The Monday after a beer fest weekend is always foggy. You’ve just spent a good part of the weekend day drinking, which segways into night drinking, and Monday morning comes too soon. But this Monday, following The Festival in Worcester on Saturday and Sunday, wasn’t just foggy, it was surreal. I felt like I woke up from a 48-hour slumber where I dreamt a ridiculous beer fantasy.
“Yea, and Cantillon was there and Jean van Roy was pouring it and there were hardly any lines and you could buy Westvleteren XII and talk to all the brewers …”
Did that really happen? Did we really drink beer with some of the best brewers in the country and the world until 2am in Worcester? Were there really no lines at any of the booths? Was there actually free flowing Westvleteren XII ?
It did happen though: More than 70 of the best brewers, cider, and mead makers in the world came to Worcester for two days to pour their beer, hang out, and talk with hundreds of beer fans. Simply called The Festival, it was organized by The Shelton Brothers and 12 Percent Imports, and was the first beer fest of this caliber in the US. Several days later and I’m still pinching myself, but will do my best to recall it all: from the food to the beer to the brewers.
. . .
As I wrote about in an earlier Honest Pint column, Worcester was an interesting choice of location for the festival, but I think it worked out beautifully. The fest itself was held in Mechanics Hall which provided a fittingly epic space for the brewers–an enormous organ up front, red carpeted grand staircases, and plenty of space left to wander and drink.
While Worcester isn’t exactly a craft beer mecca, you had the only two bars you needed within walking distance of the hall: The Armsby Abbey and The Dive Bar. You could stop by the Abbey for lunch or dinner and a glass of Cantillon or one of the many other amazing beers they had on tap and then head to The Dive Bar’s enormous beer garden after the fest. If the festival had been in a larger city, my guess is brewers and fans would have dispersed to bars across the city for the night; here you know where everyone was headed.
Typically at a fest, I’ll have a few beers that’ll blow my mind and my palate–ones that are so weird or funky, or elegant and beautiful–that I’ll gush about them for the remainder of the weekend. That was the case with every beer, or every other beer at The Festival. I’ve rounded up a few here, but there were so, so many more (and if you went, let me know down in the comments which ones you loved!).
Brouwerij Westvleteren (Belgium): Westvleteren XII
This was the first beer I drank at The Festival because, and this is going to sound terrible, I wanted to get it out of the way. It’s been deemed The Best Beer In The World, and is one of the hardest beers to get a hold of in the world, which of course means it’s among the most hyped beers in the world. Having it at The Festival was a big deal: It’s never been sold in the United States before and the Abbey released a select amount of it to be poured and sold to Festival goers. (After further delays, the rest of the country will have to wait until September.)
It’s a beautiful beer: a rich dark brown with a light tan head and an incredibly smooth and silky mouthfeel–though it was more carbonated than I expected. Is it the best beer in the world? I’ll leave that judgment until I have more than a 2-ounce pour and drink a few more beers.
Cantillon (Belgium): Lou Pepe Gueuze, Fou’ Foune, Classic Gueuze, Zwanze 2010
I think I drank more Cantillon this last week than I probably will in my entire life, or at least until I can convince Jean van Roy to set up a private draft line to my apartment (so … my whole life). It started with the Lou Pepe Gueuze at Deep Ellum, who had it on draft for the pre-fest party last Thursday. It triggered one of those “holy crap this beer is so good wait how is this beer so good” moments (similar to having a Heady Topper for the first time). So complex, barnyardy, tart, and lovely.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Denver, CO): Wild Wild Brett Series, Persica
Thanks to a recent Brett fascination, I knew I was going to be spending some quality time tasting the funky beers from Crooked Stave, a small brewery out of Colorado who are at the forefront of researching, experimenting, and brewing with the wild yeast Brettanomyces. I tasted my way through the Wild Wild Brett series, all 100 percent Brett beers linked to a color of the rainbow. He’s released Red, Orange, Yellow, and Green so far, and while they were all outstanding, Yellow surprised me the most, with its Southern Indian-inspired additions of turmeric, mango coriander and spices (who would have even thought?). And then there was Persica, a beautiful, refreshingly tart sour peach that was aged in oak barrels with peaches.
I told Crooked Stave founder Chad Yakobson that I overheard someone saying that tasted Persica after having Cantillon’s Fou’ Foune, an apricot lambic.Yakobson replied that he often picks the mind of Jean van Roy, the brewmaster of Cantillon, and that van Roy came over to him at the fest and after trying Crooked Stave Persica, said:
“This is why American beer is going to be better than Belgian beer.”
Dieu du Ciel! (Montreal, Quebec): Aphrodite
Though it’s called Aphrodisiaque in Quebec, one of the brewers told me they had to change the name to Aphrodite in America because it was too risqué for us Americans. I would understand if it did have aphrodisiac-esque powers though–it’s a super smooth, full-flavored American stout and you could easily lose yourself in the chocolate and coffee notes. I didn’t drink a whole lot of dark beers at the fest, but this one stood out.
Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter, MI): Cinco Anos, Sobrehumano Palena ‘ole
The sour-athon continued with Jolly Pumpkin and some of their limited release beers, like Cinco Anos, a sour blend aged on plums, and the Sobrehumano Palena ‘ole, a barrel aged sour liliko’i (Hawaiian passion fruit) and cherry red ale that they collaborated on with Maui Brewing Company. I’ve never had a beer made or aged with plum or passionfruit before and both were beautiful blends of tart and juicy.
