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A Guide to Craft Beer Fests, Part I: Survival & Alternatives

GABF 2016 taster glass
The Great American Beer Festival

As an avid beer person, doing my best to keep up with the onslaught of summer festivals, I don’t know how I’ve come to convince myself that there’s an off-season or at least a lull in activity. If anything, that was August… maybe. Now gone in a blink.

Tonight the Great American Beer Festival officially kicks off in Denver, our country’s oldest celebration of craft beer. Oh, and for those 62,000 or so attending, they’ll have unlimited pours in 4 hour blocks, with 4,000 beers to sample from 800 brewers. Yikes.

This weekend in Portland, there’s a Pop-Up Fresh Hop festival, at least two Oktoberfests (Stammtisch and Oaks Park), not to mention the Hoods River Hops Fest. And I don’t even want to think about the weekend after yet… that’ll be Part II.

I guess my point is that these things kinda sneak up on us and can be overwhelming, so you have to be prepared. With that in mind, let’s examine how to survive the day and some potential alternatives to the carnage that is beer fest life.

BFNA 2016 cu
Brews for New Avenues

Things You Should Do

To the seasoned veterans out there, these suggestions might seem like common sense, but to the uninitiated or unfamiliar with fest culture, these tips might help you avoid spoiling your day, weekend, or worse yet, an entire trip.

All too often, the main focus of beer festivals, especially poorly organized ones, is upon beer alone. Be sure to arrive with a full meal in your belly, eating something that will gird you against a potentially long day of consumption. And if necessary, set a reminder to eat after a few hours, just to be safe.

Personally, I’m all about starting with a late brunch filled with bacon, eggs, and cheese – the former provide amino acids to break down alcohol, while the latter doesn’t just taste good, dairy also contains potassium, which is depleted as a result of “excess urination.” Feel free to read more on what to eat and healthier options as well.

And no, you won’t hear me espouse the cause of eating yeast before drinking (Jim Koch style) or a stick of butter – I’m sure you could do these things, I just refuse to take such drastic measures.

What I have tried, that’s responsible and actually works, is Drinkwel – a supplement with Milk Thistle (for liver detox) and a multitude of vitamins scientifically conceived for replenishment, taken before and after drinking.

Any festival worth it’s salt should at least provide water for rinsing your glass. Many beer people will simply swish the water to clean the glass, but I almost always swirl and drink it. Having at least a sample size pour of water between tastes or even every two drinks, is a safe way to go.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, don’t go it alone. The more friends you bring, the more you should all be trying different things, then sharing and comparing what you got. As a result, you can share your thoughts on the tasting, but also get through a long taplist in less time, with less beer consumed.

OBF2018
Oregon Brewers Festival

Alternatives to Festivals

Festivals are always happening here, yet if you know where to try the newest things, you don’t have to go to all the fests. This is especially the case when the specialty or seasonal beers being featured at festivals (i.e. festbiers or fresh hopped beers) are also on tap elsewhere in town.

Check out your local taproom. They’ll often have their own “fests” featuring a variety of breweries featuring the same style. Or better yet, if you have the time and inclination, go to the source and focus on the breweries you like that do certain styles well.

One of my main issues with beer festivals, or even large chain taprooms, is tap line cleanliness. Sure, I don’t know for certain how well or often those jockey boxes or taplines are cleaned at fests, but how many different styles have been through it since it has been?

There’s also the personal connection you get when visiting a brewery. You might be able to pick the brain of the brewer or owners over a pint. Too often, fests are managed almost exclusively by volunteers, so you’re less often going to get that one-on-one interaction with breweries.

Another reason I’ve become less interested in festivals is the lack of preparedness a festival takes to accommodate the crowd in question. Too often I find myself crammed into a small space that was chosen by the organizers thinking that turn-out would be smaller, too often leaving early because of claustrophobia

Then there are the bigger festivals, with lines everywhere. These can be the worst festivals, especially if they provide larger pours because everyone’s getting a full pour to drink while in line. As a result, they’re often drinking more, in a shorter period of time, so things can go south quickly.

When you go to a brewery taproom or a beer bar, you have the opportunity to not feel rushed; you have the ability to savor and drink more than a few ounces of each beer; you can feel assured that those you’re patronizing are concerned about the quality of what they’ve worked so hard to pour into that glass.

PDX Beer Fest
Portland Cider Summit

In the end, beer festivals should be encouraging a fun and safe time spent with friends: sharing in the nerdiness of each sample, reveling in the atmosphere, trying new things. Too often now, they’re held for the sake of being held – simply a money making venture or done to drum up tourism. Clearly, they can be much more than that and we should all plan accordingly when they don’t quite make the grade.

Next in Part II: which festivals do it right in Portland, Oregon, the West Coast, Nationally, and Internationally.

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