OTTAWA — The festivals in Ottawa just keep getting bigger and better. The city hosted its fourth annual Morel Fest on Saturday, with a twist: the festival now includes a home brew tasting tent.
“I’m a big mushroom hunter,” said home brewer Michael Littrell of Decatur. “Morels and beer are my two favorite things in the world, so I couldn’t be happier.”
“I think it’s a great coordination of events — morel mushrooms and home brewing,” Littrell added. “It’s all about getting back to nature.”
New state legislation in September made it possible for home brewers to offer beer at festivals that do not include factory-brewed distributors. The Marseilles Area Society of Homebrewers (MASH) wasted no time, contacting the city of Ottawa the following month to request a place in one of the city’s festivals. The city tasked Ottawa Visitors Center with finding that place, and the brewers were paired with the annual mushroom convention.
Morel Fest includes a seminar on Friday night and a competitive hunt Saturday morning followed by a morel auction. This year, mushroom enthusiasts were joined by 10 home brew clubs offering more than 50 varieties of beer. The morel auction was set up at one end of Jackson Street at Washington Park, and the home brewers pitched their tent on the other end of the block. Prior to the morel auction at 1 p.m., the brew tent was where the action was.
Ottawa Visitors Center executive director Julie Johnson deemed the Morel MASHup, as the new feature was dubbed, a success.
“We’re gonna need a bigger tent,” she said. “It’s crazy down there.”
Home brewers from near and far were excited to participate in the festival.
“This is the first attempt that we know of in Illinois that’s just home brew,” said MASH member Rob Hasty. For now, home brewers in Illinois are issued permits that allow them to serve a maximum of three 2-ounce samples per person. Patrons entering the brew tent at Morel Fest received three tickets to keep track of their samples, along with a wooden “nickel” to cast their vote for their favorite brewing club.
Mike Allison of Springfield said he and other home brewers would like to be allowed to serve a total of eight 2-ounce samples at festivals instead of three.
“You’re looking at 16 ounces, so it’s not a tremendous amount of beer,” he said.
According to Hasty, the law already allows for home brewers to serve 16 ounces of samples per person, but so far the permits issued limit them to the three 2-ounce servings.
The home brewers’ desire for change didn’t stop them from enjoying Saturday’s perfect weather and the camaraderie that comes with their hobby.
“We’re having a riot here,” said Curt Bruck of Ottawa, member of 2 Rivers Home Brew. “We like to see all the other clubs.”
Since home brew festivals in Illinois are not allowed to sell alcohol, only to offer it, proceeds from the home brew tent went to the Ottawa Visitors Center.
Oh, yeah ... there were also MORELS
The long winter made for a late start to morel season, according to morel enthusiast Michael Littrell of Decatur. The season begins in the south and moves north about 100 miles per week, putting Decatur about a week ahead of Ottawa.
“I picked about 60 already this year,” Littrell said. “They started showing up about a week ago and they’re just now starting to pick up.
According to Sarah Mustered, a Morel Fest board member who served as a guide on the hunt, the 200 participants found upwards of 200 morels. The group she led found about 40.
Hunters submitted their finds for judging, and cash prizes totally $950 were distributed to six winners.
“It is the biggest purse in the United States,” said Ottawa Visitors Center executive director Julie Johnson.
The grand prize of $500 went to the hunter who found the largest morel. A prize of $200 went to the hunter who found the most morels. The first place in the men’s and women’s categories were awarded $75, and second place in each category was awarded $50.
The home brewers were also judged — but no cash prizes for them. One brew from each club was awarded a “Mayor’s Choice” medallion, followed by one of those ten brews being named “Best in Show.” Participants in the tasting were allowed to vote for “Best Overall Club,” and the winning club was awarded a traveling trophy.
Amy Flanery can be reached at (815) 220-6975 or firstname.lastname@example.org.