A newer addition to the Champaign-Urbana food and drink event scene, the fourth annual Midwest Beer Fest pulled out all the stops to provide a memorable experience for both locals and visitors. Hosted by Barrelhouse 34 in a lot directly east of the building, the small outdoor space packed a huge punch of booze, entertainment, and food.
12 Illinois breweries provided two to four summer-friendly options for sun-drenched attendees. Session IPAs (lower alcohol content), wheat beers, and citrus flavors were in abundance at the festival. Local food trucks parked along the alley served up carb-filled fare to festival-goers. Vendors included Maize, Oh Honey Pie, and Chester’s BBQ.
Unlike many beer fests, entry was free. Tickets to drink were $1 each. A generously poured sample cost one ticket, while full pours (16 oz.) were four or five tickets. Initially, our group was concerned with finding space to relax. However, Barrelhouse’s indoor space and their multiple outdoor patios were available to sit or take a heat break. The collaboration with Champaign Park District’s StreetFest provided much-needed additional seating for the packed event.
The full line-up of breweries included: Hopewell Brewing Company, Half Acre Beer Company, Revolution Brewing, White Oak Brewing, Big Thorn Farm & Brewery, Triptych Brewing, Hand of Fate Brewing Company, 4204-Main Street Brewing Company, Maplewood Brewery & Distillery, Destihl Brewery, JT Walker's Restaurant and Brewery, Riggs Beer Company.
Below I've highlighted some of my favorites from the event, and you can check out a video of the event below.
I know that they’re just down the road, but you can’t not stop at Triptych’s booth when you see it. You’re guaranteed a solid drink whether you’re a beer newbie or connoisseur. The brewery featured two IPAs: Little Secret, a more traditional IPA, and the Hawaiian Shirt Day, a hazy IPA brewed with mango and passionfruit. Both were wonderful introductory IPA material. Hawaiian Shirt Day was bursting with the fruit flavors, keeping the hops at bay. Rounding out the selection was Once But Never Again, a classic blueberry beer brewed with vanilla. This is an all-seasons beer, not too sweet, not too tart, great cold in the summer or room-temp on a brisk winter day. The vanilla tones hit you at the end, inviting you to come back for more.
White Oak Brewery
A must-stop if traveling for beer in Bloomington-Normal, White Oak brought a diverse and appropriate sampling for the fest. Me Llama Llama, an ale brewed with locally roasted coffee, boldly proclaimed that you don’t need a light colored beer on a hot day. The cold temp gave it a cold brew feel, giving drinkers that pep you need to keep sampling. The witbier, Run Wit it, Run From It, is a traditional wheat ale with distinct citrus features . A slice of orange would be the perfect accompaniment. If you’re lounging by the pool (which is constantly on my mind in July), grab this hazy IPA, Hypercrush, to sip on. It boasts a heavy hop profile, but goes down easy.
Big Thorn Farm and Brewery
Big Thorn’s Scruit is interesting, tart, and very cherry forward. Honestly, I’ve never tasted anything else like it, which kept me coming back for more. Big Thorn is excellent at using their homegrown farm ingredients to brew seasonal crafts. The pale ale, the Farm Pale with Sorachi Ace, drinks like a dry hopped version of its IPA cousins, with lemongrass and citrus flavors hitting before that traditional bitter finish.
Hopewell Brewing Co.
Clover Club, surprisingly one of the only sours at this event, came highly recommended by pourers. It has a luscious, deep red color from the raspberries, but is light and fizzy, like you’re drinking a beer cocktail. I’m a sucker for a saison, and the Ultra Glow did not disappoint. Billed as a dry-hopped one, while the barley is apparent, it’s not overpowering. The farmhouse style brew mixes the spice and grains to simply remind you of just how wonderful beer is.
While I was not able to sample every single beer at the festival, I did give it my Midwest best.
Maplewood Brewery has one of the best introductory craft beers around: the Pulaski Pils. This Chicago-brewed pilsner is the lager that feels tapped from a craft beer house party keg, suitable for every dad who has ever asked for a “Bud Light” at a craft brewery. Light, refreshing, and a pleasingly simple taste everyone can enjoy.
4204 Main St. Brewing Co. out of Belleville brought a Salted Lime Kolsch that could have been the spokesbeer of the festival. It wasn't too fruity to land in the dessert category, but it was definitely the last beer you would want to sample. It keeps you from melting in the 90 degree heat, and was dangerously easy to just keep drinking.
Local brewery Riggs provided two energizing citrusy brews, including their recent seasonal release the Citra-weizen. The hefeweizen is one of the smoothest and most drinkable wheat beers on the market, with subtle orange and coriander flavors, and a smooth finish. The citra-weizen, their seasonal wheat beer dry hopped with citra hops, is a bright, perky variation of the hef.
Photos by Jordan Goebig; video by Steven Pratten