First, a confession. Around midday on Saturday, November 17 … I almost didn’t muster up the energy to get out the door to this year’s FoBAB.
Could it have had something to do with an extended evening at the Green Lady following a show at Schubas the night before? Quite probably. But did it also have anything to do with the fact that perhaps FoBAB is maybe losing a bit of luster? Also could be.
Tickets for this two of the three sessions for this years event — which once lasted no more than a few minutes when this was held at a much smaller venue — were still available within three hours of the event kickoff. An ICBG representative tells me that despite that, the event was indeed at capacity (with over 7,000 attendees total) but given the slow burn of the sales we have to ask:
Is an event where all of the beers are more or less unrepeatable experiments and crazy one-offs with zero guarantee of quality really worth the same amount as admission to the Great American Beer Fest or a top-tier Invitational? Somewhere through the middle of this year’s FoBAB it really sunk in: If I really, really love one of these barrel-aged beers … I’ll still probably never get to try it again. And if I really, really dislike some of these weirdo experiments (which definitely happened — one of those barrel-aged adjunct stouts was WAY sour which I do not think was on purpose) I don’t know if that actually represents the brewery’s output or if it’s just a physical representation of the sunk-cost fallacy in barrel form.
Basically, it really sunk in this year how much of FoBAB is a crazy crap shoot. Same as every year, but I let it get into my head in 2018. Hey, at least this year there wasn’t a beer called “Free FoBAB Ticket.”
Don’t get me wrong — as soon as I cleared the metal detectors (new for 2018 and presumably thanks to the presence of the mayor) I was plenty happy I was there. I still love dodging the lines for the Whales to search out new breweries that may have something to offer the world from the city, the suburbs and states beyond our Illinois borders. I enjoy discovering new ideas, new concepts, new ways to approach beer — all of this has value. As does the chance to be in the room once during the year where the brewers themselves are a) present and b) having a great time seeing old friends, meeting new ones, sharing ideas and getting a bit sideways together.
Cheers, FoBAB. You did it again. You peeled back my growing carapace of beer cynicism and sent me home with some things to think about.
Other FoBAB 2018 Takeaways:
I’ve seen some chatter on how much of a wild-ale fest this has become, so we ran the numbers — FoBAB is historically a majority porter/stout shindig but based on my sorta arbitrary dividing lines, it’s getting pretty damn close to equal representation. The Dark Side represented 58.5% of the submissions, while the wild/fruit/cider options were the other 41.5%. Move some of those specialty/experimental beers over and a couple of the classic beer styles and we might have an even split next year.
Despite perhaps being the most beer-friendly Chicago mayor since William B. Ogden*, Rahm Emanuel was not terribly popular with the crowd at FoBAB. When introduced, a good half the crowd erupted in boos, prompting Begyle’s Kevin Cary to try and to tamp down the response. Given that most of the beers and brewers come from outside our little Chicago bubble, I suppose that’s to be a bit expected, and the dude isn’t running for anything, so he sure didn’t seem to give a shit.
Beer people: You may disagree with the guy on many things — I do too! On plenty of issues! For going on decades now! — but when the mayor of the third largest city in America shows up to your beer fest to try some brews and celebrate, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Even if they did have to push back the awards by an hour to do so.
(In addition to being Chicago’s first mayor, Ogden was part owner of one of the city’s first breweries, Lill & Diversey.)
Beers I loved?
There were more ups than downs this year, thankfully. Most of what I tried was at least interesting, if not fairly successful, and a couple beers had me in “holy shit” territory — those being the Spumoni variant of Hailstorm’s Vlad the Impaler stout and More Brewing’s Strawberry Marbles. The Hailstorm was a tactical nuke of flavor; even in a room where “excess” is key to the experience, the mix of the cherry and the pistachio flavor blew my hair back quite a bit, all on top of a rich, hearty, rock-solid stout base.
