throw a Guinness widget without hitting a sign boasting toasted coconut or cocoa nibs.
Even with fewer beers pouring, there was no shortage of great beers to choose from. It was almost easy to overlook long-time favorites like Clare’s Thirsty Ale (from Haymarket), Malevolence Chocolate Caliente (from Spiteful) and the Milk-Eyed Mender (from Middle Brow). So here we try and break down our favorites from the fest in our usual arbitrary way.
Best in Show: The Golden Hoagies
Half Acre Beer Co. (Chicago, IL) – Benthic | 12% | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with coffee and toasted coconut
As where so many stouts emphasize the extremes of their adjuncts, this one keeps the coffee and coconut buried just beneath the luscious chocolate body, requiring some slow deliberate sips to be revealed. The bourbon barrel isn’t nearly as shy, adding the perfect amount of caramel and charred oak to the finish.
Cruz Blanca Brewery (Chicago, IL) – Rey Gordo | 10% | Brandy, rum, and bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout
It was a bit ironic (or appropriate) that Jacob and Todd brought fruited variations on this barrel-aged stout, as it is already one of the fruitiest stouts sans actual fruit. The complexity instead is derived from the combination of rum, brandy, and bourbon barrels that this stout was aged in, and it absolutely slams with notes of apple, cherry, molasses, chocolate, and toasted sugar. The whole line-up of beers Cruz bought deserves recognition as maybe the most overall stunning showing from any brewery, and talking with Jacob about some future projects already sitting in barrels, we can safely say we’re in for some mind-blowingly original treats for years to come from this crew.
Cruz Blanca Brewery (Chicago, IL) – Blueberry Gomez | 10% | Brandy, rum, and bourbon barrel-aged blueberry coffee stout
We wanted to spotlight one beer from each brewery that really impressed us, but this one couldn’t be ignored. Taking cues from an already berry-heavy coffee, this one’s addition of blueberries makes it taste like a nice slice of blueberry rhubarb pie served at a diner counter with a black cup of coffee.
Lil’ Beaver Brewery (Bloomington, IL) – Bourbon Barrel Pecanamon | 12% | Bourbon barrel-aged stout with pecans and cinnamon
The aroma on this beer caused an immediate flashback to walking around Great America on a brisk and windy day, catching a huge whiff of the stand that sells sugar-crusted roasted nuts in those little paper cones. It tastes more like a liquid cinnamon bun, careening towards being too sweet but stopping just short, leaving a spicy residual cinnamon kiss on the lips. This seems to be true of all of the Lil’ Beaver options at the fest this year: the promised flavors are all there and when you think it’s going to be a heavy-handed slap to the palate, it stops just short to laugh at your flinch. It may not be a big beer you’d want to handle solo, but shared with friends or portioned out in dessert-sized tastings will give you all the flavor you need and will likely talk about for a long time to come.
Goose Island Brewhouse (Chicago, IL) – None of Your Beeswax | 11% | Imperial stout with a touch of oak, honey, and hops
Aged in 10-gallon bourbon barrels that once held honey, this stout (that head brewer Jon Naghski was acting coyly modest about with his trademark “I’m a bad wittle boy” smile) was a reminder that every festival is better when the Clybourn…er…Brewhouse gang is involved. Regardless of your thoughts about their ownership or the new bar or what have you (and there were lots of opinions! Rabble robble rabble), remember Cthulhu? Vainglorious? Impervious? They must’ve left some of that good good BCBS fairy dust in the air at this place, because this honey-forward medium-bodied stout comes across like a dream, with a slight bitterness in the finish to erase any lingering honey sweetness.
Tangled Roots Brewing Co. (Ottawa, IL) – Russian Imperial Stout | 9.5%
Thick and rich with luxurious chocolate, this beer has a fuller mouthfeel than many of the bigger alcohol stouts that were at the fest. It also accomplishes a depth of flavor that eclipses many of the adjunct-enhanced stouts, creating notes of coffee, vanilla, and smoke alongside a decently bitter finish.
