Chicago Beer Festival pours for the masses

ChiBeerFest13

It’s not often that a beer festival successfully combines a wide variety of craft brews, affordable and tasty food, an elegant environment and some juicy, behind-the-scenes drama. Amid a flurry of backlash, finger-pointing and hostility, I attended the Chicago Beer Festival this past Saturday night, held in Union Station’s Great Hall.

The aforementioned drama stemmed from a festival organizers’ email sent to ticket buyers and a subsequent Facebook post the day before the event, which not so eloquently stated that the fest would be switching from its advertised “unlimited sampling” to a voucher system and that refunds would be issued if so desired. This format change was a result of State Liquor Commission enforcing the Illinois Happy Hour Law, which prohibits serving an unlimited number of drinks during a set period of time for a fixed price at public events. The email and post spurred an onslaught of negative feedback, mostly in regards to one’s inability to drink their faces off. I weighed in myself with the following post that night:

“There’s a lot of venom being sprayed on Facebook about the Chicago Beer Festival’s last-minute switch from unlimited samples to a ticketed format. For starters, it’s Illinois law and their hands are somewhat tied in the matter. Also, 20 tasters (which I’m assuming will each be at least 4oz pours) puts each of us at a minimum of 80 oz. over the course of 3 hours. That’s equivalent to almost 7 bottles. If that’s not enough to satisfy someone, then they’re obviously attending for the wrong reasons. Craft beer fests are an opportunity to sample new beers, meet the brewers who make them and share a fun experience with hundreds of (hopefully) like-minded people. I, for one, will still be attending and enjoying the hell out of myself. Cheers!”

I won’t get into specifics on how closely the Happy Hour Law was actually followed at the festival, but I’ll just say that several good-as-new drink vouchers were seen littering the floors on my way out. It’s painfully obvious that Illinois festival organizers need to come together and make a clear, consistent stance on this issue to not only set proper expectations and avoid PR fiascos like we saw last week but, above all, to abide by state law and establish an even playing field.

Enough with the drama – let’s get to the fest. Let’s break this year’s Chicago Beer Festival down pros/cons-style:

Pros
Location – Union Station’s Great Hall provided a wonderful backdrop for the event and ample room for brewery stations, lines, dancing and general commiserating.

Brewery Selection – The 60+ brewers on site represented a nice cross-section of local favorites (Goose Island, Pipeworks, Lakefront), up-and-comers (Atlas, Pig Minds, Church Street, Ale Syndicate, Lake Effect, Tighthead) and out-of-staters (Sixpoint, Brooklyn, Widmer Brothers, Kona, Green Flash, Saugatuck, Bell’s, Oskar Blues, Breckenridge). Also, it looked like the large majority of the breweries brought their staffs to pour the beers and talk to the attendees vs. having volunteers/beer babes fill cups with “please don’t ask me any questions” looks on their faces.

Food – While I didn’t get a chance to sample the menu, I spoke to a number of people who enjoyed some of the items offered. And in contrast to most city festivals, the pricing was extremely fair.

Cons
Lack of a guide – Upon entering the fest, I was immediately lost without a guide that listed the breweries in attendance, and where they, in addition to food and restrooms, were located. The Great Hall is a huge space, and with the large amount of people in attendance, it was impossible to get a gauge on who was where. Even after leaving, I felt like I had missed a handful of breweries I had wanted to visit. There was also a side room that hosted 14 breweries that I walked right past and wouldn’t have known was there unless someone had told me. A simple guide is a no-brainer for beer festivals isn’t it?

Not enough beer – I attended the evening session (6-9pm; afternoon session ran from 1-4pm) and ran into countless breweries that had run out of at least one or more of their beers by the time my session began (i.e. Bell’s started the day with four beers to choose from and was down to only one when I visited them). In fact, a handful of breweries had packed up and left by 8pm.

Lack of education – This ties in with my previous gripe about the lack of a fest guide. By now, LA-based festival organizers Drink Eat Play should know the demographic for their festivals trends more toward the average beer drinker that may not be a beer connoisseur or familiar with many of the exhibiting breweries, their beers or even the styles of beer being served. In the interest of promoting all of the above, it would have been beneficial to have these beer names/styles listed in the guide so that attendees could keep track of which ones they enjoyed. Instead of opening up their eyes to new beers/styles they could begin to look for in bars/restaurants and liquor stores, the festival essentially provided just another night out of drinking beers that most people wouldn’t remember the names of the next day.

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