Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

March 10, 2008

Beer Diary:

We’ve Got Some Floaters Here

Checking out some live beer at the Night of the Living Ales in Chicago.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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There are quite a few brewfests held in the Midwest, although if you stuck to the “mainstream” media you’d be hard-pressed to find any of them save for the biggest (Great Taste of the Midwest) or any that were lucky(?) enough to snare a sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch’s “Here’s To Beer” marketing push. One of the more arcane—although not all that obscure, it being held in Chicago and all—of these fests is the Night of the Living Ales put together by the venerable Chicago Beer Society.

The arcane aspect of this relatively small fest is that all the brews available for sampling are cask-conditioned, barrel-aged, or both. For those who don’t know what all that means, I’ll explain. Barrel aging is just that: the beer is stored for a time in wooden barrels. A lot of times, especially here in the Midwest, that barrel is an old whiskey barrel, so the beer will pick up some usually strong bourbon-like aromas and tastes. Even if it’s just a plain old wooden barrel, the beer will still garner some extra flavor and complexity just from sitting for a significant time in oak, which virtually all barrels are made of. And whether they’re ex-bourbon barrels, ex-wine barrels, or just barrels, they’re still wood, which is impossible to sterilize, so the beer sitting inside will without doubt pick up a Brettanomyces character in some varying degree. In short, a beer will gain a big jolt of complexity from barrel aging—for better or worse.

The appeal of cask conditioned brews is the fact that it’s living beer: it’s still brewing and evolving as it’s being drunk.
Cask conditioning is not, necessarily, barrel-aging. Cask conditioning means the fermented beer is dumped unfiltered (or, sometimes, filtered then dosed with a new round of yeast) into a storage vessel (like a barrel, usually metal but sometimes wood), then shipped out for consumption by you and me. This technique yields a few results that may mystify (if not turn off) the average beer drinker. First, the beer is warm (-ish) when served, around the 60° mark, which is “cellar” temperature. Second, it is relatively flat. All this is because the yeast are still in there, finishing up the last of the sugars to make more alcohol and still in the process of pumping out carbon dioxide. Recently tapped cask conditioned beers may have some pent-up carbonation giving them an almost normal head, but most will be pretty close to completely flat. If you’ve ever seen “hand-pulled” or “beer engine” taps at a bar, you’ve encountered cask conditioned beers.

I’ve always thought the appeal of cask conditioned brews has been the fact that it’s living beer, which means it is still brewing and evolving as it’s being drunk. So the first beer pulled from the cask is going to taste vastly different than the last one … and everyone in between. So the point of a fest based on cask conditioned beers—beers that will be tapped and drank dry in a few hours’ time—is a little lost on me, but worth at least a try.

So I made my way to the Goose Island brewpub in Chicago (not the good one, but the one by a landfill called Wrigley Field) to check out this rather distinct brewfest firsthand.

The first thing I noticed upon snagging the beer lineup was that it was extraordinarily Chicago-centric: 17 of the 20 attending brewers were from Illinois, which means either Chicago itself (Goose Island, Piece, and Rock Bottom) or the sprawling, sprawling, SPRAWLING suburbs surrounding it. The three out-of-state casks were pretty damn good, though: Three Floyds, Surly, and, strangely, Lagunitas.

Guessing, correctly, that Surly’s stuff would disappear in an instant, I went directly for the Tea-bagged Furious. I could only assume the graphic name meant it was not only cask conditioned, but dry hopped as well. (And, yes, while waiting in line I heard every ““ joke you can think of, and a few you can’t.) Needless to say: hoppy. Burn-the-fuck-out-of-your-mouth hoppy. I actually feared I wasn’t going to be able to taste any other beers for the rest of the night. Actually not a bad way to start, given that most of the available brews were malt gods and monsters. Which is exactly what Surly’s second offering was, the Oak-aged Bender, a thicker, richer, oakier (duh!) version of their coffee brown ale. The oak brought that coffee flavor out for God and everyone to see and, in my opinion, improved the beer immensely.

Right next to Surly was their out-of-state brethren—and, some could say, stylistic rival—Three Floyds. I grabbed a taster of their Blackheart English IPA, which, like the style demands, was light and crisp with those down-to-earth, subdued English hops, and I was a little shocked I could taste them after Surly’s tea-baggin’. Their other brew was a complete 180, or maybe just a 270: Decimator Doppelbock. The Floyds, stereotyped (unfairly, if you ask me) for painting themselves in a hop corner, pulled off a decent doppel: dark and malty, although not superheavy, with a little bit of alcohol hotness. If they bottled it, I’d probably buy it.

