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Event Recap | 2017 Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beers (FoBAB)

FoBAB Preview
Mike Zoller

As you rub your eyes and nurse that pounding headache, it’s time to reflect on another year of FoBAB. The nation’s largest gathering of barrel-aged beers is always the marquee event to hit Chicago’s beer scene. Once again, FoBAB lived up to the hype by bringing together some of the country’s most sought after beers and putting them under one roof for thousands to enjoy.

From top to bottom, this was one of the more complete FoBAB line-ups in recent years. Yes, you’ll have the whales which I’ll talk about in a bit, but the supporting line-up of beers that filled row after row at the UIC Forum was truly astounding. For a full recap of the award winners click here.

(More: Award-Winning Beers of FoBAB 2017)

For the first time in a few years, the most sought after beer at the event did win Best of Show. From the first pour Friday night, More Brewing’s BA Karma was the talk of the weekend. The beer spent just three months in barrels, but the notes of coconut, cinnamon and chocolate were combined so brilliantly that the beer lasted just 25 minutes during Saturday’s first session.

The brewers from More Brewing were right by the stage for the award ceremony. It’s almost like they knew they would win big this year.

Save the Whales?

Perhaps the biggest debate coming out of the weekend is what to do about the whales – highly sought after beers – at FoBAB. For those who don’t know, the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild offers an IMBIBE membership each year. Those that are members are able to get into FoBAB one hour before the general admission.

That is a huge advantage, as the first hour is significantly less crowded than the ensuing four hours and IMBIBE members essentially can try everything FoBAB has to offer. Sometimes things even run out during this first hour, making it impossible for the general admission session to even try the beers.

What I saw happening a lot this year, was that during the first hour, many of the whales (SPON 17, Medianoche Reserve & Cable Car) all temporarily stopped pouring during that first hour in hopes to give the general admission a chance to try the beer.

In theory it was a great idea, however, the IMBIBE members simply lined up prior to the 1pm return of these beers, essentially making it impossible for the next wave of attendees to get the beer. One thing I noticed was that Medianoche Reserve resumed pouring later into the festival unannounced which made it possible for others to try the beer.

So the debate, which has no easy answer, continues. Do you limit that first hour or let everything flow as is? One argument is that those with an IMBIBE membership pay more, so they should get access to every beer during the first hour. The opposing side counters that things should be more fair and equal for who have to wait for the general admission session.

There’s no right answer. Honestly, no matter what happens, you will never please everyone on this issue.

The Best Thing I Drank

The best part about going to the Saturday morning session is that people who go Friday night let you know what to try. I take all the recommendations and get through those beers early in the festival before branching out and trying all the other beers that are being poured.

Of course, my Twitter feed and inbox were filled with messages telling me to try Medianoche Reserve from Weldwerks and BA Karma from More Brewing.

Right away, I had a hunch that BA Karma would win big, so I was glad that I tried that. The combination of flavors was truly spectacular and the fact that the brewery got that much barrel into the beer in just three months was incredibly well done.

My second favorite beer of the event was from Weldwerks, but it wasn’t Medianoche Reserve. Instead it was their Rum Double Barrel Medianoche. This beer received no love early in the festival, but I found it to be more flavorful and more balanced than Reserve. Double Barrel was aged for 10 months in fresh barrels before being transferred into Dominican rum barrels for another 10 months.

It won a silver medal in the Strong Porter/Stout category, but easily could have won gold. Medianoche Reserve didn’t win anything. And before you say it’s easy to praise this beer now after it won, take a look at the tweet below. It went out two hours before the awards were announced. Ok, I’ll get off my high horse.

There were several other beers that I thought were incredible that didn’t win any medals. Those beers included:

Goose Island Wins the “Longest Line” Award Again

This year in hopes to create a better flow to the event, the floorplan had Goose Island in a new corner. While it did help create better flow into the sour room, the line followed Goose’s wooden hut – it doesn’t matter where you put it.

Each year Goose Island releases some, if not all, of it’s Bourbon County Stout line-up during FoBAB. Like in previous years, the releases were spread out throughout each session. 2017 Original BCBS was released first and drew quite a line. It wasn’t until 3pm, when 2017 Prop and Double Barrel BCBS were released that a truly behemoth line formed. I’m pretty sure there are people still waiting in line now.

2017 Prop continues to be my favorite of the entire line-up this year. It’s been nearly a month since I last had Prop and the beer has actually gotten better. The banana flavor is developing to greater depth and the cinnamon is becoming more of a presence at the end of the taste. This Prop is quickly giving 2014 a run for its money as the best Prop ever made.

I was curious about Double Barrel. At over 17% ABV I wasn’t expecting to like it and thought it had the gimmick appeal of a Utopias. I’ll actually say, that I enjoyed Double Barrel a lot more than I thought. Despite its high ABV, it was very well balanced and full of bourbon notes. Unsurprisingly, the notes you find in Original BCBS are pretty diluted as bourbon and barrel steal the show. I wouldn’t need a full glass of this variant, but Goose is onto something here. Will Double Barrel be a featured variant next year?

(More: Award-Winning Beers of FoBAB 2017)

Time for a Venue Change?

FoBAB gets crowded. Like really, really crowded. But despite being so crowded no beer really has a long line (except the whales). It’s a crazy experience where getting from beer to beer is tough, but once you get to where you want to go it’s surprisingly easy to get a pour.

The UIC Forum seems to be able to handle about as many people as it possibly can during each session of FoBAB. It’s time to figure out if moving FoBAB makes sense.

On the surface, the answer is yes. Move it to a bigger space and make it more spacious for people to move around. But let’s actually look into a potential venue change a little deeper.

Where would it go? November in Chicago is conference-central. So many organizations from all over the world come to Chicago to host their conferences, so venue space is at a premium. You just can’t go to a new place and assume it’s open. These conferences book for years in advance and typically rebook each year. So the odds of McCormick Place just being open are not as simple as it sounds. In 2018, it’s already booked throughout the month of November. Also, McCormick Place would probably be way too big anyways… but that’s the venue that always gets thrown around when this subject comes up.

A bigger venue means a bigger cost. FoBAB brings in a significant portion of the Guild’s annual revenue. In order to move into a bigger space, it would most likely cost a lot more money. How would you make up for the increase in cost? You’d sell more tickets. Now you have more people in a bigger space and the same issues would occur.

The Great American Beer Festival takes place in a location 10 times the size of the Forum, and it’s still incredibly crowded. Like the issue of what to do with the popular beers, there might not be a good answer here.

We’ll let the Guild figure that one out.

When you have an event as popular and sought after as FoBAB there will always be some issues. But considering how many moving parts go into a festival the size of FoBAB it truly is a premier gathering spot for the country’s biggest beer enthusiasts and will continue to grow as the craft beer industry expands.

What were some of your favorite beers from this year’s event? Comment below.



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