Beer best served chili

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Phil Collins

Walking around the festival grounds Sunday at Urbana’s annual International Beer Tasting and Chili Cook-off, I got a solid impression that the alcoholic beverages were the focus of the event.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a mighty fine serving of chili as much as the next guy, but with more than 180 varieties of brew on hand, I had to get my priorities in order.

Not to mention that chili was in short supply. Although several local businesses contributed their concoctions, only one variety was available by 6 p.m.

The crowd was mostly packed into the parking garage, which had 36 tables set up on beer-soaked concrete. With the exception of five $1 tables, beer samples were 50 cents each.

Served in plastic cups about the size of shot glasses, the samples are large enough to take in the flavor of the ale, stout or pilsner of your choice.

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While it seems at first that such small servings of alcohol do not do any favors for hopeful intoxicants, they were enough for at least one person who I saw to resample their beer (on its way back up, if you know what I’m saying).

I set out to harness as much variety into my sampling extravaganza as I could.

This resulted in an array of light and dark beers with both off-the-wall and more conventional flavors.

It was a simple goal because of the astounding types available in the area.

I am by no means an expert on beer, so a majority of beers around me were ones I was unfamiliar with.

I never thought some of the flavors I came across would fit in a beer.

From blueberry and raspberry, to cherry and vanilla (more on that last one later), it became clear that this wasn’t for someone who sticks to his regular every time.

The question before me was where to start. Luckily, the festival provided a full list of every beer available at every table.

Young’s Oatmeal Stout provided an auspicious start to the tasting. It is characteristically dark and heavy, with an oatmeal flavor that is undeniably present but not overpowering.

The Founders Red Rye was a bit of a downturn. I would only recommend this to those who like a very strong wheat taste in their beer. The eponymous rye flavor is not a subtle one. Maybe some people are into that, but I don’t see myself downing a full pint of it.

Things quickly took a turn for the better with the Pyramid Hefeweizen. This is a very light number, which does give way to the carbonation, but it isn’t short on taste. It has a distinct banana flavor to it, which I think is closer to banana chips than the actual fruit.

The Bischoff Dopplebock followed up with a more definite, strong taste. If you can’t tell by now, I’m a fan of the heavy, dark beers.

Next up was the mostly predictable Old Leg Over English Pale Ale. It tastes just like it sounds and looks – pale.

Mahr’s Hell was the perfect choice to follow that up with. It looks deceivingly light but tastes much more like a dark beer. It’s a smack in the taste buds when you’re expecting one thing and get the opposite.

The “most bizarre beer I’ve ever tasted” award goes to the Atwater Vanilla Java Porter. The vanilla taste is there but it’s subtle and coupled with some unknown other element to form an odd amalgam. This was the second sample that I’m sure I couldn’t finish a full pint of.

The Avery Karma Ale was another strange tasting sample, however this one was more successful. It has a definite fruity taste to it but I can’t quite put my finger on what specific fruit was in there.

I finished with the Inveralmond Black Friar Scottish, a dark variety that didn’t quite match the taste of other dark samples from the day.

To be fair, at this point the beer was getting warm, and in my opinion that didn’t do it any favors.