On beer festivals

By: Brett Yates

Despite a plethora of local opportunities and a healthy interest in fermented malt beverages, I’d never attended a beer festival until this month, when some friends convinced me to go to the New England Edition of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America in Portland, Maine. I now have some thoughts on this type of event.

Beer festivals—for those who don’t know—are fun, frequently outdoor gatherings that celebrate the art of brewing and the pleasure of drinking craft beer; brewers typically gather in a designated place to offer samples of various styles of ale and lager to bearded men (and occasionally others). There are hundreds of these alcohol-carnivals in the United States every year, the largest being the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, which typically attracts about 50,000 drinkers and nearly 500 brewers. Many readers, I presume, will be familiar with nearer iterations: the Killington Brewfest in autumn or Okemo’s recent Hops in the Hills.

Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, which ran from July 19 to Aug. 3, was an ambitious cross-country tour conducted by America’s second-largest craft brewer, starting in California and ending in North Carolina, with seven stops. Apparently, every single craft brewery in the nation (there are nearly 3,000) was invited to pour two beers each at Beer Camp—hence the need for multiple festivals. About 5,000 drinkers from all over the Northeast came to Thompson’s Point in Portland—a mostly empty, formerly industrial waterfront space awaiting massive redevelopment—for the experience. There were 120 breweries, food trucks with long lines, and live music.

I try to avoid any event with lots of people, but for almost anyone else who likes beer, this type of occasion probably sounds like a no-brainer. The (large) beer festival experience, however, differs from the typical beer-drinking experience in that, rather than drinking two or three beers in 12- to 16-ounce servings, you’ll probably drink very small pours of at least 30 beers. The festival will supply a miniature glass that you’ll refill again and again; each time, you’ll have a sip or two and then move on. This is the main draw for most beer geeks and novices alike: the chance to expand one’s knowledge and make new discoveries. In Portland, I talked to and sampled beers from countless small vendors from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut; they were all new to me. Some of their beers were pretty good.

The trouble, I suppose, is that I don’t actually remember almost any of them, even though I remained fairly sober throughout: it was a five-hour event, and I took my time, to avoid inebriation. Still, the only beer from the festival I can recall off the top of my head is the Cannoli Beer from Shebeen Brewing Company in Wolcott, Conn.; I can remember this one because 1) it was a beer that tasted like cannoli, and 2) it was the most disgusting beer I drank the whole night.

A critic might argue that the real experience of attending a massive beer festival is the experience of sipping so many forgettable beers from so many breweries you’ve never heard of (and will never encounter again) that, by the end, they all taste the same. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends in an outdoor setting with beer, but the drinking format didn’t really work for me: the overabundance of options made me restless, and I found myself dumping out the lion’s share of my already miniature pours in order to move on to potentially more interesting beers—which would turn out to be not completely satisfying either, which meant that I’d repeat the process, leaving me in a twitchy cycle of pseudo-drinking quite different from the lovely experience of sitting down with a full beer I’d purchased and therefore had fully committed to.

It has struck me in the past that sample pours in general are inherently dissatisfying—an issue that extends beyond beer festivals (and brewery tours). Since beer bars today have more options than ever before, many of them encourage customers to order tasting flights rather than full pints in order to explore more of the menu. This, I believe, is a mistake: it’s my opinion that one hasn’t really experienced a beer until one has consumed at least eight ounces of it (and preferably 16). With samplers, a big beer with bold flavors and high ABV will inevitably seem superior to a modest, well-crafted one; it’s hard to tell from a couple ounces whether said big beer will actually remain enjoyable over the long haul, but we think it’s better because it makes a strong impact up front. A sessionable pale lager, by contrast, will seem utterly pointless in a tasting glass—it seemingly doesn’t have enough taste—yet its humbler flavor profile may create an immensely satisfying drinking experience over the course of a pint or three.

Simple, steady pleasures, however, are not what most beer geeks today are chasing, and every time I’ve allowed the increasingly fanatical culture to lead me deeper than I normally venture into the overheated craft beer wars—where consumers, not brewers, are the ones vying for supremacy (of knowledge, of experience, of hipness)—I’ve felt vaguely annoyed, whether from queueing for four hours to buy a limited-release DIPA or from drinking a rare bourbon-barrel-aged stout in the a.m. because I knew it would tap out by afternoon.

Who really needs 240 beers on tap? I think I might enjoy myself better at a smaller festival—perhaps one just around the corner—where I’d be more likely to give each beer the attention it deserves. What I love best of all, however, is a thoughtful selection of about ten draft beers, served with food, in a smallish, convivial establishment called a “bar”—the same experience, more or less, that beer-drinkers have had for centuries. Beer culture has changed a lot recently—mostly for the better—but some things will never be improved upon.

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