Smile Politely

The First Annual Bourbon, Beer & Bacon Festival

The first annual Bourbon, Beer & Bacon Festival happened last weekend. Ryan Kuramitsu and Scott Wells attended the festival and focused in on food and music, respectively. 

Last Saturday I attended Champaign’s first-ever Bourbon, Beer & Bacon Festival. The venue was a somewhat unusual pick — a breezy and sprawling warehouse in the outskirts of Champaign called the Fluid Event Center, which offered more than ample parking for the festival’s hundreds of attendees.

The event center’s vagabond ethos intimately reflected the kind of atmosphere (and people) one might expect to find at a bourbon, beer, and bacon festival. A massive banner advertising a local shooting range hung across the entry wall. Country music blasted from stereos scattered throughout the otherwise empty building, and there was live music later, as an engaging local band called Upshot rocked the stage to promote their new album Bring Bourbon! As someone who is definitely used to a younger, campustown crowd, I was caught off guard by the bellies and beards that surrounded me. I rarely see this amount of facial hair and camouflage/plaid baseball caps, vests, and sweaters outside of barn dances or shows like Duck Dynasty.

Though all food needed to be paid for in cash, tickets had to be purchased and exchanged for bourbon and beer samples. Beers were conservatively doled out in Dixie cups, and the bourbon portions, allotted in miniscule plastic shots, meant that trying even the cheaper beers and bourbons became somewhat expensive over time. Each ticket was $.75 and every sample cost at least two or three tickets, which put the price — per sample — at around $1.50 to $2.25, or more. The costliest items in sight were eight tickets each ($6): a new Frank Sinatra-inspired Jack Daniels release and a not-yet-released Jim Beam that I’m sure drew longtime connoisseurs.

The event was heavy on beer, light on bacon, and somewhere in the middle on bourbon. There were only five food options, all boasting pork-inspired dishes except for Amano’s Pizza, stationed near the restrooms. Gibson City Meats offered free samples of their honey and teriyaki jerkies, snack sticks, and jalapeño and cheese inflected summer sausages. Gracie’s Sports Grille & Pizza laid out their unmissable Chicken Peg Legs: tender, juicy chicken legs wrapped in bacon, smoked, and topped with an exact amount of Cajun spices. Chester’s BBQ boasted spicy, delicious, and moist pork tenderloin stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in bacon. Slices were placed on buns and drizzled with hot barbecue sauce.

The drink vendors came from states away, and also from right here in town. There were larger, flagship companies in attendance (like Jim Beam and Sierra Nevada) and more familiar enterprises as well, local gems like Triptych (Savoy) and JT Walker’s (Mahomet). Of particular note: Triptych Brewing’s tart and playful “These Aren’t the Blueberries You’re Looking For” wheat beer and their hoppy and bitter citrus-tinted “Little Secret.“

The Bearded Brewery is one new addition to the Champaign scene, and I sampled their “Pearky Pig,” an ambitious but underwhelming pear and bacon porter whose potential was weakened by its watered-down endnotes. 

I also enjoyed sampling Dogfish Head, Woodchuck, and Angry Orchard ciders, as well as Chicago-based Revolution Brewing’s Anti-Hero IPA and Bottom Up Wit. (I walked right past a marijuana-themed “grass-tasting” liquor and a bacon-flavored vodka — called Bakon and sprinkled with bacon bits on site). Though I’m not a bourbon fan, I tried Collingwood Canadian Whisky, which smelled of maple syrup, went down smooth, and hinted of vanilla and graham crackers after its prickly introduction. I also sampled Evanston-based FEW Spirits’ Rye Whiskey, which was crisp, dry, and tasted of burning cola.

I didn’t get to check out any of the free seminars, but I did catch a glimpse of the communal bacon-eating contest towards the end of the night, in which many vendors and attendees competed.

There were more than 40 breweries in attendance, boasting over 75 whiskeys, which wasn’t a bad lineup for the festival’s inauguration. Many of the bourbon and beer tables staffed by dozens of fraternity brothers donating their hours. It was nice to see younger faces around, but the volunteers often didn’t know much about their products. However, if the event does return to Champaign next spring, I’m looking forward to more vendors in the food department, and to sampling more creative and bacon-inspired dishes. It will also be interesting to see if event organizers place more of an emphasis on local products rather than larger companies, and whether the festival’s “country” culture will at all change to become more accessible to other Champaign-Urbana residents. (RK)

The rain on Saturday may have had an impact on the Illinois Marathon, but it sure didn’t keep anyone away from the Bourbon, Beer & Bacon festival held at the Fluid Event Center in Champaign. At any given moment, hundreds were in attendance visiting with friends and sampling the seemingly endless assortment of adult beverages on display from both corporate entities and local merchants. Seminars ran throughout the day on topics such as the processes of barrel aging and home brewing, and there were even a couple of eating contests for those who were not concerned about their caloric intake at the moment.

The highlight of the evening began at 8 p.m. when Champaign-Urbana’s own Upshot took the stage. Self-describing their musical style as “A touch of rock, A dash of blues, A pinch of soul, N’ a heap o’ funk”, Sara Hall and fellow band members Matt Zimmerman, Jared Manker, Seth Anders, and Peety Thomas delivered a searing assortment of original and cover music to the crowd. Many in the audience sang along, and the energy flowing from the stage was infectious.  Promoting their new release, aptly titled Bring Bourbon, the band kept the people dancing until the ten o’clock hour. (SW)

All photos by Scott Wells.

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