Smile Politely

Drinking in the rain

In the midst of the rain and thunder on Saturday afternoon, I headed to downtown Urbana to check out the International Beer Tasting and Food Truck showcase. I drove down Main Street right before 3 p.m. (when the event opened), and the line was huge. It began at the corner of Main Street and Broadway and continued down the street to Crane Alley. I was incredibly surprised to see so many people out—the weather was pretty nasty.

Tickets to the event were $6 in advance and $8 at the gate, cash only. Other festivals this summer—Taste of Champaign-Urbana, Blues, Brews, and BBQ, and Urbana Sweetcorn—did not require admission. Thus this event already seemed different and in some capacity, more exclusive. Tickets were required for food and beer, and were 75 cents each. Ticket prices were 25 cents cheaper than the other food festivals this summer, but with the price of admission, this festival was more or less the same price as the others. 

The food trucks were parked along Broadway between Main and Elm. There were only seven food trucks: King Philly (Champaign), Two Blokes & A Bus (Bloomington), Healthy in a Hurry (Bloomington), Mas Amigos (Champaign), Chester’s BBQ (Champaign), Sweetie Sweets (Champaign), Cracked (Champaign). Tickets were required for food purchases, and food prices ranged from five tickets ($3.75) to twelve tickets ($9), which I (predictably) thought was ridiculous, especially after seeing some of the portions sizes. There wasn’t much to be terribly excited about on their menus.

The beer tables were located in the parking garage adjacent to Broadway. Therewere 32 tables, plus a few other tasting stations featuring four to six beers each, resulting in well over 200 beers. If you were one of the first 500 people to arrive, you received a commemorative tasting glass. This proved to be an added bonus, because your beer samples were poured into the glass and not into little plastic cups. The plastic cups seemed smaller—somewhere in the 2 ounce range—while the glasses held 4 ounces. Even though I don’t have any real evidence, it appeared that those with the commemorative glasses received a little more. Beer samples ranged from one ticket ($0.75) to five tickets ($3.75), with most beers 2 tickets ($1.50).

The parking garage was a cacophony of people. The damp, stank air filled the garage. Within minutes of opening the gates, the parking garage was filled. People bypassed the sad line of food trucks and went straight for the drinks. Can’t blame them, really; it wasn’t lunch or dinner time. Why not beat the crowd and work up an appetite? The entire event, more or less, was staffed by volunteers, many of who appeared to be college students sporting their respective fraternity t-shirts. Had there been people making out in the corners, I’d have sworn I was revisiting the frat parties of my youth. Despite my flashbacks, the crowd in the parking garage was quite large, and with the echoes of loud conversations, beer pouring, and music, it quickly became a packed event.

The (mostly) young people who volunteered to pour the beer were pleasant enough. It was quite disappointing, though, when I approached a table and upon asking what I should try, was met with a blank look and, “I don’t know.” This was an incredible forum in which to try all sorts of beers relatively cheaply, and there was a missed opportunity to inform or educate the audience about what they were drinking. Save for a few table labels, and a handful of brand representatives, I blindly tried things and made notes to look up the beers I liked when I got home.

This summer we’ve covered most of the food trucks in one way or another, so I focused on the ones that we haven’t yet tried. I had the Pancho Villa from Bloomington-based Two Blokes & A Bus (8 tickets, $6). The Pancho Villa was pork served over French fries and chili de arbol. Firstly, props to these guys for serving up a beautiful dish. Of all the food I tried and saw other people eating, this was a looker. The dish itself was pretty good. The pork wasn’t very flavorful–in fact it tasted like nothing, not even porky goodness–but it was incredibly moist. The chili de arbol topping was what the pork should have been cooked in; its vinegary tang was matched with a smoky spice that provided a much-needed kick for the bland pork. The French fries along the side of the pork were crispy and salty, but the fries under the pork were soggy, mushy, and otherwise not interesting to me. I generally run away from weird mayo-esque drizzles, but this one was non-threatening and totally fine. It didn’t have much taste or texture, so for me it was simply an aesthetic component to the dish. My husband and a friend both had the fish and chips (8 tickets, $6). There were way more chips than fish (only one piece!), but both friend and hubby seemed to enjoy it.

The other food truck I’ve been wanting to try is Sweetie Sweets. This new addition to the C-U food truck scene features desserts, and you probably already know how much I like desserts. Needless to say, I made a point of trying a couple of items. Unfortunately, I was too slow to try a Newcastle Brown Ale fudge brownie (4 tickets, $3)—they sold out in about an hour—but I did try a Guinness Dark Chocolate Cupcake (6 tickets, $4.50), and a chewy chocolate chip cookie (2 tickets, $1.50). I really appreciate that this truck took some time to think about and develop a menu around beer; the other trucks did not. I thought 6 tickets were a bit much for a cupcake, especially because it was just a regular sized cupcake. However, the cupcake was really good, but rather difficult to eat; the cake kept breaking off, and the weight of the ganache didn’t help to keep it upright. It wasn’t easily peeled out of the cake liner. The cake, though, was moist and chocolaty; I couldn’t taste much in the way of Guinness. The ganache frosting was a rich, velvety dark chocolate. It was soft and smooth, which helped pick up some of the crumbs of the cupcake. This town needs some better cupcakes, so I’m glad these have made an appearance. The chocolate chip cookie was good, too. Large and flat, the bottom was a little caramelized, and the cookie was chewy and buttery. It wasn’t overloaded with chocolate chips, which you either like or don’t like as a chocolate chip cookie eater. These cookies are perfect for ice cream sandwiches, so I might have to pick some up at the market before it’s too late.

