Session 16: Beer Festivals

Posted on 06.06.08 5:30PM under The Session

It’s session time again. This time, hosted by Geistbear Brewing Blog. This month’s topic is beer festivals. I don’t have a lot of beer fest experience, but I have some very recent experience with a beer fest, and here are my thoughts on beer festivals.

Beer Festivals can be a lot of fun. It’s a great way to try a bunch of beers you’ve never had before. For people like me that like to try as many different beers as possible, it can be a dream come true. At the same time, if you’re just out for new beers, it is easy to become disappointed at the offerings at some smaller beer festivals. Let’s face it – once you get to a certain point, it becomes harder and harder to find beers that you’ve never had before that seem interesting. This is when the pursuit of the next great beer is more of a burden than a blessing. This is to be avoided.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to volunteer at a beer festival held very near my hometown. It was the Springfest at the Beach in New London CT, and it happened on May 16th from 6-9PM. There’s another one coming up: Octoberfest at the Beach in New London is in the fall. I’m sure I’ll be there, behind a table pouring beer for the fine visitors of the beer fest.

Going to a beer fest and taking samples from the various beer vendors and distributors present at the festival is great. It is really fun to go all around and try everything you never had before, and then go back and try stuff you have rarely had, etc. until the end of the show. It is great to find the occasional brewer or other cool guy from a brewery manning a table, and chat with them.

What I have found even more satisfying is pouring beer at a beer festival. First of all, you still have pretty much unlimited access to all the beers. This enables me to go and try those few beers that are out there at the festival that I haven’t had before, or the big top hits that I want to try. Second, you get to really know the beers you’re pouring at your table. You can learn their characteristics, both in absolute terms and in relative terms. At Springfest, I was at a table with Bohemia, Carta Blanca, and Chang. These are from Mexico, Mexico, and Thailand respectively. They are all in the Pale Euro Lager style. But they are three different beers. The Bohemia was the most dry and hoppy of the three. The Chang (the most popular of the three by far) was a lot more sweet and full feeling. The Carta Blanca was right in the middle. It was a nicely arranged setup for a table.

I found it very fun and fulfilling to do my shpiel about the three beers, pretty much what I laid out above. Whenever a person would come up to the table, I’d ask them which beer they wanted, or if they wanted some information. Most just picked one without any information. Good for them. I would be asking for information. So whenever anyone asked for information I told them about the stuff I told you about above. And then they’d pick a beer. It was great to feel like I’d helped them make an informed decision. Even for those that chose to not take the info, it is still fun to pour a beer for someone.

Beyond that, I found a part of myself that is not related to beer was very satisfied in the beer serving. I was very into keeping the table in perfect order as much as possible. We were serving from bottles, so there was a plastic bin full of ice and beers. It was great keeping that bin full of beers cooling down in the ice. I had a display of one of each bottle at the front of the table, arranged from dry to sweet, so people could easily see what I had for them. Then I had one of each bottle opened in front of me for easy access for pouring. Thinking back, I wish I had a few pre-poured for even more prompt service to my customers of the table. I also had a highly organized warm bottle and empty bottle storage scheme. It was all so great, keeping everything in order.

But then I spent some time at the Long Trail table. That was a chaotic place. First, there were five varieties there: Blackbeary Wheat, the new Belgian White, regular Long Trail, IPA, and Double Bag. So it was just a little more to keep track of. Then the overall traffic was much higher. This was partly due to the location of the Long Trail table, right in the main traffic flow, but probably moreso due to the great name recognition Long Trail has, especially here in Connecticut, just a few hours away from the brewery.

At the Long Trail table, I could hardly keep up with the customers. I didn’t have time for making the stock of cooling bottles perfect, or keeping one open ahead of time, and certainly not for pre-pouring the beer. Of course, if I had pre-poured the beer, I wouldn’t have been able to collect any tickets, since everyone was trying to get away without a ticket exchange. Especially the pretty girls. They were all goo-goo eyes and trying to not give a ticket. But their games didn’t work on me. I was a great ticketer.

But still the fast paced action of serving beer to what was evidently a very thirsty crowd was exciting and exhilarating. Sure, it’s fun to go to a beer fest, and pay to get in, and drink a bunch of different beers. But it’s a whole different level of awesome to get there a few hours early, help everyone set up, and then pour beers all night (while sampling a few along the way), followed by the cleanup phase.

It’s just amazing how a place can go through such a transformation from empty to setup to full to cleanup to empty again in a matter of hours.

So I leave you with this. If you can go to a beer fest, then go to it. It is worth every penny you’ll spend. Buy stuff while you’re there. But better than that by far is to volunteer at one. Just the other day, I got an email from the Alstrom Bros, asking for helpers for their Boston Beer Fest coming up in a month or so. All I can say is that volunteering at a beer festival is awesome. You are no longer the consumer, you’re the service provider. It’s a nice change of pace to see a familiar event from a different perspective.

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