How to Pick the Best Beer Festival (and Make the Most of It)

Talia Shapiro WA Beer Collaboration Festival

Photo by Will Foster @wfstr

It’s summertime. Festival season. Time to break out the tie-dyed tank tops and daisy-brimmed flower crowns. Or maybe that’s taking it a little too far. In all seriousness though, there are zillions of summer festivals each year that focus on music, food, film, sports, and, my personal favorite: beer. Living in Seattle, it’s nearly impossible to attend every beer festival, and I’m on a never-ending quest (through trial and error) to learn exactly which events I enjoy the most, and why. To keep from feeling overwhelmed by the steady lineup of beery happenings in the coming weeks, I’ve put together a list of key factors to consider when determining which festivals to attend.

Location and venue

Will we sip beers while lounging on an open, grassy lawn under the Space Needle, or spend the day in a cavernous, indoor convention center? Do I have to traverse bridges or hop a ferry to get there? Is the festival out of town, somewhere I may want to stay for a few days? These are all helpful questions to ask before event day. Planning ahead makes it easier to reserve lodging, find a designated driver, study the bus routes, and dress accordingly. If it’s an outdoor festival, in Seattle especially, an extra layer of clothing usually comes in handy.

All-inclusive vs. pay-as-you-go

Does admission include a certain number of drink tickets? What about food? Do only VIP tickets promise all the goodies? I hate when I encounter surprise fees for extra festival features, so I always make sure to read the fine print before I purchase my tickets. It’s too easy to get caught up in the festivities and spend more money than intended. However, I’ve found it’s a good idea to bring a little extra cash to tip the tenders (it’s just good manners).

Entertainment (besides drinking beer)

Beer and music, to me, make the perfect festival. In fact, I love craft beer and indie music so much that it almost doesn’t matter what I’m listening to, or sipping (I said, almost). For some people, food and beer make the magic combo. Or festivals that feature classes and presentations by master brewers. It’s helpful to know, in advance, what’s on the roster, so I can grab business cards, a pen and notebook, or earplugs.

In the past year, I’ve discovered a few Seattle beer festivals that became instant favorites—and my list is always evolving. The Washington Beer Collaboration Festival took place under a huge tent on the South Lake Union Discovery Center lawn and showcased a camaraderie between breweries that was truly inspiring. The festival featured 25 unique collaboration beers from 50 different Washington breweries, and offered a platform for brewers to team up and deliver unexpected flavor profiles and unique styles. I was particularly impressed by a White IPA from Whitewall Brewing and Skookum Brewery. Brewed with Galaxy, Citra, and Mosaic hops, the beer was conditioned on whole Mango and pink peppercorn. Very unconventional, and very… complex.

Elysian’s 20th Anniversary Party at Seattle Center satisfied my love of music and beer with a full day of tasting both flagship and limited release brews, while rocking out to an eclectic lineup of live music by Chaotic Noise Marching Corp, Ming City Rockers, Black Lips, The Raveonettes, and The Gits. (Check out my KEXP blog festival review HERE.)

The Bellingham Bay BREWers Cruise was a mini beer festival on the water—it offered a low-key space to chat with local breweries while enjoying views of the beautiful Puget Sound, plus, it gave me an excuse to visit my family en route. (Check out my Seattle Weekly write-up HERE.) All of these festivals had their own unique characteristics, and they all drew diverse crowds. They also offered perfect opportunities to connect with the beer community. Always a pleasure!

No matter where your beer festival adventures take you, my fellow beer enthusiasts, enjoy! I’ll wrap things up now with some poignant, highly entertaining festival advice from the newest book on my shelf: Patrick Dawson’s The Beer Geek Handbook. Cheers!

