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Event Recap | Illinois Winter Wonderland of Beer (#ILWinterFest)


The mighty rodent and his all-powerful shadow cannot defeat the mighty force that is the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. On February 18, the temperature soared to 70 degrees as beer fans flocked to the Guild’s Winter Wonderland of Beer Festival (#ILWinterFest). Then again, in a winter where Chicagoans haven’t seen more than 1″ of snow since mid-December, maybe this is six more weeks of winter, 2017! Out with Chiberia, in with Chindiago!

It doesn’t matter. Warm, cold, rain or snow — the beer emerging from Illinois’ breweries are versatile and can handle anything Mother Nature unleashes.More than 60 breweries, each pouring two or three selections, populated two tents next to Hofbräuhaus Chicago (which offered guests plenty of brats and pretzels for a few bucks). Throw in a bit of music and an excellent location, and it was a largely a successful festival.

Here are a few notes from #IlWinterFest – Winter Wonderland of Beer:

Location, Location, Location

Obviously, there’s no dismissing the profound effect May-like weather had on the throngs of festival-goers. Nevertheless, MB Financial Park in Rosemont (Chicago), Illinois proved worthy of consideration for hosting future festivals. Lining the tents were restaurants, bars, an ice rink — albeit full of puddles and plenty of room to roam. A few highlights include:

  • Hofbräuhaus Chicago: The tents were planted right in the front yard of this homage to Munich. Hofbräuhaus screams tradition and instills a bier-hall mentality — quite the mood setter.
  • Easy access, validated (free) parking: A parking garage right next to a place where the parking is free — that’s well planned!
  • Spacious tents: Granted, the weather allowed for less crowding, but elbow-bumping wasn’t even remotely an issue.
  • Airport access: Sure, it may be a longshot, but being that close to O’Hare International Airport… who knows? Maybe, one day, people will fly into Chicago and pop on over to the fest.

The #ILWinterFest Tasting Experience

The Good: No cheap plastic cups here (an understandable norm at most fests). The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild provided high-quality tasting glasses (they almost seemed like actual glass) that resisted cracking and they didn’t alter the taste of the beer.

The Bad: A minor issue, but there were far too few water tanks with which to rinse the tasting glasses. There’s nothing worse than having to choose between walking the length of the tent to rinse, or infuse one’s saison with a coffee stout from the previous booth’s tasting selection.

Illinois Beer Has Arrived

As if the 10 GABF medals didn’t already make this clear, Illinois breweries no longer play second fiddle to places like Colorado, San Diego or even Michigan.

The beer flowing was outstanding on this day.

Defining Illinois Beer is a daunting task because of the variety of beers emerging from one shiny vat to the next: English ales and wee heavys, lambics and farmhouses, barrels of all types, stouts and brown ales, pils and hefeweizens, tripels and biere de gardes. Maybe, what defines Illinois Beer is its inability to be defined — Illinois Craft Breweries ostensibly exist as one colossal beer flight.

I love a good beer flight. Don’t you?

Size Doesn’t Matter

Outside of the presence of Hofbräuhaus, #ILWinterFest played no favorites. It didn’t matter if a booth was populated by names such as Goose Island and Revolution, or Vice District and Church Street. Festivals like this one are the great equalizer.

It’s one of the few places that a beer drinker can forget about the stigma of drinking “big beer,” or worry about drinking beer they’ve never tried before. The money is already paid once one enters the tent. So, it behooved beer drinkers to rely on an old fashioned way of judging beer — tasting it.

The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild is Headed in the Right Direction

There was a time when it was commonplace for an interview to include a distributor or brewer grumbling about the Guild. And, I freely admit that I have often been equally frustrated with the Guild I so openly root for, notably when comparing notes with writers from across the country  – no one loves my local beer more than I do. I do go by the name, “Pint of Chicago,” after all. My bias is noted.

But recently, things have changed considerably.

Granted, some of the bigger names in brewing are still not a part of the Guild. However, for those in place, many have remarked on the optimism surrounding the Guild’s new leadership, Danielle D’Alessandro, the recently hired executive director of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. To borrow from my preview piece about this event, I asked D’Alessandro about her first six months on the job. She responded:

I LOVE IT. I have the opportunity every day, with my talented Associate Director Katie Long, to promote craft breweries throughout the state and strategize creative ways to grow the industry. Craft beer is a significant driver of economic growth as we look at the number of direct and indirect jobs, taxes (i.e. excise, sales, and property taxes), and the tourism and hospitality impact on local communities. We want to continue to encourage the state and local municipalities to create policies and regulations that allow our craft breweries the opportunity to flourish … and make more great tasting beer!

Hey, you can’t spell Alessandro without “Ale,” so it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t love — and excel — at her job. She, along with her associate Katie, have put the train back on the tracks.

I find myself both relieved and full of renewed enthusiasm for my home state’s brewing guild. And #ILWinterFest only provided more hope. From the logistics to the venue, to the setup and social media coverage, The Winter Wonderland of Beer festival ran smooth as silk. My hope is restored. I can only hope the brewers feel the same way.

Mind That Bladder

One thing the Guild needs to address is something that can’t be taken lightly — lots of beer creates lots of peeing. A smattering of port o’ potties just will not do.

I realize that requires expense, and most festival goers are used to standing in line at events, but standing in line means not drinking beer. The whole point of the event is to allow brewers an opportunity to impress beer drinkers, and allow said beer drinkers to fall in love with Illinois Beer. That’s hard to do while staring at a port o’ potty. This was also a problem at FoBAB, so it would behoove the Guild to seriously consider better bathroom facilities.

Worse, if had been cold… you know, like it normally is in winter, it could have been incredibly uncomfortable, if not dangerous.

#ILWinterFest Final Notes

The worst part about any large fest is that with more than 120 beers available for three hours, it’s impossible to try them all. Heck, even trying every brewery would be an incredible challenge — and not a smart one to accept. It always pains me to leave and realize how many beers I did not try.

And, isn’t that great? So many beers, there’s not enough time — or liver — to enjoy them all. That just means we have to head to the taprooms, buy the bottles, and…

… wait for tickets for Beer Under Glass (or BUG) during Chicago Craft Beer Week (#CCBW).

I wonder if it will be as warm in May as it was in February?

Beer Under Glass
Beer Under Glass (BUG) 2016

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