Fewer things are more pleasing in a beer-geek’s life than a finely run beer fest. Sad that I could not join the activities at the Firestone Walker Invitational, I opted to sign up for a few legs of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America. I was fortunate enough to partake in the first three fests, after a quick journey to the San Francisco Bay Area. In so doing I’ve learned a few things that could make attending a traveling beer fest a more convenient and enjoyable experience. The summer is still with us and there are many options for the beer drinker looking for a great event to hitch their wagon to. Using my time spent on the Chico, San Diego, and Denver Beer Camp stops, along with past experiences, I’d like to share a few tips for your next beer fest.
You’d think any event that is centered on the enjoyment of fine beer is a fun and pleasant experience, but unless a fest is well organized, staffed and provisioned for, the event can quickly turn into what meteorologists call a ‘shitstorm’. I pinned a lot of faith to Sierra Nevada putting on a beer fest, considering I had never been to one ran by the Chico brewery. Take it as a rule of thumb to research your beer fest before buying up a ticket. Prior Beer Camps, as well as the Oktoberfest and Summerfest held by Sierra Nevada received fairly high acclaim. In my experience, beer fests ran by larger craft breweries (such as Stone’s Sour or Pour it Black Fests, or the aforementioned Firestone Walker Invitational) are usually the best planned and executed. It never hurts to ask a friend or give Google a spin and learn more about who is hosting the event, and if they’ve ran successful events in the past. I made the mistake of blindly buying tickets to what was possibly the worst beer fest in Southern California, The Ultimate Beer Fest in Costa Mesa (October 19th, 2013), and it was ultimately a waste of my money in every sense of the word. Some planning and research beforehand would have shown that the organizers of the event had no background, little to say about themselves, and few guarantees of success. [In the end I believe the company was an attempt to steal good beer-drinker’s money through LivingSocial, but I chalked the anger and disappointment up to experience].
Other things to keep in mind when choosing any fest are:
1.) Location – I’m going to take a stand here and claim that I’ve never been to a good beer fest that was held wholly indoors. Maybe there’s an aircraft hangar out there that hosts a damn good fest, but of the ones I’ve been to I enjoyed the most, they were held in spacious outdoor areas. Chico, San Diego, and Denver were all outdoor fests, and all provided some sort of shade or coverage from the heat (or rain in Denver’s case).
2.) Pouring Limits – This one can be a bit tricky to determine, but a good fest can have either limited or unlimited samples. BCAA events were all unlimited, but the options available were fine beers. And fortunately I did not come across unruly behavior because of it. But if you are limited to say fifteen 3 to 4 oz. pours, that’s still 45 to 60 oz. of beer for the cost of your ticket, which may be worth the price of admission if you are being poured a series of rare offerings. Which actually segways well into…
3.) What’s Being Poured – I have no greater nitpick than when I see flagship beers being poured at a beer fest. I can throw a rock and hit five bars that have Arrogant Bastard, Fat Tire, Pale Ale, or Double Barrel Ale on tap, the last place I want to see them is when the breweries should be bringing out their big guns. It is a big disappointment to go to a favored breweries booth, only to see beers that you’ve had time and time again. This complaint applies mostly to larger craft breweries. (I don’t know if Klamath Brewing’s Vanilla Porter is their most common offering, because it’s all the way in Klamath) Fortunately the Beer Camp events had by and large specialty or seasonal beers from the larger breweries, and the smaller breweries brought out many rare treats as well.
Getting There [and Staying There] Safely
Have a very good friend who’s willing to join you but not drink? If so then pay for their Designated Driver ticket (most fests have them) and definitely throw them some token of appreciation. Having a Designated Driver is usually the best bet to getting to a beer fest (and getting back safely). Do you know someone who lives near the fest grounds, and is willing to play taxi for the day? Once again, rewarding their good deed (with more than just gas money, don’t be stingy) is recommended. Another option is driving yourself and then taking a cab home, picking your car up the following day. This only works if the fest is not too far away, and if you’re driving from a thousand miles away then none of these options are for you.
At the Chico fest of BCAA I was fortunately dropped off and picked up by my better (and sober) half Lindsay, who had family in the area she spent time with while I partook in “research” at the Sierra Nevada Hop Field. In San Diego and Denver however, such a convenience was not available. I opted to try the site AirBnB for cheap lodging near the fest areas. While the places I stayed in were not as well equipped or comfortable as a dedicated hotel, they offered a place to sleep that wasn’t my car’s back seat. In Denver I found a room that was about a quarter mile from the fest, and at $65 for the night it certainly beat finding a cost effect hotel and cab ride into the downtown area. Of course your mileage may vary in this department. Check your options, and if you’re willing to take the risk, apps for room or ride sharing could be very convenient and cost effective in planning your beer fest experience. No guarantees though.
Are you looking only to get drunk at a beer fest? If so then don’t waste the money; go buy a few bombers of your favorite strong beers and pound them at home. Beer fests should be a treasure hunt for the best of the best the breweries have to offer, or for brews you’ve yet to experience. Inebriation may result from this but it should not be the end goal for you. I take the rule of thumb, for every beer I have that I am familiar with, I try two that I’ve never had. I started off my Chico Beer Camp stop with a Russian River Consecration, a beer I love but have had before several times. I then tried a few that I’ve never heard of from Great Basin Brewing, Klamath Brewing, and Fourwood Brewing, all from Northern California. Before standing in line for a Sucaba from Firestone Walker in Denver, I made sure to fill my tasting glass with a Coffee IPA from Fate Brewing that I never had before (and damn if it didn’t remind me of Stone’s Dayman).
