The Midwest Brewers Festival 2011

Yes, I did get out to the Midwest Brewers Festival last Saturday in Plainfield. Missed a connection, and arrived after it was half way through, but, well, that’s my own fault. But I could see before I walked in that this little first-time event was being run much better than some beerfests that have been around for years.

MWBF was co-organized by Steve Caton, principal at Limestone Brewing Co., and Dale Lewis owner of Finnegan’s Irish Pub, both in Plainfield. It took place along an empty stretch of DuPage River Shoreline that was a resort called Electric Park a century ago, and is organized as a fundraiser for The Plainfield Riverfront Foundation, to hopefully turn it into a popular attraction once more.

Because of the location, there was just enough room to park VIP ticket holders and brewers unloading kegs for pouring. But the MWBF folks had it all covered, designating the nearest parking available; quite a hike compared to shuttle buses from several locations, including the Rt. 59 Metra station, making it possible for some to attend without even driving.

Overall, some 3,000 to 4,000 people braved the devastatingly perfect weather to walk along the river and try beer from nearly 60 brewers. I heard one attendee came up the river and tied his canoe wherever he could get ashore. Indeed, we saw a flotilla of canoes and inner tubes drifting by with coolers in evidence, although they may just have been having their usual weekend drift.

Pretty much every brewer and production brewery in the Chicago area was there. The ones that couldn’t make it had good reasons, with regards to their production schedule and staffing, and surely don’t need to be called out here. Some brewers newly available in this area were present, like Ipswich/Clown Shoes, Big Muddy from Murphysboro, and Great River from Davenport. I got to catch up on a few brewers I hadn’t been able to sample much of yet, like Destihl from Normal, Illinois, which had a barrel aged Belgian sour aged on strawberries and raspberries. 5 Rabbit had the, well, 5 Rabbit left when I found them. And I caught up with Finch’s Sapsucker and Threadless beers, and put my nose into Haymarket’s BUK black rye bock (the pourer seemed to have topped my sampler glass beyond the 2-ounce mark when I demonstrated my knowledge of what the name referred to). I heard a lot of “buzz” about the B. Nektar meadery from Ferndale, Michigan, but they had tapped out completely by the time I found them.

Meantime, various experts were manning a “Craft Beer 101” booth, ready to answer questions that newbies might have had. And there was also a homebrew pavilion, with some beermaking rigs set up and working. Plus, members of The Plainfield ALE & Lager Enthusiasts (PALE), Homebrewers Pride of the Southside (HOPS) and Brew Shed were sampling out beer in return for extra tasting tickets, handed out free at the tent for homebrew only. Beer writer Marty Nachel was there, offering sample tests on his certification web site

I did not get a whack at the food booths there. I was simply too busy trying to use up my allotment of 25 beer tickets, stopping with each sample to savor and to dictate tasting notes for my RateBeer account. And I didn’t even have time to check out the live band, nor the desire to get near the cigar area. Toward the end, people who were leaving began handing off their extra tickets, or urging others to try their new favorite beers. At assume point in the proceedings, I met Steve Mastny and Matt Arata from the BeerDownload podcast. Steve actually recognized me from one of my tiny avatar pictures on my various internet pages. We all talked a little beer, then we drank some more beer.

If there was anything that didn’t go right about the event, and this is an exceeding minor quibble, it’s that there wasn’t enough water to go around. That is, kegs filled with water were set out about every 20 feet by the tasting tents, and they had all “kicked” by 6:00, and weren’t replaced. Of course by that time, it probably didn’t matter if the Pilsener one was tasting still had the foam from an oatmeal stout in the glass.

Reading up what a few others had to say about the event afterward, I noticed one recurring complaint: that the brewer lineup was merely “the usual suspects.” And it is true. All the brewers there, from Abita to Big Sky to Stone, were folks that were already well established in Chicago area bars and retailers. I suspect that’s state law beyond this: if you don’t have a distributor for this area, you don’t get to come in and even sample out beers. That’s why many of these same brewers were simply packing up to go to Goose island’s Belgian fest on Sunday, and they’ll be at Chuck’s Fest in Toyota Park the next weekend.

It would seem that Wisconsin, despite its latest kerfluffle over a Miller-driven beer distribution law, seems a little lax about who can bring beer to sample. That’s why Great Taste of the Midwest can attract little brewpubs from as far away as Kansas and Nebraska with no ability or plans to start sending bottles to that state.

But this is the first year for a beer festival that has proven to be very organized and well-attended during a period when beer feasts are going on all over, and not even counting upcoming Oktoberfests.

I don’t know how much bigger the Midwest Brewers Festival can get, considering its tight but charming outdoor space. Maybe in a few years they can gain a similar cachet to the GToMW, and draw in New Glarus for some tasting, or get Goose Island offering its samples as snow cones.

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    Mark McDermott

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