CBS Winter Beer Extravaganza
By Marty Nachel
Deferring to Roget's thesaurus, one might be reluctant to ascribe the word Extravaganza to this beer function -or any other, for that matter; "spectacular show" and "lavish event" border on hyperbole inappropriate for a beer tasting. Throwing the thesaurus out the window, however, allows one to ignore harmless embellishment and accept this event for what it is: one hell of a good time!
Since the inaugural event in January of 1995, this malt beverage social has been one of the unheralded beer events on the midwestern beer calendar. Hosted by the always ambitious and somewhat zealous brew crew that is the Chicago Beer Society, this free-wheeling affair is a celebration of all that is beer. From the retail exhibitors to the bottomless food buffet to the incredible roster of brewskis, the Winter Beer Extravaganza fills a dreary void in the post-New Years, pre-Spring doldrums. Talk about timing, this is cabin-fever fighting at its best.
The Starlight Inn, located adjacent to O'Hare International Airport, has been the location of all of the Winter Beer Extravaganzas thus far. For the most jaded beer drinkers unimpressed with this bounty of brew, the Starlight's full-length smoked glass perimeter affords unobstructed views of landings and take-offs of hundreds of aircraft from the busiest airport in the world. Of course, it also affords unobstructed views of the conjested Tri-State tollway that, for most, is the best way to get here.
Set in a spacious fifth floor banquet room, this low-key open-format tasting allows attendees four hours of uninhibited and unhindered beer drinking enjoyment. To complement the wonderful brews, lots of beer-friendly finger food was available for noshing at one's own will. Seemingly bottomless trays of beef fajitas, chicken kabobs, deep fried scallops, sliced sausage and cubed cheeses helped to absorb much of the afternoon's alcohol ingestion. To top off the festivities, numerous beer-related items donated by breweries, distributors, homebrew shops and others were raffled off.
There were at least forty different beers on hand, products from at least twenty-five breweries. From the Chicago area were Founder's Hill, Flatlander's, Flossmoor Station, Glen Ellyn Brewery, Golden Prairie, Goose Island, Pavichevich Brewing, Prairie Rock, Taylor Brewing and the namesake Chicago Brewing Co. From further afield came Box Office Brewery (DeKalb, IL), BlueCat Brewpub (Rock Island, IL), Joe's Brewing (Champaign, IL). The representative breweries from Wisconsin and Indiana were Lakefront (Milwaukee), New Glarus Brewing (New Glarus), and Three Floyds (Hammond). All the way from Seattle, and the only west coast beers present, were a couple of beers from Pike Street Brewing.
Though all the beers at the Extravaganza deserved applause, there were several standout brews among them. Those that seemed to elicit the most praise were New Glarus' Belgian Red (a 1996 Great American Beer Festival gold medal winner), Three Floyd's Alpha King Ale, and Lakefront's Holiday Spiced Lager. In the OTT category (that's Over The Top to you neophytes), was Box Office's XXX Black Coffee Stout (made with Folgers coffee), Pike Street's Auld Acquaintance (made with cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander and orange peel), and ironically enough, Three Floyd's Alpha King (made with B.I.G. I.B.U.'s).
This event does aim to spotlight Chicago-area and midwestern brewers and beers, but to present a more global view of the beer world, a foreign contingent is always present and always outstanding. This year was no different. The bottled imports included a handful of standard-bearers such as Samuel Smith, Youngs, Rodenbach, and McChouffe, but also included a few never-seen-before brands so new to the area they required pronunciation guides. Ever heard of Wernesgruner (vern-ess-GROONER), Tyskie (tihsk-YEAH), or Utenus (OO-ten-ohs)? Neither had most of those who tasted these newcomers from Wernesgrun, Germany; Gronie, Poland; and Utena, Lithuania. But the most talked about beer of the day was Ichtegems Flanders (brown) ale from Degouy, Belgium. This attention-grabber had 'em lined up virtually all afternoon- until they ran out of the tiny bottles at the end of the day. Talk about timing.
Somewhat lost, but far from out of place, were the vendor/exhibitors, who, despite their best efforts at salesmenship, couldn't compete with two dozen open beer taps for attention. Homebrew supply shops were present in force (four were counted), along with a few tables set aside for homebrew displays and dissemination of beer news and information. Talk about timing- one such tidbit involved Chicago's second Brew On Premise operation due to open the very day following the Extravaganza.
One of the new and most unique tables at this event was the Author's Table. The Chicago Beer Society is perhaps the only beer club in the country that can claim three members as published authors on the subjects of beer and brewing. Noted homebrew expert and all around beer guy Randy Mosher was on hand to sign copies of The Brewer's Companion, as was CBS President and Association Of Brewers speaker Ray Daniels, to sign his hot-off-the-press brewing tome Designing Great Beers. The author of Beer Across America and Beer For Dummies was also present but was too busy taking notes for this article.
After all was said and done and consumed, the third annual Winter Beer Extravaganza was again an undeniable success. Where else can a couple hundred beer geeks gather for several hours of relaxed imbibing while trading thoughts, ideas, tasting notes, business cards, and the occasional justified belch? The only glitch noted was out of the control of the host Chicago Beer Society. Of all the hundreds of parties that take place at the Starlight in on a yearly basis, wouldn't you know it would be at a beer tasting that three of four men's room urinals decide to malfuntion! Talk about timing....
© 1997 Marty Nachel