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The Barrel Beer Festival That Rules Them All

September 18th, 2017 Posted by Feature, On The Road Reports No Comment yet

Barrel-aging beer is a bit of a mystical science – there’s something alluring about putting beer into a barrel and let the wood infusion generate a result. One never quite knows what the flavour is going to be like when a beer is put into a barrel, which is all part of the charm of this brewing art. In recent years, the popularity of barrel-aged beers has exploded. Whether it is bourbon barrels, whisky barrels, gin barrels, tequila barrels or wine barrels – if there’s a barrel that contained some kind of alcohol there will be a brewery that’ll put beer into it.

FoBaB at the UIC Forum

The main hall of FoBaB at the UIC Forum in Chicago.

Barrel-aging beer has been happening in Ontario for a number of years now (Ken Woods from Black Oak was the first to barrel in Ontario way back in 2005), but in recent years its popularity has taken off, with many established and new breweries having regular “barrel programs” featuring numerous barrel-aged beer releases throughout the year. Events such as Volo’s Cask Days, Sawdust City’s Funkfest and other festivals have celebrated local barrel-aged beers, and there’s even dedicated barrel brewery projects emerging, with Halcyon Barrel House within Beau’s and Amsterdam opening up a ‘Barrelhouse’ this fall.

But for those who are truly barrel-aged beer fanatics, there is an event that towers above the rest. The Festival of Wood & Barrel-Aged Beer, commonly known as “FoBAB”, held annually in Chicago is a pioneer in celebrating barrel-aged beer. 2016 marked its 14th annual event (it was started in 2003 by Pete Crowley of Haymarket), making it one of, if not the oldest, festival of its kind in the world.

If you thought barrel-aged beer was just bourbon barrel stouts, think again. FoBAB brings together just about every beer style imaginable aged within just about every kind of barrel available. It’s a marriage of style and barrel that is staggering in its scope – there were over 400 beers and ciders available at the 2016 festival representing 25 different states in the U.S.A.

FoBaB Barrel Wall

Just try and make a dent in this lineup.

Consider the types of wood and alcohol barrels used to age beer at last year’s festival: Oak (American, French), Cedar, Palo Santo, Hickory, Sassafras, Rum, Whiskey (Bourbon, Scotch, Rye), Wine (Red, White, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cab Sauv, Pinot), Brandy, Apple Brandy, Gin, Port, Cognac, Fernet, Absinthe, Tequila, Sherry and Calvados. Things have certainly come a long way from the early days of barrel aging in a used whiskey barrel.

Paired with the barrels of course the liquid that goes into them, and at FoBAB there’s a staggering diversity of styles, much more than the traditional stout. At FoBAB different styles are grouped into major categories including: Classic Beer, Barleywine/Wheatwine, Strong Porter/Stout, Specialty Strong Porter/Stout, Strong Pale Beer, Strong Dark Beer, Fruit Beer, Specialty/Experimental, Wild Beer/Brett, Wild Beer (Acidic) Sours, Wild Beer (Acidic) Sours with Fruit and Cider/Perry/Mead. And within those categories you can find just about every kind of sub-style imaginable. No longer are barrels used simply for a narrow set of styles – all beer can be barreled nowadays, often with delicious results.

As the popularity of barrel-aged beers has grown, so has FoBAB. It is held at the UIC Forum, a large auditorium hall on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, southwest of the Loop. The event is held over the course of a weekend, with an evening session on Friday and two sessions on Saturday. Tickets are always in high demand, but with the move a couple of years ago to the UIC Forum, they are generally easy to get on the first day of sales. Tickets for two of the three weekend sessions are still available for this year’s edition, taking place on November 10th and 11th, here.

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The “Food Program” at FoBaB.

The festival is a well-organized one, and is most certainly beer-focused, which is refreshing. You will not find a food truck program at FoBAB, nor any kind of entertainment. The experience here is barrel-aged beer, plain and simple. One is here to drink beer, not get distracted by other things.  And with so many kinds of beers available, it is good to stay focused on the task at hand. It is great to have a festival where it is “all-in” on its mission and fully delivers on the goal. Sometimes I feel like festivals try to be too many things, and in the case of FoBAB, the thing they want to be they do extremely well.

The majority of the festival takes place in the main hall of the UIC Forum, with large banks of beer serving tables running up and down the space. Beer styles are colour coded and beers are numbered, making it fairly easy to find the beer you’re looking for. A nice addition to last year’s festival was the addition of a massive poster listing all the beers available, which helped to not have to fumble around with the program guide. Beers are served in a small glass, but with the strength of many of the beers and the variety available, small samples are appropriate for general enjoyment and selection.

Sometimes there comes a point when your taste buds just need a break from barrel and wood flavours. Luckily FoBAB has a solve for that too, a “beer break station” in partnership with Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, where a number of their main lineup of beers (all non-barrelled) are available. A nice touch to get an IPA palate cleanser.

