Over the course of four hours, I trudged through a grand total of 43 different samples, and I only accidentally doubled up once. Was I trying to top my total from last year, solely for personal bragging rights? Yeah. (And I probably wouldn’t want to go much higher than that.) Did I want to get a good cross-section of what was available? Not really — I don’t feel like I’m missing a ton by not touching the barleywines, and even if I were to go to all three sessions and magically somehow try 80+ beers through both Saturday sessions, I wouldn’t have even had half of the available beers.
I did, however, find some things that surprised me, that intrigued me, and that reinforced some of my previous thinking. Our Indiana correspondent Steve Patterson also visited, and we’re going to trade bullet points below. You can view my five favorite tastes of the night over at Time Out Chicago, but here are a few other takeaways from my Friday night visit and Steve’s Saturday evening trip:
Karl: As much as I love the look and the layout of the Bridgeport Arts Center (home of the last two FoBABs), being closer to downtown was a big win for this event. With so many huge beers available, accessible public transportation is a must-have for events like these, and as much as we loved the eternal Ashland bus ride down and pricey cab ride back, the prevalence of buses, Blue Line and Metra trains closer by added a little bit of solace that it’d be much safer for many of us to get home.
Steve: Pulling up in a cab and staring at the line stretching down Halsted, then down Roosevelt, (and soon realizing there was more than one) was a painful first impression. But once those doors opened, it moved quickly. Job well done to those working the front doors, scanning tickets and slapping on wristbands after checking IDs.
Once inside, I had that same feeling of dread. “My god, there are so many people in here,” I thought. Yes, it was elbow-to-elbow in many parts, but it dissipated. People made a beeline to Goose Island and Abraxas and things settled. What did add to the crowded look was more on some of the attendees than organizers. There wasn’t a lot of space in the rows, so when some guys decided to linger and chat in front of pouring stations instead of moving on after getting their beer, it caused some unnecessary congestion. Just hanging and chilling when others just want to get around you for a taste? Not cool, man.
And it was clear that around 7:30-8 p.m. Saturday, the crowds had thinned and there was plenty of breathing room to be had.
Karl: With a new venue, the big question on many minds was whether or not the event would be oversold. I was gauging my fellow festival goers throughout the night and while some considered it too packed for their own preference, I don’t think it was oversold. It was, however, definitely on the high side of packed on Friday night.
The way the rows were arranged certainly put people into some tight troughs, much more close-knit than the sprawling Bridgeport space. A few feet further out in either direction probably would have made a positive difference, but this being the first year at this location I don’t begrudge the organizers for trying to find a happy medium between the number of tickets sold and the number of square feet available.
Steve: I was blown away by the Goose Island line. Thought for sure it would dissipate over time but it never shortened. I kept hearing it moved fast but honestly there were too many good beers throughout the room for me to consider waiting for much. Besides, I was able to find Bourbon County Barleywine and their BarricAle offering, both of which were top-notch.
That BarricAle project was fun. A great idea tucked in a corner, with zero lines. Really fun and adventurous stuff aged in Wild Turkey barrels and not just porters and stouts, but a real mix. Bourbon County and 5 Rabbit were standouts for me there.
Karl: My original plan was to grab as much Side Project as I could, wherever I could, and then hop in line for the Goose stuff. My plans were immediately foiled by the fact that Side Project’s beers were (once again) the main destination for folks in the know (ie: Pretty much everyone at a festival like this) followed closely by Perennial’s BA Abraxas. If you have any intention of ever getting your hands on this at FoBaB, you’re going to need to think seriously about that IMBIBE membership. More from me about the Goose line later.
— SlapShot Brewing (@SlapShotBrewing) November 16, 2014
Steve: A genuinely cool moment came later in the evening as the gold-medal wearing Pipeworks guys roamed the room with that gold-medal beer, Barrel Aged Jones Dog, in hand and offered tastes to those they chatted with. They beamed with genuine joy and pride.
A real advantage to attending Session 3 was that the awards had just been announced, so something I might have otherwise overlooked suddenly became a “must try.” That and I learned from previous attendees where the Barrel Aged Abraxas was located. No, I still didn’t find it in time!
Karl: The ratio of guys to girls at 7pm? About 10:1. The ratio of guys to girls at 10pm? About 5:3. Pace yourselves, dudes. (Also, catheter up or learn how to piss. I’ve never seen a filthier craft beer festival bathroom than the one I witnessed on Friday night.)
— IMBIBE (@IllinoisIMBIBE) November 17, 2014
Steve: Some standouts, in no particular order:
- Breakside Aquavit IPA was a refreshing change from the heavier stuff and really well done.
- Hailstorm barrel-aged Swan Song was incredibly smooth, as was Bell’s Black Note.
- I’m a big fan of Horse Thief Hollow’s Cheval Deux and Saugatuck’s Neapolitan Milk Stout and was glad to see both come out even better when barrel aged.
- I’m a big fan of some of the more unique offerings and Mother’s Squashed certainly fit the bill. A fun, diverse one from a Missouri company that I’m glad made the trip up.
- Spiteful’s Absinthe Aged Klutzy Buffoon Saison with cherries had so much going on I don’t even know where to start. Same goes with 4 Hands Barrel Aged Bonafide with cinnamon. I was told it was a “love it or hate it” and the cinnamon kick at the end told me why. I dug it, though, a lot.
Karl: My favorite beer name of the night: Stickmen Brewery’s Vinegar Strokes. Fans of The League get it. (Still not as good as last year’s Stupid Sexy Flanders from Sun King.)
Steve: Overall, as usual, the folks at the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild put on a mighty fine festival. Very well run, organized, really diverse offerings and enough quality beers throughout the room that you didn’t have to wait in line for a good one. Though I liked last year’s space better – it had great character – there’s no question the location this year was much better, with loads of public transit and taxi offerings. I missed the food table (later realized it had been masked by the ginormous Goose Island line) and I missed the FOBAB swag table, though I’m sure it was somewhere – I was just too busy talking good beer with total strangers.
Karl: Perhaps the most astonishing thing of the night? Only a single medal went to a Goose Island property; a bronze for the Clybourn brewery’s Vainglorious. Compare that to last year where the company and brewpubs combined cleaned up with five medals and took second place as Best In Show, and in 2012 they won Best In Show flat-out with their Cherry Rye BCS. Outside the Goose booth I only spotted a couple of beers pouring; the Barleywine and a Vanilla BCS. Perhaps this is a case of “you can’t win if you don’t play?”
Speaking of Goose Island…
I have never, ever seen a line longer at a festival than the one for Goose Island all night on Friday. Not at last year’s FoBAB, not at this year’s GABF, not at Beer Under Glass, never.
The Goose Island team has done a great job of keeping the story off anything A-B and constantly on the new brews like Muddy and Ogden, the Bourbon County variants, the barrel facility expansion, the Idaho hop farms, the Fulton & Wood series, the Sour Sisters, the new taproom and all the other new and interesting things they’ve pushed into the world over the last 12 months.
They’ve done so much stuff in the last year there’s barely been time to breathe long enough to gasp out “but InBev!” All the shit talk on the internet couldn’t dispel the line down one wall and halfway down another, hundreds of beer aficionados long. Actions speak louder than words, and I fully expect the visuals of the Black Friday lines to outweigh any tweets of “sellout” that the sticky-fingered masses can cast into the gaping maw of the internet.
As always, you can find the list of award winners at BeerDownload here, along with breakdowns on number of entries (even as compared with previous years).
— Heather Kundert (@hlkundert) November 16, 2014