American Craft Beer Fest Session 1 Postmortem

PreparingThe weekend of June 19th and 20th meant the arrival of the 5th annual American Craft Beer Fest from the folks at Beer Advocate.  As usual, the event promised an incredible number of beers, breweries, and speakers for Boston-area beer lovers – 75 breweries, 300+ beers, and panels with industry folks.  Katy, Ryan and I attended the middle session on Saturday afternoon, although the Friday and Saturday night sessions had comparable panels, crowds and beer lineups.  The event also marked the second year the ACBF was hosted at the Seaport World Trade Center Boston rather than the Cyclorama.  After some growing pains going into the larger space last year, BA really took advantage of the space in 2009 and provided a much better fest.

First, a quick summary for the uninitiated (via The Bachelor Guy);

With over 75 craft brewers flaunting 300 different craft brews at this year’s event, your liver will give out before your choices do as you wander the halls looking for the country’s next breakout brewmaster. You might even be lucky enough to get your mits on a barleywine sample. When your taste buds need a break, you can also scope out a viewing of Beer Wars, a documentary film exposing all you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about the US beer industry. Combine some brutal bloodletting competition with a dash of highly guarded trade secrets and you get the picture.

So, if you’re ready to expand your hop horizons and dive headfirst into the world of the malt manipulators, head over to the 2009 Great American Beer Fest. Included with your $40 admission is your very own 2oz sample cup. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but do the math – 2oz and 300 beers – if there was ever a strong case for a DD this might be it.

As far as I can figure, the best way to organize my thoughts about the fest is to talk a little about the good and the bad – what worked this year and what could use some improvements.  After that, I’ll get into the beer.  If all you care to read about is the impressive libations, skip down to the beer heading.

The Good

picture from Brew-Dudes.com

picture from Brew-Dudes.com

Like I mentioned above, the Beer Advocate crew really brought their A game in staffing, laying out and running the event in a space the size of the World Trade Center.  Two major complaints about the space from the year before – substandard food and gross, crowded bathrooms – were addressed in a big way.

For 2009, the food vendors were set up to deal with large crowds, and there was hardly a wait to get something to munch on.  The actual food was much better, too.  Things were just more beer-centric, with sausage, pretzels, beer nuts, and tons of stuff marinated, glazed, braised and steamed in craft beer.

In one of the best changes this year, the banks of port-o-bathrooms were moved to a space outside of the fest.  Fresh air and blue sky meant that the smell and proximity of the restrooms were hugely improved from last year.  There were also (thankfully, for a building full of drinkers) more than enough bathrooms, and no wait for one to open up.

The staff for the event was also fantastic.  The line moved very quickly, and those of us near the front were actually in the building before the 1:00 start time.  Volunteers helped sort out some problems with a few breweries’ tap lines quickly, and were busy pour samples, cleaning dump buckets, filling coolers and answering questions all fest long.  They deserved every ounce of beer they got, and lots of commendation.

Of course I’ll get into it more below, but the lineup of breweries was phenomenal.  Lots of great stuff you can’t get here in Maine (or in Massachusetts for that matter), and an healthy number of rare and limited release beers among the regular lineups from the breweries.  The swag and other merch was uniformly great, and I didn’t find any unpleasant brewers or reps among the bunch.  Kudos also to a great crowd – I didn’t run into any belligerent drunks, pushy people or even anyone holding up a line.

The Bad

picture from talive.com

picture from talive.com

I hate to complain, so I’m glad to say there is hardly anything I can think of to complain about for the ACBF.  My only annoyance was the huge lines that began to appear after the first hour of the fest as the event filled up.  Again, the folks working the taps should be commended, because the lines kept moving quickly.  However, the lines spanning from one aisle of brewers to another made navigating the fest exceedingly difficult.  Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the smaller festivals at the Cyclorama, but the length of the lines at virtually every booth was a bit of a disappointment.  I’m not sure what the solution to this is, since everyone running a tap was moving as quickly as they could.  Either a reduction in tickets or increase in space would seem to help things, but that’s easy to say while I’m armchair-beerfesting.

Otherwise, no complaints.  Refer back to The Good for all the great stuff about the ACBF.

The Beer

THE BEER! There were SO many phenomenal beers at this fest that it’ll be hard to cover them all.  But dammit, I’ll try.  I’ll hit the big brewers and favorites first, then round up the best of the rest.

Surly Brewing is criminally hard to find outside of Minnesota, and it’s a shame considering how great their beer is.  The Coffee Bender is a buzz-inducing caffeinated version of their delicious brown ale, and the “Two” is a surprisingly tasty cranberry stout.  Surly also had the excellent RIS Darkness on hand, which drew a huge line.  It isn’t the best imperial stout I’ve had (or, truthfully, the best at the fest), but really offers a rich blend of toffee, chocolate and cherry flavors.

