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Staff Picks | The Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer’s (FoBAB) Best of the Best

Staff Picks | The Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer’s (FoBAB) Best of the Best
Mike Zoller

Once again the UIC Forum was packed with breweries from all over the country pouring some of their best barrel-aged beers at this weekend’s Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers. In 17th annual showcase of country’s elite barrel-aged beers, Bottle Logic repeated in taking home Best-in-Show honors for Arcane Ritual.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

The 2019 edition of FoBAB also marked the first time since 2011, that no Stout was named as one of the top two beers at the event. Behind Bottle Logic’s aforementioned Arcane Rituals Barleywine stood The Lost Abbey’s Peach Afternoon Sour, which came in as runner up.

Other themes across the winners included vanilla being a preferred flavor by the judges and rye barrels shining through in both Cerebral Brewing and Crystal Lake Brewing’s medal winners.

Medals and judging aside, the PorchDrinking team was also in attendance combing the field for their favorites and here’s how they broke down.

Mathew Powers (PorchDrinking National Content Editor)

From award winners to mega-hype beers, FoBAB offers a ton of must-haves. But, sometimes it’s good to do a little hunting and find a few beers that stood out, even if I was first in line to try it. 

Marz Cosmos Flux

Wine ale fermented on pineapples in wine casks with Brett.

Though one wouldn’t find this beer in the Oasis Station, the super-refreshing, clean, and light-on-the-tongue nature of Cosmos Flux sure provided a tropical-cocktail type of refresher. Cosmos Flux demonstrates how one can enjoy all the benefits of mixology, brewology, and alchemy in one FoBAB beer. The barrel character plus plenty of pineapple flavor made for one memorable combination. 

Metal Monkey Barrel-Aged Asmodeus with Ghost Pepper Maple Syrup  

Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels with a post-fermentation addition of ghost pepper maple syrup. 

I wanted to include this one for a couple of reasons. First, I desired to note the vast improvement of pepper incorporation in beers these days. Everything from Mexican Chocolate to spicy chili peppers often used to appear more gimmicky than anything else, but Metal Monkey demonstrated how a little finesse goes a long way in brewing. The pepper-syrup provided a nice subtle afterburn — nothing over the top — that I appreciated. Second, the adjunct here may make ruffle a few feathers when reading any FoBAB-best list, but BA variants exist as a considerable part of barrel-aging, and it should be noted when one is successful as it was with Asmodeus. 

Upland Brewing Oak Timbre

Blonde sour aged on Chambourcin grapes and then transferred to new fresh oak wine barrels for a secondary aging process Fermented with Brett and other souring microorganisms.

The Ruby Red beer offers an abundance of barrel character — it is the Festival of WOOD and Barrel-Aged Beer, after all. So, if you like oak tannins, find some Upland Oak Timbre. Far from a one-note beer, though; there’s also plenty of fruit character, and it finishes dry with a nice sour bite. 

Taylor Laabs (National Trends Editor)

Best in Show: While medal-winning Lost Abbey’s Peach Afternoon and Bottle Logic’s Arcane Rituals were immense and two of my standouts for the day as well, the beauty of FOBAB is in how many under-the-radar beers you can find that are simply excellent. The intensity of fruit flavors found in Confluence Brewing’s Mango Dodger and SourSmith’s Red Raspberry Sour illustrate that. The Rare Barrel’s Flower to Flower Wild Ale was the most interesting beer I sampled all day. One hype line that was worth waiting for? Phase Three’s latest Curvature variant delivered huge hits of vanilla with a smooth finish. 

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Gin Gin Gin: With so many barrel types highlighted at FOBAB, I found myself seeking out the beers aged not in whiskey, oak, or bourbon barrels, but gin. For some reason, the botanical essence picked up in beers aged in gin barrels delivers outstanding flavor combos for me that can go from sweet, to flowerly, to sharp and bitter. A few of my gin-forward favorites include: Mad Tree’s Joon with Chamomile and Elderflower, which is a gin barrel-aged German Kölsch style beer, Off Color Brewing’s Chicago Craft Gin Week is a Real Thing, and Smylie Brother’s Gin Barrel Farmhouse Ale

Don’t Sleep on the Sour Room – or the Cider Section: My love of FOBAB’s sour and wild ale room is now going on two years strong. While the lines for tastes of the heavier stouts and barleywines can take minutes, getting a quick pour from some of America’s best sour and cider makers takes seconds. One area I found myself spending more time in was in the ever-growing cider and mead row. A standout for me here due its decadent display of flavors was Misbeehavin’ Meads’ Same Old Jam Oak-Aged Raspberry, Mashmallow, and Coconut. Are pastry meads a thing? 

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Mike Zoller (Midwest Editor)

Maplewood Shines: Yes Barrel-Aged Cuppa kicked and rightfully so. They brought the version with cinnamon and coconut and it was a flavor blast. The thick beer started with big cinnamon notes before transitioning into the toasted coconut with the barrel present throughout. But it was their wild sour beer with fruit, Cherry Nelson that I thought was one of the best things I had at the event. A blend of cherry and peach foeder beers perfectly blended to have a ton of flavor and tartness. It might be on tap at the brewery soon – get it.

