What happens when you throw a bunch of beer nerds in an elevator together?
There are these enormous freight elevators in the Bridgeport Art Center where the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (FoBAB) 2012 was held. At least 20 people were packed in all at once, riding in complete silent excitement as we crawled towards the top. Once we finally reached the Skyline Loft at and the doors lifted open, the silence was broken as everyone charged towards liquid victory.
For those who don't know, FoBAB is put on once a year by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. Breweries from all over the nation come to Chicago to strut their stuff. They use Oak barrels, Cedar barrels, Wine barrels, Bourbon barrels, Whiskey barrels and whatever else the brewers can get their hands on. This year marked FoBAB's tenth, and my first.
There was literally beer everywhere – left, right, back, front, up and down. The booths were separated into categories, of which there were ten: Classic Porter/Stout; Strong Porter/Stout; Barlerywine/Wheatwine; Classic Styles; Strong/Double/Imperial Pale; Strong/Double/Imperial Dark; Fruit Beer; Experimental Beer; Wild Beer and Wild Acidic Beer. With so much deliciousness within reach, it was difficult to figure out where to start (and where to end).
How did this little FoBAB first timer do? I came. I drank. I conquered.
No, really. I drank a lot of beer – a lot of really strong beer. And I'd like to think I handled myself rather professionally. The volume of my voice went up a few decibels and my overall enthusiasm at times reached an uncomfortable level. But when it comes down to it, I conquered pretty hard.
I was there on behalf of the brewpub I’ve called home (and work) for over a year – Goose Island Clybourn. I was overjoyed when Jared Rouben, whom I consider not only Clybourn’s brew master but a mentor as well, invited me to tag along. I must admit, however, that the days leading up to the festival were bitter sweet.
The Thursday before FoBAB, it was announced that John Hall, who started Goose Island at the Clybourn location in 1988, was stepping down as CEO. I owe my love of beer and the majority of my knowledge to John, Jared and Goose Island as a whole, so I absorbed this news with a heavy heart. It also raised some questions for my first FoBAB experience. Would it be a never ending train of questions? Would it impact how the other breweries saw us?
My anxieties were unnecessary. The kindness and respect that surrounds the craft brew world will never cease to amaze me. Toasts were exchanged, high fives were given, merriment was had and everyone was hell-bent on making my first FoBAB experience an amazing one – and they succeeded. I discovered a plethora of great beer and met just as many amazing people. Over all, the experience made me even more proud to be involved in the craft beer industry.
Between both brewpubs and the beer company, Goose Island made J. Hall proud by bringing home seven medals, including Best in Show for Cherry Rye Bourbon County Stout. California brewery The Lost Abbey was another big winner and Chicago’s own Haymarket Pub and Brewery won for two of the four beers they entered.
Besides the medal winners, I of course picked a few of my personal favorites as I made my rounds. Here are my top five favorite brews from FoBAB, as well as a few honorable mentions. The majority of these beers are super small batch, rare brews -- but keep an eye out and you may be able to find some on tap or in bottle!
A FoBAB Rookie's Top 5:
5. Atlas Brewing Company Chicago, IL – Oak Aged Monadnock Rye – Hints of vanilla compliment the spicy brown rye, while subtle fruit notes round out the beer to create a winning combination. Third place: Classic Styles
4. Cigar City Brewing Tampa, FL – Humidor IPA – An American IPA aged on Spanish cedar. Spanish cedar adds a wonderful aroma of white pepper along with a lingering intensity of oily, residual fresh pepper flavor. First place: Strong/Double/Imperial Pale
3. Pipeworks Brewing Company Chicago, IL – Oak Aged Cherry Abduction – This Imperial Stout aged on fresh oak with pureed cherries offered an amazing dark sweetness. The vanilla flavor at the front was charming, while the bourbon and cherry added a tart zing to the taste buds at the end.
2. Goose Island – Clybourn Brewpub Chicago, IL –Thanksgiving – This was a black saison with tart cranberries aged in Cabernet wine barrels. The slight roast of the dark saison and the tartness of the cranberry were enough to tone down the acidity of the wine barrels.
1. Perennial Artisan Ales St. Louis, MO – Barrel Aged Abraxas – This imperial stout was aged in Rittenhouse Rye barrels, which only fuels the baking spice flavor initially created by cinnamon, vanilla and cacao nibs. The incoming of ancho chiles at the finish cuts the deep sweetness of the beer. Second Place: Experimental Beer
For a full list of medal winners at FoBAB 2012, click here.