A few weekends ago, I decided that after years of sitting in a pile, our beer stickers needed to be put on the spare freezer. The stickers are mainly from craft breweries; places with names like Banging Gavel Brews, Wild Blossom Mead, Horny Goat, Buckle Down, Scorched Earth, and 51st Ward. A few of the stickers my JD had gotten before we met, a few are from events that we attended together (TEDx Naperville, RCPM and Pink Martini concerts), but the majority of the collection is from an event that I have attended every year since its inauguration in February 2014, the Naperville Winter Ale Fest.
Chicago winters can be long, grey, and cold and February can seem like the worst, it seems like there is nothing going on, except warily trying to get from place to place in the bitter cold. This is why I was thrilled when I discovered the Naperville Winter Ale Fest; an event where 2,500 plus beer enthusiasts gather to drink beer and make merry at the frozen tundra that is Frontier Park, in Naperville, IL. Outside, there is no shelter from the wind or cold, but the tents that are jam packed with friendly brewers serving up samples and groups of friends drinking beer huddling together for warmth.
I start looking forward to this festival around Thanksgiving the previous year. We decline other invitations so that we can attend in February of the following year, typically the third weekend of the month. One year, we almost didn’t make it; we had planned months before to go to Florida not knowing that the festival would be the same weekend. Fortunately, plans changed and we went to Florida a month later.
We missed over half the festival, the first year we went. Due to scheduling and transportation mixups, we got there with only 90 minutes left before they closed. Many of the brewers were out of beer, and there was a long line for the bathroom. Aside from that, I remember the ’14 festival, because it was there that I discovered Traveler’s grapefruit shandy; a grapefruit beer that is refreshing year ‘round. The next day I went to my nearest Binny’s and ordered a case.
Lesson learned, the following two years, we arrived long before the 12 noon opening. In 2016, we thought sure we would be the first ones in line, we got there so early. However, we were second only to our friend, Matt; whose love of craft beer rivals my JD’s.
We started going to the Winter Ale Fest out of my JD’s love for beer (and high tolerance for the winter temps) and over the years it has opened my eyes to all different kinds of brews, though I have to say, my tolerance for the cold hasn’t increased much. This year, I was extra prepared with my North Face mittens whose label said that they are made for “extreme cold”.
Every year, I try different beers that I would never consider buying and have I been introduced to some good ones; the chocolate stout by Northwest Indiana brewery One Trick Pony actually tasted like chocolate! They outdid themselves in 2017 with their coffee stout. After sampling Goose Island’s Bourbon Barrel Stout, I see what the hype is about. I think that perhaps it isn’t that I dislike stout. I just like it the way it is supposed to taste; a beautifully dark brown almost black liquid, with powerful and complex flavors whose contents are for savoring every last sip.
The beer community, brewers and drinkers is so friendly. This year I met a woman who has my exact winter parka. My JD kept thinking she was me in the crowds, so dragged her over so we could meet. We bonded over the love of our winter parka from Overstock dot com circa 2009; the coat that I hate to love… The squealing and excitement reached such a pitch that I’m sure nobody around us understood a word we were saying… They don’t make ‘em like they used to. It was $25. Every year I consider getting a new one, but don’t. It is so well-made. It was like talking to myself.
There were a couple of years when the temperatures didn’t break the 20s; so we gathered around the fire pit, and talked with other beer lovers, and then waited in line for a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich from the Toasty Cheese food truck. Yes, at this point, we have waited in line… in the cold… twice… first for beer, then for grilled cheese sandwiches. I would’ve waited in a third line for cupcakes, but that truck didn’t show.
This festival, perhaps unlike any other also features a marching band! It is an unexpected surprise to be sampling beer made by barely-known to well-known brewers, and then see the crowd part for the marching band to pass through. There is just something so cheering about a marching band, regardless of the temperature.
Recently cideries and meaderies have also joined the party. The best cider, in my opinion, at the ’17 festival was made by Right Bee Cider (right beside her). It is crisp, refreshing and tastes like it was just made. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey and water. B Nektar from Ferndale, MI is always a favorite, with their Zombie Killer; smooth, just sweet enough, and oh so easy-drinking.
Along with smaller brewers, some of the larger breweries (aka international conglomerates) make an appearance. This year was no exception; Guinness, whose booth was adorned with a sign that said, “The Guinness Project”, piqued my curiosity. As we approached, we saw that Guinness has a Nitro IPA. It is a departure from their signature product, so I was eager to see if it measured up to the Guinness I had had in Ireland. It did.
The Naperville Winter Ale Fest is one of my favorite things about winter. I need something to tide me over between Christmas and Easter. So, if you are ever in Chicago in February and want to hang out in the cold, this is the best way to do it.