Goose Island offered probably the most interesting brew of the night: a pre-bourbon-barrel-aged Bourbon County Stout.
The next beer to catch my eye was the Rye Stout from Mickey Finns in Libertyville. I’ve always thought rye is the bee’s knees of alt grains, so I snagged that stuff next. Alas, I was a bit disappointed. The rye was barely noticeable, most likely zapped by the cask/barrel conditioning. Their other brew, Irish Red Ale, was pretty funky, with estery notes up front and some cinnamon-like spiciness at the end. I would really like to visit this brewpub sometime, which has garnered a pretty decent rep around the Midwest, if not the country.

Lunar Brewing in Lombard (at least according the beer menu) is a tiny corner bar that you could walk by a hundred times without ever knowing they brew their own beer inside. And you probably wouldn’t want to go in, at least judging from the brews they had at the fest. Their Old Orbitor Olde Ale was an unpleasant gray, cloudy color, with almost no taste aside from a tiny bit of Brett at the end. Their Orion’s Oatmeal Pale was only marginally better: after a nose and first sip of wild yeast sourness, I was able to detect a tiny bit of nuttiness from the oats. Surprisingly tiny body considering that even a small amount of oats can really pump up a beer’s presence.

M.T. Barrels—a brewery I’d never heard of out of West Dundee, a town I’d never heard of—had a cask called HopHead Heaven. Obviously, an IPA. The scent was a gorgeous bouquet of flowery hops, but the palate was a bit harsh in its bitterness, then cut short by a slightly too-fat body. Heavenly? Not quite. We’ll call it “upper earthly.”

Flossmoor Station, a small but great brewery in the south ’burbs had a Milky Way Stout that lived up to its name: an entire galaxy of chocolate. In the nose, in the front of the sip, and in the finish. It wasn’t quite a Breakfast Stout, but probably one of the better beers at the fest.

Goose Island actually had two booths set up, one for their Clybourn Avenue location—the brewpub—and the other for their Fulton Street location, where the main brewery is. The Clybourn booth had Debbie’s Special Bitter, a dark ruby offering with a sharp hop nose mixed with intense malt notes. For a bitter it sported a great big body of earthy malt that melded well with a nice balance of hops. A decent bitter.

The Fulton Street Goose booth offered probably the most interesting brews of the night. A dry-hopped Honkers Ale (which was gone before I could sample it), two versions of their Matilda, and an Imperial Stout with Chicory, which was a pre-bourbon-barrel-aged Bourbon County Stout. Not something you run across every day.

The first Matilda I dipped my sniffer into was spiced with juniper berries and branch tips. If you’ve ever had a Matilda, you’ll know that it’s an authentic Flemish ale, meaning it’s got some funky odors and tastes to it. This had it twofold. Barnyard smells and tastes galore with herb-like spiciness from the juniper, along with a shot of lemon zest and Brett sourness for good measure. Not sure if I liked it, but it did keep my taste buds busy. Next up was the Matilda with lime and orange peel. This one was light and fruity, with the barnyard notes getting sublimated by the fruitiness of the lime and especially the orange. Imagine a Brett-infused Bell’s Oberon. Again, not sure if it was my kind of beer, but an experience nonetheless.

Last was the Non-bourbon County Stout. Like its whiskey-soaked older brother, this bad boy was thick as molasses in January and heavy as a three-foot-thick oak tree. The rich, chocolate nose gave way to a palate of coffee mixed with a healthy dose of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. I’m assuming the chicory added the body that would normally come from the barrel aging. Either way, this was a big-ass beer. It dudn’t get much stouter than this one.

Perhaps cask conditioned beers are brews only a true beer dork could love. The crowd at the fest was certainly up for the challenge: folks crammed the area around the tap booths while they debated the tastes and smells. I heard some pretty damn informed beer conversations from a crowd that ranged from youngish hipsters (one dude was dressed like Mr Kotter) to graybeards with canes. Add to that some great food (especially the cheese from Roth Kase USA in Monroe, Wisconsin) and you’ve got a festival worth revisiting. Of course the event couldn’t take place without its dose of idiots—especially the fuckheads who hang around the sampling tables like it’s their personal bar—but there was a fervent life to this fest, one that mirrored the very living beers pouring from the taps.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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