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Many a beer lover’s dream is fulfilled with pitchers of BCBS.

One of the more interesting aspects of FoBAB is the presence of Goose Island. They always have a significant presence at the festival, and with the timing of the event being a couple of weeks before Black Friday (their annual release of Bourbon County Brand Stout), it acts as a preview for what’s to come. And Goose goes all out for FoBAB. At the event they were constantly tapping different beers over the course of the sessions, tweeting out each new beer – making their beer lineup ever changing. Whereas most breweries may only have a couple of beers, Goose brings a huge slate from their Bourbon County and Sour Sisters lineups. Around the craft beer world, there’s always some grousing and hand-wringing with Goose Island due to its ownership by Anheuser Busch. However, in Chicago the love is strong – the lineup for Goose Island was by far the longest of anything else, wrapping around the perimeter of the auditorium.

A further unique aspect of FoBAB is it is also a competition where awards are given out across the style categories. Due to that, they do not release the lineup of beers in advance – the general public only finds out when they walk in the venue and receive their program. It adds an element of mystery to the event itself, with online speculation common in advance to discuss what might be pouring. But breweries bring their “A” game in an effort to win – so drinkers are always guaranteed great brews.

This is my favourite festival of the calendar, and it has been since my first visit back in 2013. With such a great beer scene in Chicago it doesn’t take much to spark a visit, but FoBAB certainly makes a weekend in the city extra special. It you want to take your barrel beer game to the next level, you would not be disappointed in this.

Kensington Brewing Company

Kensington Brewing Company Comes Alive

September 14th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature No Comment yet

A couple of weeks ago, just before the public taproom opening of the new Kensington Brewing Company, we recorded the latest episode of Bar Towel Radio with Mike Gurr, VP Operations and Johnny Briggs, KBC’s Head Brewer. In this episode we chat about KBC’s history and challenges in opening, their beers both of the past and present, their relationship to the Kensington Market neighbourhood and what beer lovers can expect from the newly opened space. We’re happy that the long road for KBC has resulted in beer finally being brewed on Augusta Avenue!

Give a listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher:

Toronto Beer Week Begins Tomorrow!

September 14th, 2017 Posted by Beer Awards, Beer Events, Feature, Golden Tap Awards No Comment yet

Toronto Beer Week, a 10 day celebration of beer in the city, begins its 2017 edition tomorrow, September 15th. With 200+ events across 60+ venues and 30+ breweries, it truly is an amazing way to experience “The Best Beer City in Canada”.

The Bar Towel (a founding member of Toronto Beer Week), is thrilled to be a part of a number of events during Toronto Beer Week:

Beer Writers Debate & Discussion: Sunday, September 17th. Starting at 3pm at C’est What, I’ll be a part of a panel of local beer writers (including Jordan St. John, David Ort, Robin LeBlanc, Thomas Gilbert and Crystal Luxmore) in debating the meaning of Craft Beer, discussing crap vs. craft, and gazing into the crystal ball to determination the path of Ontario’s beer future.

I&G_Roundel_Logo_2017_CMYK (1)The Science of Flavour with Innis & Gunn Founder and Master Brewer Dougal Gunn Sharp: Tuesday, September 19th. In this Q&A we will chat with Innis & Gunn’s Founder and Master Brewer to get a sneak preview of some of Innis & Gunn’s newest beer innovations before they arrive in Ontario and hear from on his brewing journey, the “happy accident” that led to Innis & Gunn Original and the inspiration behind the flavours in their beers. Tickets are $10, but as a reader of The Bar Towel you get a chance to enter a contest to win tickets! Simply email your name to and we will draw three winners who will receive a pair of tickets each.


Golden Tap Awards: Wednesday, September 20th. The Golden Tap Awards returns for its 15th year in recognizing the best in beer in Ontario’s most democratic beer awards event. We will hand out the awards at an all-Ontario beer festival at beerbistro, where all tap lines will be turned over for one night only. Participating breweries include Great Lakes, Shillow, Collective Arts, Nickel Brook, Junction, Indie Alehouse, Tooth & Nail, Bellwoods, Folly, Exchange Brewery, Bench, Beau’s, Left Field, Halo, Side Launch, Granite, Cheshire Valley, Spearhead, Katalyst, 4 Degrees, Merit, Shawn & Ed, Halcyon Barrel House, Cowbell, County Canteen and more! Admission is free and no tickets are required to attend. Doors open at 5pm and the awards show begins at 8pm.

We’ll also be floating around at many of the other great events taking place during Toronto Beer Week. Looking forward to see you in Canada’s Best Beer City!

Vote Now for the 2017 Golden Tap Awards

August 29th, 2017 Posted by Feature, Golden Tap Awards No Comment yet

Voting for the 2017 Golden Tap Awards is now open, and you should vote now. The Golden Tap Awards, now in their fifteenth year, are Ontario’s most democratic beer awards event, as all winners are determined by the drinkers and beer fans in the province.

