Half Acre’s Far and Away Invitational breathed a bit of life back into Chicago’s otherwise stale beer festival calendar this weekend.
Chicago can claim more than a few fun annual events and one world class barrel-aged beer festival, but for the most part, the tentpole gatherings have a heritage that stretches back a decade or more. So when Half Acre announced plans to host an invitational festival with a drop-the-mic lineup of brewers, I had a hunch we were looking at something really special.
The Half Acre team confirmed my beliefs this Saturday afternoon and evening with a lights-out array of some of the best breweries in the nation, pouring nothing but their finest beers for a crowd of very appreciative beer fans. At a couple points during the afternoon I was asked “what has your favorite beer been so far” and rather than recount basically everything I’d sampled up until that point, I remarked that it’d be easier to list the beers I hadn’t liked — because there were none.
Starting with an easily-accessible downtown location, Far and Away gave beer fans a wonderful place to indulge. The weather cooperated as well as you could ask for in mid-October in Chicago and while the layout favored the breweries on the outer ring (I was a half-hour into the fest when I realized there were breweries pouring at the center as well; that’s what I get for not bothering to look at the map) everyone kept moving and very few lines lasted more than a few minutes.
I dug that every brewery got a cool carved wooden sign from the Half Acre Build Co. which helped tie together the feel of everyone being here for a reason — that reason being that Half Acre wanted them there. Bringing in brewers from out of town that never distribute here is a legit pain in the ass — a fact we learned during the years we held our South of 80 event — so the array of beers from both coasts and all points between is an indulgence that isn’t lost on me.
No doubt, nearly $90 for a ticket is a steep price — Far and Away’s first outing was more expensive than a FoBAB pass or a GABF session ticket, for example — but nothing’s worth more to beer fans than being able to get something that they couldn’t have otherwise. A few of these brewers are regularly available in Chicago — this may have been the first fest I’ve been to where Three Floyds was almost an afterthought — but most were in town just for the weekend, and having them pouring in Chicago’s Front Yard is a rare privilege. That’s definitely a value that you don’t get at things like FoBAB or Beer Under Glass.
It was also wonderful to be at a festival where the quality:dollar ratio was skewed to the “ridiculously favorable” side. At the festivals I just mentioned you’re probably going to taste a lot of average beer. The brewers at F&A, clearly out to impress, all brought out some heavy hitters and I didn’t find a dud in the bunch. The list skewed heavy on strong stouts and big sours, hefty hazy IPAs and non-hazy IPAs (and a smattering of pilsners just for variety). The relatively limited number of breweries meant that you had a chance at trying something from nearly everyone, as opposed to the fests where you’re only going to get to try a slice of the pie.
Far and Away wasn’t trying to be the biggest festival. It wasn’t trying to be the craziest, most extreme festival. It was meant to be a nice day in downtown Chicago having beers with friends. It just so happens that many of those friends make some of the most sought-after beers in the nation.
Also: I’m so glad to take home a glass that isn’t a tiny little 2oz. taster pour. Thanks for the rad highball glass, Half Acre. This one’s going to get regular usage at home.
Far and Away Highlights:
Other than pretty much everything, you mean? Here’s some of the beers that I really loved and was glad to have available:
Green Cheek‘s West Coast IPA is Dead was one of the first beers I tried and the aroma was just massive — a wonderful beer that took Bronze in the IPA category at this year’s GABF.
Just steps from Green Cheek was Alvarado Street who came heavy with some 2018 GABF medals of their own — the Mai Tai IPA was fun but their Contains No Juice hazy DIPA was the business.
Do you think an imperial stout collaboration between Colorado darling WeldWerks and Chicago darling Mikerphone was probably pretty good? Yeah, that Sweet Disposition was pretty damn good. Silky smooth, super rich and sweet.
Though lines for Monkish and Side Project dominated much of the festival, if you checked out some of the more “sleeper” selections you weren’t going to be disappointed either. Columbus Brewing has been making great beer for years (we loved their flagship IPA enough to mention it on our first trip to Cleveland) and their Bodhi DIPA was no exception. Bright, fairly lightbodied for easy drinking and refreshing for a hefty beer.
A collaboration between Jester King + Scratch Brewing is almost guaranteed to top my must-have list and their spontaneously-fermented Abscission was as wonderfully fun and complex as I wanted it to be. I made a point to try the 100% spontaneously fermented Tender Buttons from New Jersey’s The Referend Bier Blendery which was also rich, fruity, tart and funky. I’m pretty sure I really liked Fonta Flora‘s Scuppadine wild ale too. That was a late pour for me and my palate was a bit … spent, shall we say, so here’s a pretty picture of their pour setup:
I always make it a point to track down the real outliers at a fest and Superstition Meadery sure counts as a weirdo at a beer fest. That said, both of the options I tried were choice; the bourbon-barrel aged Amante with coffee, cinnamon, hatch chiles and cacao was like no other mead I’ve ever tried (and the all-berries Cherion was delightful as well).
Were there pastry stouts there? Oh, yes, there were — and I can appreciate a well-crafted one. The Rice Proxi Treats, a collab between Other Half and Angry Chair with toasted rice, marshmallow and cacao lived up to the rice krispie promise. Cinnamon was a big flavor on Saturday — the Vanilla Sunday Brunch from Kane Brewing (whose beers I discovered at this year’s GABF just weeks prior) was very lightbodied for an imperial porter with vanilla, coffee cinnamon, maple syrup. Very well balanced, very tasty.
Wiseacre‘s Astronaut Status was also delicious, barrel-aged in Woodford Reserve oak with cinnamon and vanilla. Fremont Brewing’s Rusty Nail promised cinnamon and licorice and followed through on the cinnamon part mostly, which is good for them because I don’t love licorice in my beers. (Their fresh-hopped offering was also pretty delicious.) Finally, Jackie O’s Oil of Aphrodite felt old-school for just being aged in apple brandy barrels and brewed with walnuts. No cake! Shocking.
Even the stuff that could be considered more mainstream was great — TRVE’s mixed culture pale ale took a style that is usually pretty middle of the road and added layers of depth and complexity that was noticeable even after a couple hours of sampling. Similarly, Burial‘s fresh-hop pilsner allowed a ribbon of bright dank hop flavor to really sing through in a way that I didn’t get from basically anything else on hand all day.
So, yeah, Far and Away was fun. More than just being fun, though, it felt important. I felt like I walked away having learned something new about beers from around the nation and lucky to have done so. That’s a thing that you can rarely say for a beer festival these days.
Thanks for bringing us out, Half Acre. See you next year for sure. We hope.