Austin L. Ray
We’re standing line for maybe 30 seconds before I overhear someone talking loudly about a $7,000 bottle of Cantillon. They only made 180 of them, he tells his pals, droning on until one of them finally says something in return: “It’s just a beer.” The whale-hunter doesn’t dignify this with so much as a pause, much less a response, instead going back to his story as his friends and I go back to staring straight ahead at maybe a quarter mile’s worth of similarly beer-obsessed humans who have come from all over the world to stand in this line outside in the San Pedro sun.
While that anecdote is not, perhaps, an unusual one for any number of of brew meccas like the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago, or Hunahpu’s Day in Tampa, none of those actually have Cantillon pouring inside their doors, much less pouring half a dozen offerings, as The Festival does. But here’s the thing: Cantillon is just the tip of the Festival iceberg. This year boasted more than 90 beer makers from places as far flung as Japan (Harvestmoon, Baird, Minoh), New Zealand (8 Wired, Peckham’s, Renaissance), and Spain (Ribela), with no shortage of Belgian (Struise, De Ranke, Blaugies), and hyper-regional-and-highly-sought-after U.S. breweries (Hill Farmstead, Side Project, Bluejacket). All of this without mention the meads and ciders. And the Hanson. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The Festival is such an embarrassment of beer riches that tables from perfectly stunning breweries that have brought with them not-at-all-common selections have no line whatsoever. I imagine this is due in part to the fact that the event doesn’t overcrowd like many similar festivals, but it’s also a credit to just how unbelievable the roster is each day. (While we only attended one
four-hour session, there are four of them total, two on Saturday and two on Sunday) U.S. craft beer OGs like Allagash and Hair of the Dog and Firestone Walker never had huge lines. For me, this meant drinking delicious, not-easy-to-find beers like Nancy, Pannepooch Reserva, and Parabola with little-to-no wait.
I’m standing on the expansive slab of pavement that both separates CRAFTED from the soon-to-open Brouwerij West, and a smattering of food trucks from a couple walls of porta-potties. I’ve got a little buzz. From the beers, sure, but also from a well-planned event filled with joyous humans happily chatting about similar interests. The thing about beer festivals is that they’re extremely hard to do just right. Go too broad or too big and it’s an unmitigated shitshow, replete with pretzel necklaces and costumes, the kind of thing that only a blacked-out kid in his early twenties can truly enjoy.
The Great American Beer Festival, for example, with its 50,000 people crammed into a massive building in Downtown Denver feels more like Dragon*Con than an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon tasting exotic beers. When someone drops their tasting glass in the Colorado Convention Center, a series of “Oooooooooooh”’s reverberate out from the impact site like a frat party atomic blast provoking disgruntled faces to any reasonable human within hundreds of feet.
On the other side of the spectrum, regional festivals suffer from all-too-often featuring the same old beers. If I’m going to give you my $50+ and fight a crowd, you’d better be bringing something I can’t get at the bottle shop. The Festival finds a pleasant middle ground, a mix of intense-but-approachable obsessives—both the folks making and drinking the beers—in a space that has plenty of room for all of them, and plenty of booths so that, for the most part, nobody’s waiting around for tasty beer. It’s while I’m having this revelatory moment, staring up from the pavement at the sun
as it starts to duck behind some palms, that someone drops their substantial and well-designed Festival tasting glass, which happens to be made out of actual glass. It shatters on the concrete, and those surrounding the carnage yell, “Ooooooooooh!” like a pack of juvenile delinquents as a frowning, beleaguered security guard shuffles up to make sure no one steps on the glass and to quickly get it cleaned up. OK, so maybe you can win ‘em all. But I’ll let it slide for the best beer festival I’ve ever attended. And I’ll be back next year for sure, wherever they decide to hold this thing.