The Naperville Winter Ale Fest is an anomaly in the world of beer festivals. With over 130 beers from breweries around the country, seven food trucks, three fire pits, a Randall station, ice sculpture demonstrations, hot cider and a New Orleans-style marching jazz band, it’s truly unlike any beer fest you’ve ever been to.
We sent one of our writers to document the day and give you a first-hand look at what it’s like to drink craft beer in Naperville outside in February.
It’s 11:58am, two minutes before doors officially open and there are already lines outside all four of the beer tents. It’s an uncharacteristically warm day in February and the Naperville Winter Ale Fest is already off to a strong start. There’s a buzz in the air, and why wouldn’t there be? There’s a day full of good beer, good food and sunshine ahead of us.
The festival has officially begun! There are four huge circus tents packed with breweries — over 65 of them in fact, pouring, wait for it: 170 different beers! I do some quick math. I’ve got four hours before last call, so in order to taste everything, I have to sample a beer every 1.4 minuets. That doesn’t seem possible.
I decide to focus instead on trying beers I haven’t had before, or have been hoping to try and promise myself that I’ll drink a lot of water.
I pick a beer tent at random and approach the first table with a brewery I don’t recognize. I ask for a beer, we chat, I learn about the beer from the brewers that made it and then move on. I do this a few times before stopping to reflect on how cool this is. I’m talking to passionate men and women about beers they’ve spent hours sweating over, writing recipes, testing, brewing, packaging and delivering to a festival. I know it’s cheesy but it’s true, this is what makes craft beer so exciting. It’s made by hand by real people. And those people are standing in front of me. #blessed.
I make my way back over to the Goose Island tent which has had a line around the block since the fest opened. The Goose Island folks explain it’s because they’re tapping a different Bourbon County Stout variant each hour. The first variant, Regal Rye ran out in less than 20 minutes. The next variant, Bourbon County Brand Stout will tap in half an hour and the line is already forming around the corner. They expect it will be gone in less time than Regal Rye did… and the rarest version, Proprietor’s in even less than that.
The fest has now been in full force for about an hour — I’ve had a ton of tasty beer samples and it’s time for some food. Clearly, I’m not the only one with this idea as the food trucks are hopping. Luckily, there are a ton of options, and they’re all amazing. After much internal debate, I elected to go with Doner Men’s Doner Box because it includes two of my favorite things: marinated meat and french fries. Delicious. Perfect.
The Four Star Brass Band has been turned up to 11 all day — and they aren’t letting up now. I catch up with them as they parade through the beer truck section. The atmosphere is charged with excitement.
The Infusion Tent has been the single most popular section of the Naperville Winter Ale Fest all day. The tent features four different beers from four different breweries run through Randalls, which infuse flavors from the ingredients packed in its chambers. I talk to the volunteers working the tent about which offering has been the most popular and no-one can agree on an answer… guests themselves are having trouble deciding because all the options sound so good.
Boston Beer Company is pouring a version of Rebel Grapefruit IPA with whole cone mosaic hops, Half Acre Beer Company has Lead Feather Black Ale through cocoa nibs, coffee and toasted pecans, Pollyanna Brewing Company is pouring Eleanor Porter with vanilla and toasted coconut and Werk Force Brewing is featuring Mega Vultures Saison with Tangerines and Grapefruit.
We’re just over halfway through the fest and Pollyanna Brewing has kicked all of their kegs. Half Acre’s Chocolate Camaro kicked like an hour and a half ago, as did Prairie Artisan Ale’s uber popular (and hard to get) imperial stout, Bomb! To be honest, this is my favorite part of a good beer fest, because when the sought after beers that everyone knows to look for are gone, they start sampling beers they’ve never heard of — and Naperville Winter Ale Fest happens to have a deep, deep beer list so nobody’s going wanting.
Solemn Oath, Naperville’s hometown heroes have been packed all day. I stop by their tent for a chat but they’re so busy I decide to catch them later. The best part? When people reach the front of the line, they’re taking the time to talk to the brewers. Hence, the crowd.
I stop in at the Samuel Adams Homebrewers Pavillion which houses two prominent home-brew clubs, P.A.L.E Home Brew Club and Spent Grain Society. They each brought in, like, a million beers. This is fun — guests approach the table and ask “what do you have?” to which the beaming home brewers say “everything — what do you like?” I hover near the tent for a while and hear a bunch of these conversations, it’s a great way for beer drinkers and beer makers to learn more about each other and try something completely new.
It’s last call and instead of a bunch of panicked guests trying to get more beer in their glasses, people seem concerned about having to end their conversations with their new brewer friends.
I stand by the exit as guests file out, and everybody who passes me leaves with smile on their face. Every last one of them. Looks like people had a great day. I certainly did.
Until next year, Naperville Winter Ale Fest. I’ll be back.