This year's Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers brought more than 400 beers and ciders, all aged in everything from chardonnay to bourbon barrels, to the UIC forum for three four hour-long sessions filled with beer after beer. Somehow this year's festival didn't feel nearly as crowded as last year (or are we dreaming?).
Illinois breweries took home first place in seven of the 12 categories, including wins for Chicago-area breweries 5 Rabbit, Pipeworks and Horse Thief Hollow. We tried nine of the winning beers in first through third place and countless other samples along the way. It's hard to narrow down what some of our favorites were, but we tried a large portion of the specialty/experimental category, the cider/mead/perry category, wild beer/sours with fruit (acidic) category and the specialty strong porter/stout category. Here are four beers we truly enjoyed:
Metropolitan Brewing's Rocks in my Mouth: One of the reasons we headed toward the specialty and experimental section at the beginning of the fest was—beyond having truly the most bizarre beers in the room—not everything was a 28 percent ABV monster (here's looking at you, Sam Adams Cherry Utopias). One of those is Metropolitan's Rocks in my Mouth. It's a light 5.8 percent ABV Vienna-style Steinbeer boiled with heated granite rock then put in a Knob Creek whiskey barrel. Not entirely sure what the taste of granite is. Maybe earthy? It's still puzzling us, but we're along for the ride, Metropolitan.
Listermann/Triple Digit Brewing's Chickow! Hazelnut Double Brown Ale: This won best in show and first place in the specialty/experimental category. These two Cincinnati breweries teamed up for a lineup of three barrel-aged Chickow! beers (Maple Chickow! and Vanilla/Cinnamon Chickow! were also on tap). It's a double brown ale with hazelnuts aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels at 10 percent ABV. It's nutty, roasty and delicious. The Vanilla/Cinnamon variety was a little too overwhelming on those heavy flavors, but the original hit the spot.
Transient Artisan Ales' Foeder 2: Electric Boogaloo with Apricot: There were a few apricot beers in the wild beer/sours with fruit (acidic) category that turned out really nice, but this third-place winner was a highlight. An easy drinker at 6 percent ABV, the beer is made with a wheat saison base in an open oak wine fermenter, aged in a white oak foeder (a wooden vat normally used to age wine) with added apricots. A nice light and sour respite in a world of heavy dark beers (we loved those too).
Revolution Brewing's Bean Gene: Bean Gene's an oldie but a goodie. It's Revolution's Eugene Porter aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels with Dark Matter coffee—the first barrel-aged variant the brewery did on the Eugene Porter. We look forward to it every year it comes out, and this year's brew is no exception with a hefty coffee backbone and a thick mouthfeel. It's a solid 9 percent ABV, meaning one's enough to hit the spot.
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