The summer beer festival season is in full swing, and many new and seasoned craft beer enthusiasts are on the hunt for a beery day of revelry. With promises of unlimited samples for a paid admission, some will dive right into the mix “to get their money’s worth,” while others will take a more planned approach to balancing a solid day’s drinking with long-term survival. For those in the latter category, let me offer a few words of wisdom to help you make the most of your festival experience.
Master Carpenter Norm Abrams would be remiss if he didn’t first mention shop safety. While I don’t think safety glasses are essential for a beer festival, lining up a designated driver is the first step to making sure a beer fest outing ends successfully. Jonathan Surratt of beermapping.com agrees: “Figure out your public transportation options before entering the fest,” he said. “If you’re not from the area, figure out where you will be going for dinner afterwards and make sure your whole group knows where that is. Make sure you have cash in case you need a cab.”
In the day or two leading up to the fest, there are a few practices that will also enhance the experience. First, I make it a point to lay off hot pizza and coffee for a couple of days. If I burn my tongue on melted cheese or gas station coffee, I’m screwed when they pour that Kolsch a day later.
Often, beer and/or brewery lists are posted online in advance by the event organizers. Make it a point to look this over, as you can prioritize beers, breweries and the special tappings you want to hit. “Plan your attack,” said Jeremy Danner of Boulevard Brewing Company. “Identify beers you’ve been wanting to try or beers you’re really interested in and seek those out first.”
You won’t have time to try every beer on offer, so a good plan will help you maximize your experience.
As you’re heading out the door, check the weather forecast to see if you need a raincoat or sunscreen to make your life easy at an outdoor festival. “Wear cargo shorts/pants,” said Surratt. “First of all, you will fit in with all the other beer nerds, and secondly you will have extra large pockets to hold brochures, a festival beer guide or any other trinkets you might pick up.” Also: “Wear a belt,” Surratt advised. “Because your cargo shorts are going to get heavy.”
While you may spend time focusing on which cool beer shirt to wear, give some thought to your feet as well by strapping on a pair of comfortable shoes—they’ll thank you for it. And don’t forget your ID—without it you might morph into the designated driver!
Finally, get yourself a solid base layer—a big, greasy breakfast or burger—to help you feel solid. While you’re at it, hydrate—you can’t drink too much water today.
Once you’ve entered the festival, take a moment to consult your program. It often contains a map of the booths, so you can follow through on your priorities, as well as identify locations for food and bathroom breaks. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to have fun, so I float from booth to booth enjoying each offering without weighting myself down with a to-do list. Discovery happens that way, as well.
Hopefully, you like your beer drinking buddy enough to drink after them. Germaphobes won’t like this advice, but I always make a plan with my wife or uncle or brother-in-law while waiting in line: “Okay, I’ll get the stout and you get the dubbel.” Then we taste each other’s beer and don’t have to wait in line so much.
If you get that beer and it doesn’t speak to you, don’t hesitate to dump it. No sense in wasting your sobriety on a beer that doesn’t trip your trigger. After each beer, rinse your glass. That Pils won’t taste like a Pils if you just had a glass of Russian Imperial Stout. Further, rinse your palate (for the same reason). While you’re doing that, follow the advice of Third Base Brewery’s head brewer Travis Scheidecker and “Always drink your rinse water.”
Travis read my mind, because he knew the next tip was to hydrate. Yep, I said that before, but you’re definitely going to want to drink plenty of water on this excursion. While I bring my Camelbak these days for hands-free hydration, some festivals don’t allow outside liquids. In that case, “Bring a refillable water bottle with you,” suggested Surratt. “You can fill it inside at rinse stations or water fountains.”
“When we’re out sampling beers, my wife and I have a general rule at larger fests about getting beers from breweries that actually stand behind their table and represent their products,” said Nebraska Brewing Company’s head brewer Tyson Arp. “It’s been a good way for us to narrow the field of choices when we’re overwhelmed and when we find something we like, we’re able to make new friends and have interesting conversation with the creator of the beer. I think what works for me is spending more ‘quality time’ at any given brewery’s booth instead of just jumping quickly from beer to beer.”
While you’re at it, ask questions. If you’ve got the brains behind the libations at your disposal, you’d be surprised what you’ll learn just by asking. “Be friendly,” said Surratt. “It’s amazing what options can open up for you if you are nice to brewers or servers.”
“If you’re wanting to learn (and who isn’t at a fest?), pay attention to the badges the pourers are wearing,” said Danner. “Not everyone that is pouring beer at a fest works for a brewery or is even into beer (in the case of some fests that benefit a particular charity). If you can identify who actually makes/sells the beer, you’ll have a lot more luck learning about it.”
But don’t overdo the quality time with your local hangout for the sake of familiarity, says Scheidecker. “Try beer from places you’ve never been. Try new stuff! I always end up with bar regulars camped out at my booth. A shame.”
Danner agreed. “If you do get the chance to interact with the folks who make your favorite beer, be respectful of their time and the line behind you.”
While hanging with those new (and old) friends, take a picture. It’ll last longer:
In addition to taking photos, take notes. You don’t have to record full-blown review—in fact, you shouldn’t—but a few remarks in the margin of your program will help a lot when you hit the beer aisle of the store. My wife and I use stars or smiley faces—they get the point across just fine.
Drink, drink, drink. There’s so much to do. But pace yourself. Fifty one-ounce samples works out to a little more than four beers, but if you tuck into the Barley Wines, Quads and Impy Stouts, the alcohol content will sneak up on you. Be careful. And don’t forget to take a break. Rest. Eat something. Pound some water. Enjoy the band. You’ll be rejuvenated on the spot, and tomorrow will be even smoother.
Once you dive back into the foray, make it a point to ask brewers something in-the-know like this: “You have anything special back there?” You never know what secret nugget you create the opportunity to taste! While you’re getting to the good stuff, don’t hesitate to fork out. Some festivals have special seminars, tastings or cask tents that you can access for a few extra dollars—do it; you won’t be disappointed.
As last call arrives, you have tough choices to make. What will be my last beer? Should I steal some glassware? Should I cock off to a brewer who has followed local authorities’ instructions by shutting down at the appointed time? Don’t be a dickhead. Don’t steal, and don’t cause a scene. Your blemish could spoil the fun for the whole lot. Don’t mess it up for everyone. Leave when it’s time to leave. Period.
It might be time to eat again, and it’s always time for a drink of water. Before cashing in and going to bed, take a couple aspirin and down a tall glass of water. You’ll be up peeing in the middle of the night, but feeling strong in the morning is worth the trouble.
The next day consider a bowl of kedge, one of my favorites for purifying digestion and cleansing systemic toxins. Further, target foods that are good for your liver and kidneys: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. Get moving. While resting sounds good, I think a blend of movement and napping are best. Consider a short walk or a yoga practice that works the liver and kidneys.
As you’re taking it easy, review your notes (or smiley faces) so you’ll have objectives in mind for your next trip to the beer store.
With a little attention to detail, you can make a simple day of beer drinking not only a fun day with friends or family, but an educational one to support you in a more informed walk with beer down the road.