Chicago's Festival of Barrel Aged Beers — A Paradigm Shift in the Dark Arts of Barrel Aging

by Michael Kiser

Every year, for the last ten years, craft beer geeks in Chicago have gathered for The Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers, an event shrouded in the mystery and magic of one of brewing's most alchemic of processes — barrel aging. But what festival goers from the region witnessed this past weekend was less of a "10th annual" and more of a paradigm shift from FoBAB's humble beginnings. Because as the craft beer industry captures more and more of the mainstream audience's imagination, the larger, more dynamic and challenging the event will become for everyone involved. And I can't wait to see the shift continue. 

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FoBAB started in the garage behind Goose Island Wrigleyville where a small but dedicated group of Chicago's beer bannermen would gather once a year to share their experiments. Goose Island being the nation's foremost barrel aging program played host to the very concept of barrel aged beers for most participants. Now in its tenth year, the number of entrants has soared, creating nearly a dozen categories and sixty breweries from around the country, each schlepping their wilds, sours, stouts and porters to Chicago as an offering to critical audiences. 

This year marked a significant change in venue for the festival. From the tiny garage at Goose Wrigleyville, to the Pipeworkers Union in the West Loop, and now to the far South Side and the Bridgeport Art Center, the festival's largest and most attractive site to-date. Tables lined the walls of the 18,000 sq feet Skyline Loft overlooking the Bridgeport neighborhood with views onto downtown. Making use of the main floors (leaving plenty of room to expand in the future), beers were organized according to styles, making it easy to compare competitors, but nearly impossible to tear yourself away from any one category. One could easily spend the day tasting just the sours, or lose oneself in the "experimentals." But anyone who comes to FoBAB has typically built up an incredible amount of willpower, and crafted a game plan. So while some areas developed eddys of blown minds, the most experienced of drinkers swam like sharks across the floor, never standing still for too long, and always sizing up the next pour based on whispers that passed between the crowds like currents carrying the scent of fresh chum.

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This year also marked the most new Chicago entrants. Expanding the field were breweries such as Solemn Oath in Naperville, a small team that began their barrel program on day one. In just 7 short months, Tim Marshall, John and Joe Barley, and Paul Schneider developed three recipes for FOBAB and took home medals for two of them, including Radth and Ultramegahighfrequency. No stranger to FoBAB, Marshall has plenty of hardware from his previous entries under the Rock Bottom label, where brewers like himself and Pete Crowley (host of the festival) made a name for the restaurant chain. Atlas Brewing, who opened their doors this summer, entered their Oak-Aged Monadnock Rye Ale and took home a bronze. A notable last-minute entry was Spiteful Brewing, pouring their first official beer after passing licensing just a couple of short months ago. All this to say, that when new breweries break ground in Chicago, they're also looking to break into barrels, and that spells trouble for the barrel-aging elite. It used to be that a new brewery was concerned enough about nailing an IPA recipe to go to market. But many of these up-and-comers were doing that in their college dorm rooms and kitchens before ever conceiving of a brewery.

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Despite the heavy competition from upstarts, the team from Goose Island maintained an incredibly dominant lead. I mean, it's like they're running a different race altogether. They showed that they can brew Bourbon County Stout, mix it with just about anything, pour it into whatever barrel they want, and still pump out a winner. Seemingly trying to upend their own boredom with success, they poured a truly unique offering for anyone wiling to wait in line (which was everyone by my count) — four separate pours of BCS, each aged in a different barrel, handed over in a stave from the barrels themselves. There was something beautifully grotesque about the whole thing, like the way Melville describes the infinite uses of a whale in Moby Dick as almost canabalistic, using the light from their oil in lamps to light the room within which their flesh was consumed and their bones used as needles to mend clothing by night. Barrels from Koval, wine, and Buffalo Trace represented the cycle of BCS life. And one pour, called Low Storage (from barrels kept low to the floor), served as the base for comparison.  

And those weren't even contestants. Those were just for the absurdity of what BCS has become — the benchmark that all others will be compared to in my lifetime. Taking home the Best of Show was Goose Island's Cherry Rye Bourbon County Stout. With a super sweet base of BCS, the tartness of the cherry and a bit of spice on the rye, this one owned most palates. Anyone who tried the brew on the back of another stout or porter pointed out the incredible subtly and delicateness of the flavors, while those who came from the others side featuring IPAs and other dry fruit concoctions, were generally overwhelmed by the sweetness, showing the importance of style-to-style comparisons. How someone judges the experimentals category, I'll never know. 

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Which brings me to the final element of paradigm shift in FoBAB this year. Apart from the growing size and location shift, and the intense competition coming from new breweries fresh out of the gate, there is the influence of a more diverse crowd of festival goes to consider. It's one thing for a new craft beer convert to show up at a Hoptacular or any of the innumerable seasonal beer festivals and find their respective ways. Often, these young bloods follow a friend who can show them the ropes, explain styles and offer direction on how to build up to more intense beers throughout a day of drinking. But FoBAB? This is enough to upend even the most seasoned of craft drinkers. Things happen in barrels, and not all of them can be well-tracked or prepared for. In fact, some offerings aren't even tasted by the breweries until it's time to crack the seal on their experiment day-of. This creates an opportunity for some unique way-finding for all audiences. 

Since most of the tables are manned by volunteers doing the actual pouring, that leaves most of the brewers free to roam, taste and chat with the audience, and they greatly value the freedom they get, and the interactions this supports. But it also eliminates the connection between drinker and brewer for anyone that doesn't know who's who. Now, I wouldn't want to eliminate the incredible efficiency that's been achieved by the festival of late — it's an impressive, precision operation. But as more and more eager novices attend such events, I'd love to seize the moment and introduce them to what it is they're actually drinking. Perhaps some brief 30 minute sessions off to the side (there's plenty of space in adjoining rooms) where short introductions could be made by breweries, especially those that have travelled far to attend. A quick backstory on their business would be fascinating for everyone. Or a barrel-aging 101 that introduces mainstream audiences to the beautiful mysteries of the dark art. Even a simple history of the festival itself would help newcomers understand their experience in more context, and further engage them in the proud Chicago beer history they're now a part of. And with the talent pool Chicago has, and the beer education backgrounds, there's no doubt this could quickly become a serious attraction for the event (not that getting more people in the door is a problem — this thing sold out in about 14 minutes).

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As FoBAB embraces it's 10th anniversary, and captures the minds and hearts of the larger Chicagoland populace, I'm proud to see its story unfold alongside our nation's history with craft beer, and the future of the industry. It serves as a barometer for the industry's health, and innovative spirit. And like any living thing, the more it changes, and the more it diversifies, the stronger and more relevant it becomes. 

For a complete list of winners, head over to Matt Arata's Beer Download