This month, we're collaborating with Expedia and their Viewfinder site, with a specific challenge in mind — "show us what Oktoberfest means to Chicago." And stop number three makes the leap from traditional German-style celebrations to one of Chicago’s biggest up-and-coming craft breweries, Revolution Brewing.
Revolution has a reputation in Chicago for making technically beautiful beers, whether they’re traditional or progressive. Head brewer, Jim Cibak, makes an Oktoberfest beer each year, and he believes the 2014 is their most refined version yet. With a toasty malt profile, and a Hallertauer Mittelfruh hop balance, the beer is crisp, and highly drinkable, the way any Oktoberfest beer should be.
Now in their third year of Oktoberfest celebrations, Revolution capitalized on their previous successes by throwing the biggest party they could muster in the back of their production facility on Kedzie Avenue. The line slowed to a near-halt almost immediately, as the crew worked by flashlight in the drizzling rain to check in ticket buyers. An unusual chill, even for Chicago, worked its way into the bones of hoodie-clad patrons. Behind check-in, heavy liter steins were unboxed as fast as people could grab them. It was time for the beer to flow.
The outdoor stage hurled contemporary polk-rock sounds of the touring Bolzen Beer Band into the parking lot where a few hundred people waited in line for their first pours. Those willing to brave the cold, and the music, took advantage of this initial opportunity to score a well-earned liter. Others, like myself, were lured by the sounds of traditional polka, the smell of BBQ, and the warm lights of the interior space. But rounding the first corner sent a different kind of shiver through my body — the line for beer was so long, you couldn't see the other end.
Dozens of Oktoberfest tables lined the space, but many of the seats remained empty, because in order to keep your stein full, you had to take your pour and head straight to the back of the line if you hoped to get another before the event was over. Almost 90 minutes in, and we had only gotten our first. Throughout the night, the only folks getting a beer on the regular were those being dumped into the dunk tank, one good pitch after another. By the time the band played “Roll out the Barrel” the irony was too much for the crowd. The ending “Prost!” to Revolution resulted in pockets of booing instead.
There’s no crowd I’d want to piss off less than an Oktoberfest crowd. Even if you were among the few who were able to get a few beers (VIPs especially), or you decided to forgo the lines for the photobooth and carnival games instead, here's why it still matters. At $30 a ticket, good for only one stein of beer, with all extras $5, and all proceeds going to charity, some quick back-of-the-envelope math will show you that they could have raised about $10k more for every turn on a crowd that size. But many people just didn't have it in them to wait for a second pour. So beyond just being a good host, and showing people a good time, craft brewers need to be good partners as well.
The Revolution crew tried to do some damage control. As the line started to extend to impossible lengths, sales director Don Bichsel scrambled a few carts of canned beer and handed them out for free (displacing the $5 extra pours people were in line for). But even at that pace, there was no sating such a large audience with empty steins — indeed, many abandoned hope halfway through and set out for a nearby bar (we hustled over to Smallbar).
We tend to think of our history in beer as simpler times — simple beers, simple bars, simple festivals — and we extoll the virtues of craft beer as being sophisticated, more progressive, enlightened inheritors of our favorite beverage. But throwing a party for a couple thousand people, especially people in the mood for a real celebration, is no small feat. When you attend an Oktoberfest dinner and the wait staff is buzzing by with two fistfuls of steins, or a church festival where the beer taps seemingly never shut off, you're not witnessing a simple thing. You’re taking part in a centuries-old tradition, and like any tradition, it’s pretty damn dialed-in.
Even beyond the logistics of an Oktoberfest, which any factory foreman would be proud of from an operational stand-point, there’s the warmth and communal nature that’s evoked each year that doesn’t happen automatically. But it does happen naturally. Showing people a good time is an art all its own. The tables are decorated, the beer is cold, and when it’s done right, the smells and sounds of Oktoberfest ring true. It doesn’t always have to look the same — but it does need to come from the same spirit.
Are small craft brewers ready, or even capable of throwing a party to rival the Oktoberfest we all envision when September rolls around? I think they are. But it won’t be as simple as selling a bunch of tickets, and pouring a bunch of beer. Like anything this industry sets its mind to, craft can do our beer history justice, and maybe even do it one better. But it needs to have its soul in the right place to do it. And when it’s not in the right place, we’re going to see it from a mile away (approximately the length of the beer line you’re standing in).