You can vote in as many of the following categories as you wish:

  • Best craft brewery in Ontario
  • Best bar in Ontario for draught beer selection
  • Best bar in Ontario for bottled and/or canned beer selection
  • Best brewpub or tied house in Ontario
  • Best regularly-produced craft beer in Ontario
  • Best seasonal, limited release or specialty craft beer in Ontario
  • Best craft cidery in Ontario
  • Design Award: For the best packaging design, label artwork and branding in Ontario
  • Innovation Award: For pushing the boundaries of craft brewing the furthest in Ontario
  • Newcomer Award (Bar): For the best craft beer bar or restaurant that is new to Ontario
  • Newcomer Award (Brewery): For the best craft brewery or brewpub that is new to Ontario
  • Event Award: For the best beer event that took place in the past year in Ontario
  • Staff Award: For the best (most beer-knowledgeable, friendly) staff in Ontario
  • Beer Writer Award: For the best beer writer (print, digital or other) in Ontario
  • Brewmaster’s Choice: For the best beer in Ontario, as decided by the craft brewers themselves

The Golden Tap Awards voting is open until September 12, 2017, and the winners will be announced at a gala event at beerbistro on Wednesday, September 20th during Toronto Beer Week. The awards gala is free to attend and no tickets are required, and will feature an all-Ontario beer festival with breweries from across the province being featured.

We hope you vote for the Golden Tap Awards this year, and see you at the awards gala on the 20th!

A Visit To The New Goose Island Toronto Brewhouse

August 28th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature No Comment yet

In our latest episode of Bar Towel Radio we visit the new Goose Island Toronto Brewhouse and have a chat with Head Brewer Bernard Priest and Assistant Brewer Marc Mammoliti. We have a great discussion about their backgrounds in the beer industry, all about the brewery and the beers they’ve developed for Goose Island Toronto, and their relationship to Goose in Chicago.

Give a listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher:

Greg Koch of Stone Brewing

Greg Koch of Stone Brewing on Bar Towel Radio

July 28th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature No Comment yet

In this episode of Bar Towel Radio we have a beer with Greg Koch, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Stone Brewing of San Diego, California. With special guest host Jason Fisher, Founder of Indie Alehouse, we have a wide-ranging and lively conversation with Greg about his recent visit to Toronto and the beer scene in Ontario, Stone’s foray into Europe, the evolving beer scene of southern California and more.

You can listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher:

Mike Shatzel and Cass Enright

Chatting Buffalo Beer with Mike Shatzel

July 15th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature No Comment yet

Last week I visited Thin Man Brewery, the great brewery and restaurant in Buffalo, New York and had a beer on Bar Towel Radio with owner Mike Shatzel. Mike, who could easily be nicknamed the “Beer King of Buffalo”, oversees eight bars in the city, including the legendary Cole’s, Moor Pat, Colter Bay, Allen Burger Venture and more.

In this episode we chat about the beer and brewing scenes in Buffalo and Ontario, Mike’s history in the bar and beer industry, how Thin Man got started and about their beers, and some other beery reminiscing and storytelling including the now-legendary Bar Towel Bus Trip to the Blue Monk.

You can listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher:

Cass, Mike and Peter

Great Lakes Brewery Reflects on 30 Years of Beer

June 27th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature No Comment yet

Recently I sat down for a beer and a chat for Bar Towel Radio with Peter Bulut and Mike Lackey of Great Lakes Brewery, as they celebrate the 30th anniversary this year. In this episode we chat about their favourite GLB and collaboration beers from the past and present, some memorable stories from the brewery’s past, their new pilot brewing system, and their thoughts about how the Ontario beer scene has evolved and where it’s going.

You can listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher:


As a part of their 30th anniversary celebrations, Great Lakes Brewery will be doing a Tap Takeover of the Brewer’s Backyard on Canada Day, this Saturday, July 1st at the Evergreen Brick Works, from 11am until 5pm. They will have six booths set up with almost 20 beers available. Check out the full tap list below and we hope to see you on Saturday!


Marc Rauschmann of BraufactuM

Talking German Craft Beer with Marc Rauschmann

June 13th, 2017 Posted by Bar Towel Radio, Feature 1 comment

In our newest episode of Bar Towel Radio, we go continental with a conversation with Marc Rauschmann, Master Brewer of BraufactuM in Frankfurt, Germany. Marc was recently in Toronto to launch a number of his beers at beerbistro, which will be available on draught in Ontario. During our chat we discussed his background and the beer scene in Germany, plus his beers coming to the market here, including the smoked wheat Roog, pale ale Palor, IPA Progusta, weizen IPA Indra and saison Soleya.

You can listen to this episode of Bar Towel Radio below or on iTunesGoogle Play or Stitcher: