The hardest thing at a beer festival is to walk away after four hours of tasting and pick your favorites. This year, breweries from around the country brought more than 350 beers to the Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beers, held Friday and Saturday at UIC. Chicago breweries took first place in four of the 12 categories, and Spiteful Brewing nabbed two of the first place spots for their Malevolence Chocolate Caliente and Barley Wine. Among all the offerings, I managed to try about 30, and among those, these are the eight beers that stood out.
Metropolitan Brewing Wooden Dynamo: This Vienna-style lager, aged in a raw American oak barrel, clocks in at 6 percent, only 0.4 percent higher than its non-barrel-aged style. This was the perfect light lager to start out with—it had a similar hop bite to the Dynamo I know and love, but with a woody oak taste that deservedly won the brewery second place in the Classic Beer Style category.
Half Acre Gin Pony: Half Acre took first place in the Classic Beer Style category for its Pony Pilsner aged in Corsair barrel-aged gin barrels. The barrels were first used for spiced rum, then for gin and then housed the Pony Pilsner. The flavor that those barrels impart on an already fantastic pilsner is nothing short of magical.
Goose Island Onsieme-Heure: I only braved the Goose Island line a few times, after being warned of how long it could get, but I’m glad I did. The Onsieme-Heure, an imperial stout aged in pinot noir barrels, was as nice, round and heavy as an imperial stout should be, but the wine barrels added a nice sweetness and depth to the flavor.
Upland Brewing Co. Wet Hop Sour Preserve: I'm a sucker for a good sour, but I tried to restrain myself from having too many too early and completely wrecking my palate before 2pm. But I had to try one from Upland, and I couldn’t resist the Indiana brewery's fantastic reputation. The Wet Hop Sour Preserve, a blend of sour blonde ales aged for eight-plus months in American white oak barrels then wet hopped with Cascade for a month, was sour in the best vinegar way, while the hops added a juicy bite.
Scratch Brewing Company Single Tree Hickory: It goes without saying that you'll try some amazingly weird beers at FoBAB, but this was one of the weirder ones. Scratch is known for its locally sourced and foraged beers and gruit beers (beer without hops), including this sour blonde ale with hickory leaves, nuts and hulls aged in toasted hickory bark barrels. The nose was very unassuming, with a pleasant assault of hickory at first taste—and just like that, it was gone, leaving you wanting more.
New Day Gin Barrel Aged Shelby Blue Ribbon: There's always one beer you're sad to pour out when it's time to try a different one, and this was it for me. The strawberry rhubarb mead, aged in gin barrels, was as interesting as it sounds. The gin barrels make it drier than most meads, but there's still a touch of sweetness from the strawberries and rhubarb.
18th Street Brewery Barrel Aged Hunter: 18th Street's getting a lot of hype in the craft beer community for its Hunter double milk stout, and for good reason—made with cocoa nibs and aged in an Angel's Envy barrel, it's smooth, boozy and chocolatey.
Destihl Brewery Dosvidanya Russian Imperial Stout - Rye Barrel: This beer's sister won best in the Strong Porter/Stout category plus Best in Show, but my FoBAB date will pick anything in a rye barrel over bourbon, so we tried the variation aged in a Few Spirits oak rye whiskey barrel. This was a fantastic Russian-style extra imperial stout, a boozy and tasty choice, even if it didn't win Best in Show.