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Session #16: Beer Festivals

For our 16th Session, our host, Thomas, from Geistbear Brewing Blog, has chosen the topic “beer festivals” for June, the month when beer festival season really heats up.

I don’t really recall the first beer festival I ever attended. When I first moved to California in 1985, I lived in and around San Jose so it was probably the California Small Brewers Festival that was held at the Tied House in Mountain View. I suppose it could have been either of the now-defunct San Jose International Beer Festival or the Brew Ha-Ha in downtown San Jose’s Pedro Square, but I think those were both later. It may even have been the old KQED Beer & Food Festival in San Francisco, but I doubt it. Being in the back parking lot of the Tied House is the memory that sticks out the most clearly. I can still picture in my mind the giant tent with breweries positioned in a circle around the outer edge with the center filled with long benches and chairs in the center. Those were the days when beer festivals were still quite exciting for me and I felt more like a schoolboy on a field trip than they are today.

Don’t get me wrong, I still very much enjoy beer festivals. But they don’t hold the same charm they once did. When I was first learning about beer and when the craft beer movement was in its relative infancy, new discoveries could be made every day and at almost every beer festival. Admittedly, some might be better left hidden, but there was a real sense that you might turn up something spectacular. In fact, you expected that you would. I was recently in New Zealand, and their national craft beer movement is where we were then in many ways. I tasted a lot of different beers there, and quite a lot were — to be diplomatic — problematic. They only started an actual brewer’s guild two years ago — similar to our Brewer’s Association — and only recently took over the country’s biggest beer festival, Beer NZ, and are trying to create their own GABF-like event. I’d love to go back there in September and judge at the event, but I’m not sure yet if I can work out the details. Consumers there are only beginning to discover that beer can taste differently than they have been led to believe by the big industrial breweries, who like our own, have turned beer into an interchangeable industrial product.

I’ve had several conversations about this phenomenon with different people. Roughly twelve to fifteen (or more) years ago, at GABF, it was not uncommon to find a beer with problems or even a defective sample. Over the last decade, that’s become harder, much harder. It’s now very much the exception. And while I think it signals a maturity of the craft beer industry that the vast majority of breweries are making consistently good beer, in some ways I miss those more romantic early days. Please don’t misunderstand that. I don’t miss finding bad beer. That’s certainly not what I mean by romantic. But that sense of exploration and uncertainty made finding something wonderful that much sweeter.

As a result, back in the late 1980s and early 90s, I rarely missed a beer festival. There had to be a pretty compelling reason not to attend one because it felt like there was always something new there to discovered. So my bachelor party started at a beer festival (The KQED one) and the day after my wedding, we met friends at the California Small Brewers Festivals in Mountain View. My point is that nothing stopped me from going to festivals.

I still try to go to as many as my schedule permits, but there just isn’t that same urgency. If I have to miss a festival, I’m not bothered about it like I once was. Nowadays I generally go for the people, the beer community. I know I’ll get a chance to see friends at virtually every festival I attend. If somebody hand me something impressive, I’m every bit as excited as I used to be, I just don’t expect it the way I once did. But I’m not the typical attendee any longer, I know that. Every year there’s a entirely new group of young adults who have the same opportunity to be wowed like us old folk a generation ago. I envy them in some ways. They probably won’t have to taste as many bad beers as we did, but that sense of discovery is what beer festivals are all about. They’re still one of the best ways to introduce people to beer’s variety and diversity. They’re still one of the best ways to sample many different kinds of beers and find out what you like or don’t like.

These days, in my dotage, I prefer the smaller, more intimate festivals, especially ones that highlight a particular style. Those type of festivals provide wonderful opportunities to really compare beers of a similar style and learn more about them. That’s still quite exciting. You can do that at bigger festivals, too, of course. I’ve been doing that at GABF since the beginning. Pick a particular beer style and then walk around the hall (or wherever) and just order samples of only that style. It’s a great way to learn about a style, who makes it well, or what you like or dislike about it more generally.

The modern beer festival, which probably began with CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in the mid-1970s, is a far cry from the European harvest festivals and large scale trade fairs that were their likely progenitors. But they are probably the best tool we have to spread the word about great beer. Because in the end, words are meaningless compared to actually tasting the beer itself. So this summer, during the beer festival’s high season, try to invite as many non-craft beer drinker friends as you can to go with you to a festival. They might go kicking and screaming, but some day they might also thank you. If you can expose your friends to the lifelong experience of appreciating good beer, you know you will have improved their life and done them a great favor. Beer festivals provide the opportunity, all you have to do is provide your friends. See you there.


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