There was no way that I’d be able to sample all of the beer available, but I did try a few, pretty much at random. The festival guide was helpful in that it laid out which beers were at which tables, but the actual signage in the parking garage was lacking. Signs were placed at and on the tables, which didn’t help once there were a thousand people inside. Also, despite being an International Beer Tasting, the domestic offerings far outweighed the international ones. Out of 32-plus tables, only 9 tables featured import beers.

The first beer I tried was St. Louis Peche, a Belgian beer based on a lambic. It was indeed peachy. It was also pretty sweet, which is to be expected, and smooth. I could see how drinking a larger amount of this stuff would seem a little like drinking syrup. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

At the next table, I tried California-based Ace Cider. The Joker was a champagne-style dry cider. It was clear and crisp, with a slightly sour finish on the tip of the tongue. I also tried the Ace Perry, an apple and pear cider infused with vanilla. This cider was pretty sweet, with very heavy notes of vanilla. It was a little too sweet for me, but might make a nice dessert beverage.

The last cider I tried was Vandermill Totally Roasted Cinnamon Pecan cider. This Michigan-based cider mill steeps candied pecans in their hard apple cider to create this unique beverage, and it was pretty different. I was expecting the smell to be overpowering, but there wasn’t much smell at all. The expectation of a sweet/tart cider was obliterated by the warmth of roasted nuts and cinnamon. The warm flavors of pecan and cinnamon were in sharp contrast to the effervescent cold cider. The cinnamon flavor and, oddly enough, texture, was incredibly overpowering. 

We next checked out the Stone Brewing Company beers. Stone is a craft brewery based in California, and I tried the 17th Anniversary Götterdämmerung IPA. So, I’m not much a fan of IPAs, and this one didn’t do it for me. It was quite pungent to the nose, and despite a sweet start at the front of the sip, it had a very bitter finish that left a bad taste in my mouth.

After that disaster, I moved along to the Triptych table. These Savoy brewers offered up three different beers: an English brown ale, an IPA, and a stout. The English brown ale had a 4% alcohol level and was a lovely brown-caramel color. It had notes of caramel and was smooth. The IPA smelled woodsy, and to my palette, was bitter. My friends really enjoyed the IPA, so if you like IPAs, you should check this one out. The stout had a nice rich color and smelled good.

I also managed to steal a taste of the cask of Two Brothers Atom Smasher dry-hopped with Hallertau Hops; it was a beautiful amber-ish color, smooth, and had warm notes. The last sample I tried was New Zealand’s 8 Wired Saison Sauvin. The volunteer poured this beer nicely, and the aroma was sweet. The beer was smooth and refreshing, with light citrus notes; it was a lovely way to end the evening.

This event was all about the beer, and provided an opportunity for beer aficionados and novices alike to sample many different items for a reasonable price. Unlike the limited and, quite frankly, uninteresting food offerings, the beer selection was pretty damn impressive. There were clearly people in the area who were waiting all year for this event; I’m certain they were not disappointed. Here’s to hop[p]ing next year is just as good.

Editor’s Note: Food writer Bob Yoon also attended. Here are his thoughts on the beer and food he sampled. 

Beer:

Affligem blond: This Belgian ale was right up my alley—creamy and yeasty with a little bitterness.


Stone Levitation: As expected, all the Stone beers were very hoppy, but this one mellows out on your palate pretty quickly. It’s very, very, well balanced.

Stone 17th Anniversary Götterdämmerung IPA: Too hoppy for my taste, but I will concede that this is a very well made beer with a very long finish.

Stone Coconut IPA: It smelled like sunscreen, and was too hoppy to taste coconut. 


Triptych English Brown: Very smooth, caramel almost like a light stout. My favorite beer of the day.

Triptych IPA: Very hoppy, steady flavor.

Triptych Bourbon Stout: First thing that came to my mind was soy sauce.


Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor: Despite a bad pour, it was fresh, zesty, and had a lingering
flavor.

Kasteel Rouge: I asked one of the pourers behind the Belgian table what should I use my last three tickets on, she said this one without hesitation. It tasted like cherry NyQuil which transitions to a metallic, vinegar finish. An experience for sure, but I will probably stay away from this beer.

8 Wired Saison Sauvin: Up until a few months ago, I was going through a saison phase but started to be turned off by how sour tasting some of them can get. The predominant flavor was citrusy, not sour, with a nice little bite to it. Maybe I should start drinking these again.


Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude: By far the strangest beer I tried. Smoky and what I could only describe as band aid-y, it reminds me of some of the cool and funky ciders Thad Morrow carries at bacaro.

Food:

King Philly: I don’t understand why a proper Philly cheese steak doesn’t seem to exist outside of the City of Brothery Love. At first, the signs were promising: Thin slices of meat, sautéed onions and the essential cheese whiz. In the end, the meat was a little too salty and could have been greasier. As I watched them cook a batch of meat, I started to see why the meat was not as good as it could have been: it was pre-sliced and frozen. A true Philly cheese steak purveyor with any sense of pride cuts his or her own meat on premise. I would suspect that King Philly wasn’t using the greatest quality of meat, either.


Healthy in a Hurry, fish taco: The fish is great—seasoned and cooked perfectly. Everything else was puzzling. Why add cheese if you’re trying to make a healthy taco? Also, why add cole slaw? (BY)

 

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Editor-in-Chief

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