Great American Beer Fest 2017: Illinois Medals All Hail from Chicagoland

On October 5-7th, I attended the Great American Beer Festival for the second time. Having covered the fest last year, I feel less compelled to provide a massive, detailed recap of every experience I had, and am more inclined to brush broad strokes.

Great American Beer Fest

This Fest Is The Huge-est
@hoppypoppy24 isn’t wrong (see image above) … there are a whole lot of people at the Great American Beer Fest. Like, 60,000-people-over-the-course-of-the-three-day-fest, a lot. But there’s a reason that so many people flock to this humongoid event. 800 breweries poured over 3,900 beers at this year’s celebration of American craft beer, making it the most convenient opportunity imaginable for sampling as many beers from as many different independent U.S. breweries as your heart desires and your liver can handle. 

Winning A Medal Is Hard to Do
Due to the fest’s growing size, it’s also becoming incredibly competitive to earn a GABF medal. Nearly 8,000 beers were entered into this year’s competition – 7,923 to be exact. Bart Watson of the Brewer’s Association puts out an interesting data and geographical analysis of the medal winners each year, calculating that in 2017 a beer had only a 3.7% average chance of winning a medal of any kind. So, congratulations to all the winners on proving your mettle (see what I did there?)! Winning a medal is a big deal, but winning one in the American IPA category is an even bigger deal. American IPA is consistently the largest category every year and with over 400 entries in 2017, Chicagoland’s own Hailstorm Brewing in Tinley Park took gold for their year-round IPA Prairie Madness! Amazing job, Hailstorm!

Chicagoland Took Home All The Illinois Medals
In fact, it was notable to me – though not surprising – that all 10 Illinois medals were earned by breweries in the Chicagoland area this year, including the Very Small Brewery of the Year Award:

All the Illinois GABF Medal Winners came from Chicagoland in 2017. Woo! (Map not to scale.)

Yep, On Tour Brewing not only took away Very Small Brewery of the Year, but earned two medals to boot. Even more impressive, this brewery has been open for less than one year. But, the brewers behind On Tour have a pretty impressive pedigree. According to the brewery’s website, Founder & Brewer Mark Legenza was a 2013 & 2015 National Homebrew Competition finalist. Head Brewer Mark Poffenburger worked at Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis for 7 years, where he won “multiple GABF, World Beer Cub, and FoBAB medals” and then went on to become a multi-award winner at Fat Head’s in Portland, OR, which he helped open. It’s obvious that the hearts and minds behind the operation at On Tour are dialed in and focused on making excellent beer. Congratulations, On Tour Brewing!

Standing In Lines Can Be Rewarding
It’s such an interesting paradox to me that fest lines do not always indicate critically acclaimed beer. (Maybe that’s because New England IPAs don’t have a category in which to compete, but I digress.) But the crowd is often right, and it can be fun to follow them.

WeldWerks Brewing Co. out of Greeley, CO, hits both though – they garnered a huge line and won a gold medal for their Medianoche, a delightful barrel-aged imperial stout that was a medley of vanilla, cocoa, and cinnamon. This beer took first in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category, which is especially exciting for those attending FoBAB, because Weldwerks will be in attendance for the second year in a row! Woo! I also tried quite a few New England Style IPAs during my visit to Denver, and WeldWerks’ Extra Extra Juicy Bits, a hazy double IPA and veritable fruit juice bomb was my absolute favorite of its kind.

Just like last year, Black Project also blew me and many others away, as there was a constant line extending from their booth. Their raspberry braggot, Covert #1 was among my favorites of the fest with a funky, boozy smell that made me cautious to drink it, but the flavor of this viscous syrup was all juicy raspberries, raspberry seeds, and a pleasing tart finish. Noms!

Melvin Brewing was another repeat favorite of mine from last year. Their 2×4 DIPA is so bright and juicy that you can hardly taste the 9.9% alcohol through its floral and citrusy hop bouquet, and I kept going back for more. Melvin also took the meaning of the word “booth” to another level, and decided to park a bus on the festival floor complete with a DJ and a full on dance party in front of the serving area at all times.

Avoiding The Lines Can Be Rewarding, Too
After I’d had my fill of lines, I decided to venture out and try (mostly) randomly from booths with absolutely no line at all.

Via this method, I discovered Bar Hygge of Philadelphia, PA. They were serving a Gotlandstricka (a Swedish-style farmhouse ale) at the fest called Grinding Grooves. This slightly smoky, gin-like ale was funky and pine-forward with a strong juniper character and a unique spiced, herbal flavor.

Oh, Schlafly. I just can’t get away from my first craft beer love, but for good reason. No line was to be found at The Saint Louis Brewery’s booth where they were pouring The Variant, a delectable dark stout that tasted like cinnamon fudge. Less viscous and more light bodied, this beer was among my favorites of the fest and there was absolutely no line for it. Many thanks to Drew Heurter of BrainDead Brewing for that recco!

Forager Brewery of Rochester, MN also never had a line, and their entire group of offerings was delightful. The Pudding Goggles porter stood out as a chewy, Tootsie Roll of a beer with roasted coffee and chocolate notes; this could easily be mistaken for a stout because of its full and flavorful body.

Final Thoughts
The only issue I had all weekend was with was that the booth signage simply had the names of beers listed, but no style or category label of any kind. I remember having the same issue last year with beers listed in the app, sans style. I don’t understand this omission, and I wish the Brewer’s Association would provide this detail. That being said, the staff of this fest is amazing, and the volunteers are actual saints. This event is run SO smoothly for being so ginormously big and it’s truly amazing what they pull off each year. Slow! Clap! Slow! Clap!

Many thanks to GABF and the Brewer’s Association for handing me a media pass again this year! It’s an amazing event that possesses a life of its own, with a buzzing level of excitement that is difficult to characterize in the written word. This excitement spills out of the festival halls and floods the streets of Denver, popping into all the outside events that spring up during GABF Week. It’s truly something that all beer-lovers should experience at least one session of, even if crowds aren’t your thing.

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The Prairie Dog is native to Colorado, and I think I saw about 500 of them as we drove in from the airport. They weren’t drinking beer, but I bet they wanted to. 

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