STEPS FOR OPTIMIZING THE FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE

  1. When considering attending a festival, Beer Geeks begin by researching the festival’s list of participating breweries (serious festivals also include a list of beers to be poured). They will then assemble a list of beers of interest and make a quick mental calculation to determine the value of each beer (based on what it would cost to purchase or trade for them). If the value of the beer exceeds that of the ticket price, a Beer Geek will attend. If there are out-of-distribution DONGs [a.k.a. draft only, no growlers] on the list, festival attendance is a no-brainer.
  1. Once it’s been decided that the festival is worth attending, a Beer Geek will assemble a group of fellow Beer Geeks, numbering no greater than eight, to go together. Any larger and the group is too cumbersome to accommodate serious tasting.
  1. For large festivals, a strategizing session is held among the fellowship of Beer Geeks to create a prioritized list of breweries to hit once inside. Popular breweries will be hit hard at the onset, since it is not unusual for rare selections to run out in even the first hour. Breweries such as these make up the priority list.
  1. Beer Geeks always arrive at the festival with a full stomach, preferably of cheese or other fatty foods, slowing alcohol absorption to maximize allowable intake.
  1. Once inside, the priority list is executed. The tasting format is often limited to 1- or 2-oz. samples. When sampling breweries have a line, a Beer Geek never camps out at the front in an attempt to sample multiple beers. This is a classic noob move and goes against all Beer Geek etiquette. Once you get your sample, head immediately to the end of the line to get another sample. Time is of the essence.
  1. Fraternizing can fully commence once the priority list has been addressed. At this point, the tasting should move to “free-form format” based upon suggestions from fellow Beer Geeks. It is now okay to talk with brewers and brewery reps, since by this point all festival attendees have had ample opportunity to sample their top beers.
  1. As the festival winds down, the Beer Geeks quickly become distinguishable from the posers. While Beer Geeks might certainly get drunk at a festival (there can be a lot of beers to sample, after all), they don’t go there with the primary intention of getting drunk. At this stage, non–Beer Geeks begin flinging coasters, knocking their buddy’s glass out of his hand, and stealing every bit of brewery schwag not nailed down. Beer Geeks, having properly trained for the event, maintain (some) composure.
  1. Once last call goes out, a Beer Geek, knowing full well that the remaining samples being poured aren’t any Gold Medal winners, heads out to grab a cab or a bite, leaving the frat pack to do shots of every beer left standing.

Excerpted from The Beer Geek Handbook (c) Patrick Dawson. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

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Do You Know What’s In Your Beer?

Image source: homebrewmanual.com

Image source: homebrewmanual.com

I love fresh fruits and veggies from the farmers’ market in the peak of their season. I do yoga… sometimes. I hike. I’ve even started wearing aluminum-free deodorant. Whenever possible, I avoid highly processed foods and artificial additives. What am I getting at? Healthy habits. Suffice to say that I felt duped when I returned home from the fancy grocery store (a.k.a. beer store) and realized I had unknowingly purchased ale with “natural flavor added.” As someone who tries to steer clear of consumables with a laundry list of ingredients, I was dismayed by the ambiguity of this particular six-pack. I won’t name names, because there are plenty of reputable breweries that use this vague terminology on their labels. What exactly are these “natural flavors?” Why aren’t they being more transparent?

I’m willing to give the breweries the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they’re just trying to protect their unique blend of secret ingredients. But in my research, I found that the distinction between natural flavors and artificial flavors is also pretty vague.

David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, explains, “The largest difference is that natural flavors are coming from natural sources. The original ingredient is found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food.” Both artificial and natural flavors are processed in a lab, but one is “synthetically processed” while the other is “purified in a lab but from a natural source.” Flavorings can contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients, including solvent and preservatives. And here’s the most dubious part: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a master list of about 700 food additives that are “generally recognized as safe.” Many components of natural (and artificial) flavors have not even been tested, but most scientists consider them to be safe.

For now, I’ll stick to my healthy (beer) habits. I’ll continue to cultivate a clear conscience while I sip brews like Elysian’s Avatar Jasmine IPA, because I know the jasmine essence comes from adding real, dried jasmine flowers to the boil and hopback. Straightforward ingredients, plus, it’s super tasty.

Question for readers: Is there a particular brewery you love that uses only pure, natural ingredients to add flavor?

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References:

CNN – “What Are Natural Flavors, Really?”

U.S. National Library of Medicine – “Food Additives”