I get to my fair share of beer festivals, and I’ve come to realize one of the essential keys to hosting a successful event is location. A case in point was last Saturday’s inaugural Naperville Ale Fest, held on the grounds of the Naper Settlement. Based on the number of exhibitors, its 12 acres of well-manicured landscaping provided an ideal setting for the fest.
With 4000+ attendees, 88 brewers, 10 food vendors, a merchandise tent, music stage, cigar lounge, designated VIP area, picnic grounds and a handful of miscellaneous exhibitors to account for, festival organizers never could have pulled off such an event in a random park, parking lot or even a conference center. As Beer Under Glass at the Garfield Park Conservatory has shown in recent years, beer festivals need to breathe, giving attendees room to roam and avoid line bottlenecks. Also like the Conservatory, Naper Settlement provided a scenery that no other location in Naperville could have some close to matching…especially on a gorgeous, sunny summer afternoon like we had.
A crucial triumph of the fest was its showcasing of some of Naperville’s best restaurants, including Crosstown Pub and Grill, Braconi’s Pizzeria, OMango and Heaven on Seven. Food and pairings at beer festivals have become a larger focus this year, and the variety and quality at the Naperville Ale Fest was no exception.
As for the 200+ beers available at the fest, the selection seemed to pander to the novice or casual drinker. The vast majority of breweries poured their most popular beers, while only a handful brought something new. As I’ve said in the past, most beer fests, especially the larger ones, are not created for diehard beer geeks searching for rarities. I won’t be looking back at the fest and remembering it as the place where I first tried “fill in the beer.” That being said, I’m 100% on board with whatever means necessary to introduce mainstream beer drinkers to their many choices and educate them on the differences. In that respect, the festival did a standout job, most notably with a detailed guide that listed all of the breweries’ beers and styles.
As with any inaugural event, there were bound to be some hiccups along the way. Aside from poorly marked exhibitor tents and a tough-to-follow grounds map in the fest guide, the issues centered mostly around the VIP area. A schedule of rare and hard-to-find beers was included in the fest guide but was not followed much throughout the day. Some breweries poured these beers in their regular tents instead, while others appeared not to have them at all. When I first went to the VIP area, no one had any idea of who to ask or where these beers were supposed to be poured. VIPs also received a ticket to be redeemed for food. While everything was delicious, the chafing dishes were only out for an hour or so towards the beginning of the fest. What if some VIPs preferred to eat toward the end of their day? As far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything or anyone keeping general admission attendees from wandering into the VIP area and enjoying this feast either.
All in all, I felt the Naperville Ale Fest was a winner − one would never suspect that this was the organizer’s first go-round. Along with the upcoming Wheaton Brew Fest and Midwest Brewers Fest further south in Plainfield, the Naperville fest lends further credence to the Chicago suburbs having an established craft beer scene of its own.
Be on the lookout for more info on a Naperville Winter Fest in the coming months.