The More Brewing beer was almost the opposite — a refreshingly light, relaxed, groovy but still wonderfully flavored strawberries-and-cream beer with all the ripe green berry character that I associate with my much beloved Shortscake. It’s listed as an IPA but that’s news to me; I figured it was a light blonde ale or a cream ale of some sort; as you can see, there was no hop bitterness that my palate associated with this one.
Finally, the last big surprise of the night was the medal-winning Dayton Brewing Diving Sea Salt Stout. I’ve been a little curious/fascinated by the idea of what salt could do for a beer flavor ever since watching an episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix. It’s an ingredient that’s there to draw out flavor … mostly savory, but have you had a salted caramel lately? The beer itself is a milk stout brewed with sea salt and vanilla beans, then aged in a Booker’s Bourbon barrel. The balance of the touch of salt glided right on top of the sweet vanilla lacing buoyed by some nice creaminess from the base beer. Really fun, and I’d say one worth hunting down just for the true uniqueness of it.
I also loved some reliable favorites: Listermann’s vanilla Chickow hasn’t lost a step (even if it didn’t bring home a medal this year) while Lil Beaver’s rye-barrel aged Whole Lotta Wonderful lived up to its previous candy-bar goodness.
No surprise? The Metropolitan Generator doppelbock aged in Four Roses whiskey barrels was wonderfully sweet, clean, crisp and bright. Sometimes the lilly doesn’t need much gilding friends. Less can be more.
Perhaps the biggest winner of the night in terms of elevated profile was lil’ ol Karetas Brewing, which contracts out of Church Street. Often times I forget they exist at all until a see a label come through the TTB every now and then. They took home not one but two medals — both Silver in Strong Dark Beer and Strong Pale Beer. I’d venture that most people in the room had never heard of them, let alone knew that they were a Chicago-area brand. Now at least a few more are aware:
But don’t take my word for it! Here’s some notes from my fellow FoBAB’er and GDB’er, Steve:
Three Floyds Chemtrail Mix, More Mendhi and More Karma: There’s a reason they’re gone in 30 minutes. I missed out on each and kicked myself for not hitting those spots sooner.
Open Outcry’s reputation continues to grow, as their Dark Pool with vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa nibs tapped out early, as well.
Yes, the Goose Island line is long. The tapping of 2018 BCBS Vanilla brought the longest line of the night. But don’t be intimidated. They’re professionals. That line moves fast. And the chance to try the incredibly smooth BCBS Reserve and other variants is worth it. Periodically check in on their Twitter – their smart social media strategy will give you a heads up of what’s up next at their corner booth. [Ed. Note: My thoughts on this year’s variants are here.]
Don’t miss Verboten’s Mountain Man Samoa. The Colorado brewery delivers what is advertised – coconut, chocolate and caramel aged in rum barrels was top notch.
The best beer I had came from suburban breweries. Hailstorm’s Vlad Spumoni was mindblowingly good. From the nose to the taste, it’s all pistachio in a smooth, barrel-aged stout. Extraordinarily well done and multiple friends said it was the hit of the fest for them, as well. It seems odd to say a lactose IPA was a light relief from anything, but More’s Strawberry Marbles was a light lifeboat amid a dark sea of potential trouble. Like a strawberry sorbet in a glass, it joined More’s Villa Pils as our go-to break from the big stuff, earning multiple visits to More’s corner booth. And 18th Street’s Blend – take a milk stout, age it for two years, take a Russian Imperial Stout, age it for two years, then take a barleywine and age that for two years, then blend them all together – showed that innovation doesn’t have to be complicated and still impress.
Downstate breweries again reminded us of all the good that’s happening south of I-80. Two years after Destihl’s Dosvidanya blew my mind, they delivered a Dosvidanya Coconut that was among the best of the night. Also on the downstate coconut front, Lil’ Beaver’s Whole Lotta Wonderful is the liquid Mounds candy bar that I remember. A recent bottle of theirs that I had wasn’t what I recalled, but this version brings everything that put them on my radar in the first place.
The official FoBAB site still didn’t have the awards listed as of press time (nearly a week after the event), but the Guild partnered with the Porch Drinking site to publish the winners which are here.