Yeastie Boys (Wellington, New Zealand): Gunmatta, Pot Kettle Black
The Yeastie Boys’ Gunmatta–a tea-leafed IPA that uses Earl Grey Blue flower tea instead of hops–was the most drinkable beer I had at the fest. Immediately after finishing my 2-ounce sample, I wanted a pint of it, and as soon as possible. Their Pot Kettle Black, which claims to be New Zealand’s original Black IPA, was also very solid, with notes of milk chocolate and a floral and citrusy aroma.
Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse (Alexandria, VA): Sungasm: Soft Maple
True to its name, Sungasm is an explosion of bright citrus followed by funk, with an incredible light-bodied mouthfeel, and is so tart the last sip burned my throat. A soured-Brett fermented golden ale, it’s part of the Sungasm series, each aged on different wood. Wowza.
I can’t emphasize enough how many more distinctive, delicious beers there were–from the not-oft seen Kentucky Common style from Chicago’s Local Option, to the always beautiful Hill Farmstead beers, to Mikkeller and Jester King to the cask ales like the 2.8 percent Citra ale on cask from Brodie’s Beer, based in the UK. (“There’s nothing else like this here. It’s uniquely British, I suppose,” said brewmaster James Brodie.) Massachusetts beers were well-represented too, by Pretty Things, Cambridge Brewing Company, and High and Mighty, and not to mention the outstanding ciders too, like West County Cider from Colrain, Mass.
In short, the beer ruled.
Let it be known that food trucks and beer fests are a brilliant match. In the back of the venue, a host of food trucks/tents–Clover, Julian’s Omni Bus, B.T.’s Smokehouse, Shuckin Truck, and The FroYo Truck–fed festgoers hungry for beer-absorbing snacks. They were fast, cheap (under $7, for the most part), and provided the perfect food break. Clover’s rosemary fries and Chickpea fritters are always popular, but B.T.’s Smokehouse, based in Sturbridge, brought beer fest food to a whole new level.
Following Saturday night’s session, I grabbed a beef brisket sandwich from B.T.’s and spent the next ten minutes praising the barbecue gods for this wonderful, tender, juicy, moist sandwich–if you can call it that–the meat to bread ratio was out of control. The next day I remarked to a Danish brewer chowing down on the brisket that it was an incredible sandwich and he replied:
“This is better than the beer, and I’m a brewer.”
You’re on watch, pretzels and waffles.
. . .
What set this festival apart, in addition all that I mentioned above is that it made all the difference to be able to talk to the brewers-to actually talk with them, and not just shout at them that you really like their beer and then step aside to let the rest of the long line behind you to get their chance.
They stepped out from behind the table to talk and drink, answer questions, and humbly accept gushing beer geek love.
And if you didn’t get a chance to see them at their table, you could find them eating lunch outside or hanging at the Dive Bar later. Being able to speak with them about the beer, and being able to put a face to a beer, gives so much more context to what you’re drinking. (Like, who knew Jolly Pumpkin founder and brewer Ron Jeffries was so humble and unassuming? You’d never guess by trying his funky, crazy beers.)
The diversity of the brewers was a huge draw too, as was hearing about the beer culture in their respective countries. During the second session, I met a journalist from Finland, Heikki Kahkonen, and I asked him what the beer culture in Finland is like.
He paused. “The main word is developing.” He went on to explain Finland’s rather unfortunate beer tax class system, where only beers under 4.7 percent can be sold at grocery stores and restaurants, while beers over 4.7 percent can only be sold at the state-owned Alko liquor stores, which means there is an abundance of pale lagers and makes it harder for microbreweries to widely distribute stronger beers.
It was tidbits like that that I’ll remember. Or like getting the chance to talk to Urbain Coutteau of Belgium’s De Struise Brouwers at the end of the last session. He had been wearing headphones around his neck all day on Saturday and so I asked him what he had been listening to. Muse, he said, and then pulled up a concert video of them on his phone and started playing it. Sometimes, you just need a break from it all, he explained. And while it may be Muse during beer fests, it’s all about the metal while he brews.
“We’re heavy metal brewers. The Pannepot yeast ferments 8 percent better when I’m listening to Metallica.”
Then he went on to describe one of the most insane travel stories I’d heard. Because of a series of flight cancellations, he was stranded at LaGuardia and so shared an SUV with a group of other stranded fliers en route to Boston: an Argentinean wine importer, an air hostess, an MIT physicist, a lawyer, and the CEO of Chick-Fil-A. They got to talking about beer and the festival, he said, and so all of them, except for the lawyer and the flight attendant, ended up coming to The Festival.
The only disappointment is that the sessions were not sold out, as they really should have been for a fest like this. It was pricey, at $60 per session, but there were discounts available, and having four or five hours to spend drinking beer you would normally never see even in this country very often, is a worthy way to spend your beer allowance. Getting to Worcester can be a pain, especially with the awful weekend commuter rail schedule, but there were buses to and from the fest. It will be interesting to see where it ends up next year. Will Shelton mentioned that they might take it on the road next year, or move it to a different city, where it will perhaps do better. But I have a feeling that if/when this fest is going on five years from now, it will be significantly larger, or sell out faster.
. . .
The founder and brewer of the Belgian brewery Slaapmutske, Dany De Smet, (who was pouring some delicious beers) framed the significance of the fest nicely.
“Bar owners, brewers, writers, fans, we’re all here. There are people from China, Japan, and Europe, but it’s all the same passion,” he said gesturing to the heart.
“We all speak the same language: beer.”