Best Low Alcohol Options
Old Irving Brewing Co. (Chicago, IL) – Liquid Jazz | 6.5% | Nitro milk stout w/ cocoa nibs, coffee, coconut, and lactose
Sometimes as a beer reviewer with a little liquid courage, you recommend beers to people to whom you have no business giving recommendations. When I spotted John Hall in the Vintage room, blending in to the crowd, lazily sipping from his taster, and weighing his next options, I had just finished enjoying this nitro milk stout. It didn’t take long to talk him into trying it, and he gave that little head nod and impressed half-smile that is the universal gesture for, “yes, very nice, thank you, beer reviewing child.” This 6.5% little number is all about the flavors it doesn’t play; coffee and coconut are present but the lactose and sensible alcohol content smooth out any roasted coffee bitter notes or oily suntan lotion you might otherwise get from the adjuncts.
Runner-Up: Elmhurst Brewing Co. (Elmhurst, IL) – Fool’s Gold | 6.8% | Gold sweet stout with chocolate and coffee
Sweet and creamy, this gold stout still has a moderate bitter roast from the coffee and a touch of chocolate that comes in at the back. It’s reminiscent of those flavorful cream ales from Carton in New Jersey, but it’s still dark enough in its flavors to remain a stout.
Beers I Was Just Nuts For*
Saint Errant Brewing (Chicago, IL) – Caullier | 10% | Imperial Stout brewed with roasted peanuts and cacao nibs
A beer no human is meant to say correctly (Cavalier? Collar? Cauliflower?), this peanut butter chocolate bark in a glass is like reliving your childhood, if your childhood consisted of spooning peanut butter out of the container to spread on Oreo cookies when no one was around, much like mine. (Adulthood, also.) But if all that sounds like too much, it’s not: the peanuts have a dry roasted character to them that balances any residual sugars in the stout, making this a beautiful beer that makes me wonder why there are so many coconut stouts and so few peanut-based ones.
Runner-up: Open Outcry Brewing (Chicago, IL) – Charles Ponzi Peanut Butter Imperial Stout | 10.5%
This one could’ve tied with the Saint Errant, as much of what I said above definitely applies to this great stout – and my first experience drinking anything from Open Outcry. It is a bit more chocolate-forward and sweet than the Caullier, but it still leads with a big aroma of oily crushed peanuts sprinkled on a brownie.
(*This is bad, and I feel bad, as I should.)
Kinslahger Brewing Co. (Oak Park, IL) – Baltic Porter | 9.5% | Traditional Baltic Porter
You’d think I have some sort of chocolate quota to hit where if I say chocolate in every review of every beer, I collect some sort of payout from the Chocolate Council. Well, those rumors are entirely untrue. But here I am thinking about how this baltic porter achieves some of the richest chocolate notes of any beer poured at the fest, but then it follows with lovely supporting notes of raisins and coffee. Also I just found out they do a Nitro version of this and I have to go, byeeee.
Band of Bohemia (Chicago, IL) – Jasmine Rice | 5.5% | Rice beer with Jasmine rice, Vienna malt, and Wakatu hops
A rice so nice that I had it twice, this Jasmine-rice and Vienna malt light beer was a cure for a very fatigued palate and inspired me to want to play the Mongolian bells that they so thoughtfully had laid upon their tapestry. I always expect to smell a strong whiff of incense when I visit this brewery’s station at any fest, but I always leave having tried a truly-inspired and unique beer creation.
Buckledown Brewing (Lyons, IL) – Belt and Suspenders | 7% | American IPA
Two years ago, we fell in love with their Clencher beer at StoutFest because they were the only brewery to sneak in cans of an IPA to the stout show. This time, they proudly poured their flagship IPA from a keg and it was another lovely respite from the sugary oil slick effect that had taken over my palate.
Thanks again to Goose Island for having us out to StoutFest, and thanks to all of the brewers that let us take goofy, light-infected photos of them.