One of my perennial favorites, Dogfish Head, had a couple brews I had never tried before that didn’t disappoint.  The Sah’Tea, another protobeer based on ancient recipes, is a delicious rye brew containing a tea made with black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black pepper.  The Squall (a new IPA from the brewery) is an imperial IPA that tastes more summery and a bit more approachable than the other Dogfish brews, despite a 9% ABV.  The slightly-sour Festina Peche was also a delicious way to finish off the fest.

A while back, I reported on 21st Amendment Brewery‘s arrival on the East coast, and finally got to taste their two canned brews.  The Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer jumped to the top of my list of best American fruit beers, and was served with a chunk of watermelon like the similar beer from Boston Beer Works.  The Brew Free! or Die IPA (which seriously could bank on NH distribution) is a citrusy, piney, big-bodied west coast IPA in a can.  Delish.

Another perennial favorite, Brooklyn Brewery, brought some of their big guns to the ABCF.  Along with the malt-bomb vintage 2007 barleywine and the Local 1 and 2, a coffee stout and the “Cuvee de Cardoz” made appearances.  The coffee stout is pure, rich coffee with a bit of hop bite and a chocolate malt backbone.  The Cuvee is a crazy Belgian wheat, with ginger, tamarind, mace, black pepper, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, chilies and toasted coconut.  The spices all present themselves, but it’s a stunning mix of flavors rather than one taste overpowering the others.

New Holland is a Michigan-based brewery that I haven’t tried too many beers from, but brought some palate-impressing brews.  Specifically, Dragon’s Milk and Existential blew me away.  Dragon’s Milk is an oak aged ale, and the deep brown brew has some vanilla and bourbon flavors that just make for unbelievable drinkable beer.  Existential is a “hop wine”, somewhere between a hopped-up barleywine and a malty IPA.  Along with the great hop variety, a really great orange smell and flavor came to the fore.

America’s smallest, biggest and most award-winning Jewish Beer Company, Shmaltz Brewing, brought a great lineup of beer from their He’Brew and Coney Island lines.  Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA is a rye IPA, and the rye flavor really balances out some pretty aggressive hops.  Albino Python is a tasty “white lager”, a spicy, lemony beer that exists somewhere between a wit and a lager.  Human Blockhead is an “imperial amber barleywine-style munich Vienna lager”, and hits each of those descriptions with varying degrees of success.  It really has to be tried to be believed.

I have to thank Ryan for turning me on to New York’s Southern Tier, a brewery I have yet to have a weak beer from.  Their Hop Sun is a mild version of the Uber Sun ale, and a surprisingly hoppy summer wheat.  Jahva and Mokah, imperial stouts brewed with coffee and chocolate, were two of the best beers of the show.

In my mind, the oak-aged Sexual Chocolate from Foothills Brewing was the best beer of the show.  I was impressed by the stout early in the show, but the oak-aged version is just unbelievable.  Along with the chocolate milkshake taste of the regular blend, the vanilla, oak and bourbon really turns the beer into sex in a glass.  I’d seek out the bottled version of the beer, but I would commit some pretty serious crimes to get a glass of the oaked version again.

Stone‘s Double Dry-Hopped Ruination is far and away the biggest hop bomb I’ve ever had.  Face-puckeringly bitter and all kinds of delicious.  Fun fact – the beer also smells a surprising amount like weed.  Who knew?

The newest addition to the Oskar Blues lineup, Little Yella Pils, is a great canned beer from the kings of cans.  It’s nowhere near as assertive at the other Oskar brews, but is a great summer beer and a perfect gateway brew for non-craft drinkers.

Even though it didn’t give me any hallucinations, the wormwood-infused Northern Lights from Sixpoint has some really interesting flavors going on.  It just tastes earthy.  Not a bad saison, and lots of sweet malt and yeastiness going on.

Finally, Cisco‘s Grey Lady is a great alternative to typical summer wheats.  More than just a wit, Grey Lady has an infusion of chamomile and lemon flavors.  Crisp and refreshing.

Overall, the ACBF was another huge success, tons of fun and a great chance to find some new favorite beer.  If you live in the northeast, mark your calendar for next June and don’t miss the fest’s third year!

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One response to “American Craft Beer Fest Session 1 Postmortem

  1. Hey Josh, great rundown! I wasn’t able to make it this year, much to my chagrin, so I loved reading an account of it.
    Cheers!

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