It’s easy to lose track of how much you’ve had when you’re finding several beers that tickle your fermented fancy, so have a breather after a few samples and get some water. Any self-respecting beer fest will have plenty of water in the form of bottles or spouts provided throughout the grounds. In an effort to cut back on waste, Sierra Nevada opted to provide multiple water stations and recyclable cups for the attendees, so as to not create waste with plastic bottles. Make use of them, get some water every time you’re near one, it will rinse your glass and it will help pace yourself.
Know The Layout
The first thing I did when arriving to each of the BCAA stops was to walk throughout the fest grounds to get a sense of what was available. Each stop had three tents with invitee brewers and one main tent with ten of the collaborating brewers from the BCAA 12 pack. There were multiple restroom stations, a stage, water stations throughout and a designated food truck area. The breweries were also organized in alphabetical order within the tents, making finding a favored brewery fairly easy while walking about. Not every fest is as well organized as this, but once again, a quick walk to get your bearings is important. It’s also important to know where the exits are and which way to get to your car, taxi or hotel room. I had to rely on my phone’s compass in Denver because I have a remarkably bad sense of direction.
Sierra Nevada was very well prepared and made navigating their fests an easy experience. Maps with legends were all drafted for fest attendees. I think every fest of comparable scale should furnish a map, it makes finding the can or some food much easier and it reminds me of going to Knott’s Berry Farm as a kid.
I’m of the opinion that sharing and drinking beer is among the highest forms of contemporary social and cultural contact. The beer is a point of contact between old friends or complete strangers, and it fosters an atmosphere of cordiality and warmth for those who properly partake. Only in San Diego was I accompanied by Lindsay (my lovely and wonderful girlfriend) and there I met with the familiar faces of Eric McLaughlin of Liberation Brewing, Andrew Luthi of Ohana Brewing, Brian Hardyman of BeerQwest, and Nick Gingold, author of California Brewmasters. I had plenty of people I knew there who I could share a beer with, chat with and in general enjoy their company. When you are visiting a beer fest it is wonderful to share the experience with friends.
However, in Chico and Denver I was far away from home and all alone. I was hoping to speak with brewers at the events, but many were swamped by other attendees or fellow brewers to have a conversation with me, and did not wish to take too much time away from these busy men and women. So I opted to just find random people and talk to them. In Chico I spoke with the temporary laborers about their work with Sierra Nevada, curious as to how they were treated. After speaking with three of them, all adorned in bright green shirts, I was happy to find that even the short term help thoroughly enjoyed working for the first Beer Camp. In Denver I felt the despair of being alone and far from home fairly hard.It was here I had to quite literally force myself to make some new friends. After an hour of sulking I jumped into a group of attendees (playing the ‘journalist’ card and asking them questions about the fest). At first the group of six was startled by my presence, but once we started talking about the fest, and our favored styles of beer, we quickly chalked up a conversation about all different topics throughout the rest of the fest. If you find yourself alone at a beer fest and want to meet some new people, just start with the obvious, talk about the beer. “What’s your favorite?” “Any one’s you looking to try?” “What breweries are you looking forward to trying?” Easy and innocent questions that will break the ice. If you are a shy person like me you have to find the strength to say “the hell with it” and just try to make some new friends.
Final Quick Tips
1. Make sure your phone is charged. Pictures, navigation, emergencies, etc. You don’t want your battery running out when you need it the most.
2. Dress appropriately. Hat and sunscreen during summer beer fests, and something to keep you warm in the cooler months. Also, if you’re like me, try to get a dedicated beer fest outfit. It makes you easier to spot in the crowd and creates a conversation piece should you try to make some friends.
3. Bring cash. It would be heartbreaking if that pulled pork sandwich you desperately want from a food truck can only be bought with cash, and all you have is your debit card. Many food trucks are wising up to having a smartphone or tablet card reader, but having a couple of twenties is always a safe bet.
4. Notepad and paper. I never go to a beer fest without something to write on/with. It’d be a tragedy if you found your new favorite beer, only to forget its name the following morning.
5. Arrive early. You never know if you’ll hit traffic on the way to a fest, especially if it’s in a major city. I was delayed by two hours driving to Denver, but fortunately I planned on arriving in town 4 hours early to get settled. I ended up skipping my planned shower, but I still made it to the fest on time.
6. Eat something. This is Alcohol Consumption 101, but bears repeating. You’ll regret having all those high ABV stouts and barley wines a couple of hours into the fest because you forgot to have breakfast. Make use of the usual food trucks and get something to eat; preferably something heavy and starchy.
Every fest has a list of things it can do to ensure its attendees have a great time, but it is also up to the fest goer to prepare themselves as well. Hopefully this guide has proven useful, or at the very least reminds you what you’ve already known. Happy Beer Fest Season to all the imbibers out there, and of course….