A perk of my particular line of work is that I regularly get to attend the best (and worst) beer festivals across the country. I’ve seen it all: giant, 10,000-person soirees sprawled across hundreds of yards of open grass to minimalist, invite-only affairs held in hotel ballrooms. I’ve been to events held inside art museums and on the decks of naval battleships; I’ve paid as much as $200 for a single ticket. And, despite all the alcohol consumption that necessarily occurs at these shindigs, I’ve learned something. The best beer festivals aren’t the most well-funded, or the largest, or even the ones pouring the rarest, whaley-est beer.
They’re the ones with focus.
Here’s what I mean: A quality beer festival hones in on a particular niche within beer—sours, let’s say, or IPAs, or barrel-aged stuff—and doesn’t stray from its thesis. It may present varieties of these beers from across the country or globe, but all of them stay true to this theme, offering perspective on how different brewers approach similar styles and how minor tweaks in ingredients or technique can result in beers as diverse as the people brewing them. This focus on a particular subset of beer allows drinkers to experience the breadth of a particular category, compare beers and techniques against one another, and ultimately expand their knowledge. By drinking!
Take the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, held annually in a small park in Beervana’s Pearl District as part of Portland Beer Week. It’s not extravagant; a chain link fence surrounds the acre or so of grassy, tree-lined festival grounds and the beers are indicated by simple white pieces of paper hung from plain event tents. The list isn’t giant—only 40 or so beers are being poured at any given time—or particularly full of brews that you’d see on the ISO boards. But the stuff flowing from the taps is enticing, local-leaning and varied. You could sip a Fat Head’s Apricot IBUsive IPA, step a few paces down to taste Sixpoint Brewery’s Raspy Sauce, a Berliner weisse spiked with raspberry-jalapeno syrup, and wash it all down with 54-40 Brewing’s endlessly refreshing Cucumber-Honeydew Bright Ale. It’s the sort of event that doesn’t need to incorporate educational components; it is, by sheer nature of the beers being presented, educational.
Another PDX Beer Week event, the Rye Beer Fest, exhibits this focus. Again, it’s not huge, held this year solely within EastBurn, a bar/restaurant near Portland’s downtown, and the beer list is only 20 brews strong. But they all share a common theme—rye as a major component of the grain bill—and this shared thread makes tasting each amber ale, bock, IPA or saison an experience that rises above the standard chug-it-and-move-along of many larger beer fests.
Beware the beer festival that leaves its purpose and focus vague, that proclaims the number of beers available—”More than 200 American microbrews!”—but never lists what they are or who’s pouring them. These are for the rubes, and offer nothing for the modern beer drinker other than a good buzz. Seek out instead festivals that highlight beer niches. Chicago’s Festival of Wood and Barrel-aged Beer, or FOBAB, is a great one. The Great Pumpkin Beer Fest, thrown yearly by Elysian Brewing Co. in Seattle, is another. Real, Wild and Woody; the LA IPA Fest; the Festival of Funk. Great, focused events all, and you’ll get a lot more out of any of them than any big box beer fest.