It's Summer in the city and time to gather on random street corners with Bermuda short clad strangers to drink beer and eat fire roasted corn on the cob. Chicago is known for it's warm weather neighborhood street fests. The promise of these outdoor parties is honestly the only reason we all make it through January. I've been lucky to attend a few this year and have to say that I'm impressed with their improved craft beer selections. It used to be a beer tent where your choices were between a Bud Light or a Bud Full Strength (Oxymoron. I know.) Personally, I always chose bottled water because at least that was truth in advertising. This year, I've been lucky enough to enjoy several plastic Solo cups filled with some of Chicago's finest suds, with minimal light beer in sight. Last week my own neighborhood fest took place, so the family and I moseyed on over to check it out. I'm now convinced that we are the craftiest craft beer knowledgeable neighborhood in all of Chicago. No Bud. No Miller. No problem. Our beer tent limited it's fare to just two Chicago breweries, one being Lagunitas (and yes, we can debate today, tomorrow and when we're 80 whether Lagunitas should really be referred to as a Chicago brewery. They brew beer here. They bottle beer here. They sell beer here. And I'll leave it at that.) If Lagunitas bottled it, they had the beer available for sale. Now, at most fests this alone would have been enough to send me into the tizzy of a happy dance. But even better was that the other brewery represented happened to be a personal favorite of mine as well as a Northwest side neighborhood gem, Lake Effect Brewing. AND they brought two, count them, two Saisons on tap for our Solo cup pleasure. The psychological effects of sub zero January mornings melted away with my first sip.
Apple user's link: My absolute favorite band at fests this summer
You know that it's going to be a great fest when you have a craft beer in hand & the Four Star Brass Band in ear (in ear, that's a thing, right? If not, it is now.)
This week's post is going to be slightly different from what I usually write. Since the two beers, Watermelon Pasteque Saison and Shimmering Lake Saison were consumed at an event, in a plastic cup and under temporarily professional circumstances, I've decided to keep the reviews as simple as possible. I don't feel that it's fair to review aspects such as head, mouthfeel and finish since so many variables found at outdoor events can alter these things. Next week will be back to your regularly scheduled program.
I first tasted Watermelon Saison Pasteque at the Kegs for Kidneys event back in June (see my post on this beer and the other top beers of the night here) where it was a certifiable "kid you're gonna be a star" hit of the night. I believe that I may have implored them (in a very dignified not at all frantic fangirl sort of way) to brew this beer again before the end of summer. You can thank me now. When I spoke with the guys from Lake Effect at the debut back in June, they referred to this beer as a happy sort of accident. Sometimes a beer just needs a bit of tender loving conditioning before a mediocre ale becomes a superstar. A few nights in the keg made all the difference back at the June event, which made me curious to discover if lightning could strike twice for Lake Effect. The Pasteque that I drank at Jeff Fest was a different beer than the one I enjoyed in June. It was better defined, polished if you will, than it's earlier incarnation. The version in June sported a lighter, sweetly juiced flavor profile with a watermelon rind bitterness to it. And I enjoyed the hell out of it, but if you had asked me to blind test it, I doubt that I could have fingered it as a Saison. The later incarnation fell firmly into the farmhouse ale category for me. It poured a darker, heavier hued liquid with a heftier nose as well. I could smell the dankness mingled with the fruity notes easily as I raised my glass. This version had a murkiness and dankness that the original lacked, yet while still was able to incorporate the fruity sweetness of the watermelon that we all so appreciated on the first go around. It was as if the brewers knew that they had a good beer on their hands in June and took the time to rethink it in order to produce a great beer. And if you're wondering, this is exactly what makes a good brewery into a great one as well.
Shimmering Lake Saison was Lake Effect's other offering at the fest. Unlike the surprise of Pasteque's popularity, Lake Effect wholly knew that this was going to be their Saison of the Summer. You can purchase bombers of this farmhouse ale all around Chicago as well as finding it on tap at various bars. A percentage of the proceeds from this beer (one dollar of each bottle sold and a certain amount from every keg bought) is earmarked for The Alliance for the Great Lakes, a charity that supports creating clean water in the Great Lake region. Sort of important when you consider that brewers need superior water in order to brew superior beers. Because Shimmering Lake was always brewed to be a bottle release, I wasn't surprised at all that the taste of this Saison didn't really vary from the version that I was able to sample back in June. When you have a recipe that you've work on and hopefully perfected the best that you can, why mess with it? Shimmering Lake was a golden yellow ale with a juicy haziness that I could detect even while it rested in my clear-ish Solo cup. The nose was citrus forward, with clean notes of lemon and orange as well as a hint of herbs. It also had the expected barnyard, funky character that makes a proper Sasion so enjoyable to drink on a Summer's day. It tasted exactly as it smelled. The herbal note (which I have since discovered was colander) was less of a note on the taste and more of a whisper. This beer was my food beer while at the fest and it paired amazingly with the Korean chicken tacos from one of the food trucks there. Well, it was amazing in my own mind, at least, because after waiting in a ten minute line for said tacos, I was informed that the food truck was all out of chicken. I then knew exactly what a sad panda felt like. However, the good people over at Gale Street Inn swooped in to save the day with a terrific pulled pork sandwich. The funk, citrus brightness and hint of colander complimented the tangy, vinegar & tomato sauce that smothered the pork which made for very happy, if Korean chicken taco-less, girl.
Lake Effect provided a handy (and laminated!) cheat sheet on the bar at the beer tent. I personally love learning what hops and malts are used and these sheets saved me from being "that person" at the tent. Pasteque was brewed with Wisconsin Wheat & Pilesen malts as well as Hallertau Blanc hops with an IBU of 30 and an ABV of 5.5%. Shimmering Lake was also brewed with Wisconsin Wheat & Pilsen malts, Hallertau Blanc hops (must have had a sale that day) and sported an IBU of 30 and an ABV of 6.0%. It was at that moment that I realized that the two Saisons were obviously brewed from the same base. One they added fresh watermelon to and the other colander. Not only did the cheat sheets provide some handy dandy information for my fellow beer geeks (and yes, we recognized each other by greeting one another with IBU counts instead of high fives), it helped spark conversations with the uninitiated (hopefully soon to be beer geeks) in attendance. Every so often, I would see a person studying the sheet in a way where I could tell that all the were thinking at that moment was "If I ask for a Bud Light, do you think one of those nice beer people wold run across the street to grab me one?" A simple question of "What sort of flavors do you like" on my part (or from the very informed volunteers working frantically behind the bar) was all it took to introduce someone new to the wonderful world of Saisons and Chicago brewed craft beer. I'm very pleased that so many breweries chose to participate this summer, from Local Option at the 6 Corner's Fest over Father's Day (where I enjoyed my very first Dampfbier) to the refreshing Saisons of Lake Effect at Jeff Fest to the motherload of local breweries attending the Old Irving Park BarBQue. Also, I want to give many props to these breweries for really putting serious thought into the beers that they offered. It would have been so simple for Lake Effect to bring their Falcon IPA and call it a day. Everyone knows what an IPA is and there is a certain safety in that. Instead, the guys went all in and showed up with an interesting selection of beers that the average macro drinking might not know, but would soon appreciate on a warm July day. Chicago street fests were originally created to celebrate the neighborhood. Local food, local bands & local beer for the local people. Those are the three thoughts that will help to keep me warm this coming January as I long for next year's round of fests.