Hop Butcher is more than haze: Seemingly every week people are chasing after the latest hazy beer from the incredibly popular brewery, however, Piggy Back Rye’d in the Specialty Strong Porter/Stout category was excellent. An Imperial Stout aged in rye whiskey barrels conditioned on vanilla beans featured spice from the barrels and great vanilla flavors that cut the heat so well. This one was deserving of a medal for sure.

Explore, Explore, Explore: It’s so easy to get drawn into the hyped beers. Of course you want to have a plan and should go after a few beers you absolutely must-have. Those this year for me included BA Curvature from Phase Three and Double Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche from WeldWerks. But my favorite part about FoBAB is walking down an aisle, finding a brewery I’ve never heard of before or never had before and getting a pour. I had never heard of The Explorium Brewpub in Wisconsin before but I tried their Milwaukee County Stout. It wasn’t the best thing I had at FoBAB, but it was solid and I hope they’ll be back next year.

Tristan Chan (Founder)

For many years, FoBAB has sat atop my beer bucket list as one of the must-attend beer festivals in the country. And this year’s pilgrimage to the Windy City did not disappoint. While many of the country’s premier festivals have naturally skewed towards rare barrel-aged offerings over the past few years, FoBAB’s structure of featuring 12 unique style categories within the barrel-aged umbrella has helped to diversify the field from carbon copy entries of the same variety. With over 220 breweries in participation and 412 barrel-aged beers on display, the most impressive feat accomplished was the caliber of talent on display from beginning to end.

Yet still there were a select few that stood taller among the rest.

Personal Best in Show

My best in show award goes to a hometown surprise in Maplewood Brewery’s Cuppa Barrel-Aged Cinnamon Coconut. Perhaps the most balanced of all the barrel-aged adjunct Stouts on display, this coconut forward gem blended seamlessly with its cinnamon profile for a beautiful harmonious spicey-sweet profile. My only regret of the weekend was not attending the can release prior to attending the fest.

Vanilla Rules the Day

Admittedly, I too have fallen victim to the pastry craze that has hit craft beer in recent years, however the biggest surprise of the evening was that while I typically gravitate more toward coconut bombs as evidenced by my best-in-show pick, my next three standouts were all vanilla-forward adjunct beers.

While I’m a bit biased by Cerebral Brewing’s Denver roots, their Vanilla Here Be Monsters certainly lived up to all the hype, and the judges thought so too. One of the quickest to depart during the second session of FoBAB Vanilla Here Be Monsters showcases a restrained balance of its rye whiskey barrel backbone accented by the use of Tahitian Ugandan and Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans. Equally as impressive was Half Acre’s Vanilla Benthic. Sure my preferences shine through in that this barrel-aged Stout employs a blend of both vanilla and toasted coconut, but what truly makes this beer special is the complexity of its blend involving Elijah Craig, Willett and Four Roses bourbon barrels. Finally, while we noted Pure Project’s Corylus w/ Vanilla during our GABF recap, it’s proficiency bears repeating. Showcasing brilliant vanilla forward flavors, Corylus get restrained sweetness from the vanilla and hazelnut but it’s also muted by the use of coffee and cacao.

The Newcomers

One of my favorite aspects of the weekend was being able to discover a handful of rising breweries that I hadn’t been exposed to. Of those newer discoveries, Lil Beaver Brewery in Bloomington, IL surprised in a big way with CCM, their Whiskey Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout with Cinnamon, Guatemalan Coffe and Marshmallows. Other surprises included Arizona’s OHSO Brewery’s – Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cake Eater, a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout with real pecans, toasted coconut and cacao, and Miskatonic Brewing’s – Black Walnut and Maple Bell Witch infused with black walnuts and maple.

Other Standouts

While Mike already mentioned them above, Hop Butcher for the World’s Piggy Back Rye’d was an absolute revelation. And Transient Artisan Ales continues to hold the title of the most underrated barrel-aged Stout producing brewery as evidenced by their Buckley Reserve #2.

Sour / Wild

One of our biggest finds during GABF was Two Roads Brewing’s sour and wild off-shoot, Area Two Experimental Brewing, at FoBAB we were eager to revisit the fledgling young spin-off for more and they did not disappoint. Their Rumbb, a rum barrel-aged Gose with passionfruit was my standout of the category alongside the Lost Abbey‘s aforementioned Peach Afternoon Sour. Those two were closely followed by two breweries who have consistently wowed me throughout the past year in Atlanta’s Orpheus Brewing who produced a beautiful Method Traditionelle spontaneous coolship beer called All That’s Lost, and Rowley Farmhouse Ale who offered up Cote D’ore Redux a stunning display of cherries aged in Pinot Noir Wine Barrels. And finally, my big surprise within the category was New Image Brewing’s Asian Pear, Palisade Peach, Mirabelle Plum Maceration which was aged in chardonnay casks. While there’s clearly a lot going on there, New Image does a spectacular job o juggling flavor profiles for a tremendous orchestra of dry fruit flavors.

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