Five years ago, Lou Dog Events Founder Josh Seago never thought he’d be running a craft beer festival production company, let alone one that’s set to host nearly 20 major events this year. At the time, he was a banker with a passion for craft beer and a proclivity towards entrepreneurship. And then something happened. He looked around at the beer fests he was attending and thought to himself, “I can do this. And I think I can do it better.” Famous last words.
The first fest he hosted was supposed the only event, but shortly afterwards Josh had a crazy idea: an outdoor beer festival… in February. “The brewers, the vendors, the ticket buyers all thought we were crazy” says Josh of the early days, “I think that was the reason a lot of people bought a ticket.”
It was a huge success.
Now, with the third year of Naperville Winter Ale Fest around the corner, Josh is preparing to throw his biggest party yet. With over 130 beers from breweries around the country, food trucks, fire pits, Randall stations, ice sculpture demonstrations, giant thermoses of hot cider and a 12 piece New Orleans-style marching jazz band, it’s going to be unlike any beer fest you’ve ever been to. To learn more about what makes this year’s fest so special, we sat down with Josh over a few pints at Solemn Oath Brewery in his hometown Naperville.
Let’s start with the big one: why host an outdoor beer festival in Illinois in the winter?
I think the biggest piece is that beers change with the season. The beer that’s available in the winter is different from what’s available in the summer. People come to the Winter Ale Fest and they look at the list and say, “Wait a minute, these beers are completely different from any other beer fest I’ve been to!” That’s what we love to hear.
With so many beer festivals out there, why is this one so popular amongst brewers?
I would say it’s not a secret formula or anything but we have a lot of respect for the industry and the brewers. There’s certain things we said we’d always do at our festivals and certain things we won’t do. For starters, we always purchase the beer. We’re never going to ask for donations or freebies or discounts. The breweries work really hard making great beer, and if every festival asked for donations all the time, all they’d be doing is making beer to give away.
The other thing is that we know the brewers work really hard during the week and when they come out to the festival on the weekend, that just turns into a sixth work day for them. So we always line up volunteers to be available to help pour. A lot of times we find that the brewer or brewery rep wants the chance to stand around and talk with guests to create that connection, so we let the volunteer fill the glass for them. That’s really they point of a festival anyways, is to build the brand and get the story out there but that’s difficult to do if you’re just trying to work the line the entire time.
What makes a good beer festival?
The experience. It’s all about the experience. Don’t get me wrong, the beer has to be good but these days, most beer festivals have good beer, it’s more about the experience, the opportunity to interact with the brewers and to enjoy the beer in a unique setting. We bring out live music, an ice sculpture demonstration, a 12 piece live New Orleans jazz band, fresh fried donuts, Two Brothers coffee, food trucks, fire pits… and more. Would you stand around in the middle of a parking lot in February and drink beer? You might… but when there’s three different fire pits, and seven food trucks and a bunch of crazy guys running around playing in a brass band, it makes it an experience.
The other thing that we pride ourselves on is building relationships with the brewers and distributors. We know all of the brewers in the Chicagoland area by first name so while we by no means expect all of our beers to be rare, we do ask for something special here and there. For the Winter Ale Fest, our good friends at Goose Island will be bringing four different variants of Bourbon County Stout — Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, Bourbon County Regal Rye and Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. It’s pretty rare to have one variant, but to have four is really special.
What does Naperville Winter Ale Fest have to offer to a guest that’s new to craft beer?
If you’re new to craft beer, a craft beer festival is the perfect opportunity to experience what the beer world has to offer. At Winter Ale Fest, you can sample pretty much as many 3oz samples as you want and if you don’t like it, dump it and move on. It’s your opportunity to go and find out what styles you like, what breweries you like and what your tastes are. If you sit
at a bar for four hours and ask the bartender for 40 different samples, they’re going to get upset… but here, that’s the whole point! Some people tell me that they don’t like beer and my response is that if you go to a beer fest and there are 100+ different beers, chances are you’re going to find at least one that you like. Probably more.
Walk us through the different pieces of the festival — what can guests except?
With your ticket you get a commemorative sample glass and a punch card for 18 3oz samples and three home brew samples. People can buy additional beer tickets for $.50 so for $5 more you can get 10 additional samples.
The Beer Tents
There will be four large tents — circus tents — with over 65 different breweries. Each brewer will be pouring at least two beers, specifically chosen to complement each other and show off what the brewery is about.
We also have seven other breweries that are outside the tents in the courtyard. These will all be Chicagoland breweries like Pollyanna, Solemn Oath, Two Brothers, 5 Rabbit, Goose Island, and more.
I’m really excited about our 12-piece New Orleans all-brass jazz band. If you’ve been to Mardi Gras and seen a brass band going down Bourbon St, that’s what this is. There’s no stage so they’re just going to wander around the festival blasting music. It’s a really fun time. Joyus. It’s like being at a parade.
The Samuel Adams Homebrewers Pavilion
The Sam Adams Homebrewers Pavilion will feature beers from two Illinois homebrew clubs, PALE Homebrew Club (http://www.palebrewers.com/) and Spent Grain Society (http://www.spentgrainsociety.org/). They’ll bring in a bunch of different beers that will be available to sample. What’s exciting about that is the home brewers are really pushing the envelope and brewing some experimental beers.
The Infusion Tent
We have a separate tent called the Infusion Tent where we’ll have four beers that we’re running through Randalls. A Randall is a device created by Dogfish Head that’s two chambers, and you pack one chamber with ingredients — anything from fruits to chocolate to fresh hops to whatever you want to put in there, and the beer flows through the first chamber and gets infused with those flavors before flowing into the second chamber. So you can impart flavors of coffee or fresh hops or fruit into the beer. You can take a flagship beer and give a whole new spin not he beer by imparting those ingredients into it. <READ MORE ABOUT THE INFUSION TENT>
The Food Trucks
We have seven different food trucks coming in from across the Chicagoland area. All of them are local food trucks doing really creative, fun things. We’re bringing in a nice range too so we’ll have healthy options, vegetarian options, vegan options. There’s going to be something for everyone.
The First Pits
We have three fire pits out there with seating so people can warm up. You can smell the fire when you’re out there which makes this really comforting, warm atmosphere.
The Hot Hard Ciders
We’re also doing Hot Hard Ciders. We’ve picked two craft ciders and will warm them up in a brew kettle right to the point before boiling so we don’t lose the alcohol or the flavor and then once it’s warmed up, we’ll dump them into 10 gallon thermoses for serving. It’s going to be delicious.
What are some tips that you’d give to guests of the festival?
First off, it’s definitely an outdoor winter beer festival. You have to dress appropriately for the weather. I tell people to dress as if they’re going skiing or sledding because you’re going to be outside for four hours. Secondly, come in with an open mind. When you first arrive, don’t go straight to the breweries that you know. Instead try beer from breweries you’ve never heard of, or a style you don’t know anything about and find your new favorite. And lastly, remember that it’s about community. Talk to the people you’re standing with in line, talk to the brewers, ask them about the beer. I love asking people what their favorite beer has been so far and then I go out and try that beer.
Our overall goal is to do as much as we can to support craft beer and the ability to introduce people to new styles, new beers and new breweries is so important to us.
About Naperville Winter Ale Fest
Situated on the frozen tundra of Naperville’s Frontier Park – Naperville Winter Ale fest will feature over 130 unique beers from more than 65 different breweries. Pull out your long-johns and parkas, it’s time to experience winter’s best craft beers. The fest will also feature live music and food from some of Chicagoland’s favorite food trucks.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
12:00 to 4:00 pm