We’re standing line for maybe 30 seconds before I overhear someone talking loudly about a $7,000 bottle of Cantillon. They only made 180 of them, he tells his pals, droning on until one of them finally says something in return: “It’s just a beer.” The whale-hunter doesn’t dignify this with so much as a pause, much less a response, instead going back to his story. Meanwhile, I go back to staring straight ahead at maybe a quarter-mile’s worth of similarly beer-obsessed humans who have come from all over the world to stand in this line outside in the San Pedro sun.
My wife and I have flown 2,200 miles across the country—from Georgia to California—to spend roughly 40 hours in the Golden State, some in a yurt, some on a yacht, and about 10% of them at a beer festival. Currently, we’re standing in a parking lot near CRAFTED at the Port of Los Angeles for The Festival, the third annual showcase of “the world’s best beers…imported by hand” (last year’s was in Portland, ME, and 2012’s in Worcester, MA). The proverbial hand here is shared by a couple of Massachusetts-based siblings—Dan and Joel Shelton—who made their name importing and distributing “beer brewed with a sense of place, a distinctive house character, and an appreciation for tradition, value, and/or the natural art of beer-making.”
While the Cantillon anecdote up top is not, perhaps, an unusual one for any number of of brew meccas like the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago, or Hunahpu’s Day in Tampa, none of those actually have Cantillon pouring inside their doors (much less half a dozen offerings from the cultish Belgian brewery, as The Festival does). But here’s the thing: Cantillon is just the tip of the Festival iceberg. This year boasted more than 90 beer-makers from places as far flung as Japan (Harvestmoon, Baird, Minoh), New Zealand (8 Wired, Peckham’s, Renaissance), and Spain (Ribela), with no shortage of Belgian (Struise, De Ranke, Blaugies) and hyper-regional-and-highly-sought-after U.S. breweries (Hill Farmstead, Side Project, Bluejacket). All of this without mention of the meads and ciders. And the Hanson. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Also worth mentioning is that, unlike many festivals, the folks who make the beer actually show up to The Festival to pour their brews. There’s Jester King’s Ron Extract in a preposterously delightful palm-tree-covered fedora. Ron Jeffries is standing alone at the Jolly Pumpkin booth pouring La Parcela, Fuego del Otono, and Persimmon. Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy drops knowledge on 12 people at at time while serving them 10-year-old gueuze. All in all, it’s a fairly ridiculous place for a very ridiculous type of beer drinker. As one beer obsessive who made the eight-hour drive from his central Pennsylvania home to Portland, ME for last year’s event told the Portland Press Herald in advance of the fest, “Some of these brewers—in our weird, demented, beer geek world—are like celebrities. And you don’t get a chance to meet these people on a daily basis.”
The Festival is such an embarrassment of beer riches that tables from perfectly stunning breweries pouring not-at-all-common selections have no line whatsoever.
Before meeting them, though, we’d have to stand in line for a while. Luckily, we bumped into a familiar face almost instantly. Jason Pellett, whose Orpheus Brewing opened this summer in my homebase of Atlanta, was there to share in the misery. His brand-new brewery specializes in sour beers, which is uncommon in Georgia, but the norm at The Festival. I was a little surprised to see him there—but only a little. “I spent $200 to stand in line,” an angry man grumped in front of us as we marveled at how difficult it is to get a bunch of people into a building quickly. But after about one hour and one gleeful wristband-applying man (“All right!” he yelled after looking at my driver’s license. “A lot of Georgia! You guys are serious about your beer!”), we were in.
The Festival is such an embarrassment of beer riches that tables from perfectly stunning breweries pouring not-at-all-common selections have no line whatsoever. I imagine this is due, in part, to the fact that the event doesn’t overcrowd like many similar festivals, but it’s also a credit to just how unbelievable the roster is each day. (While we attended only one four-hour session, there are four of them total, two on Saturday and two on Sunday.) Domestic craft-beer OGs like Allagash and Hair of the Dog and Firestone Walker never had huge lines. For me, this meant drinking delicious, hard-to-find beers like Nancy, Pannepooch Reserva, and Parabola with little-to-no wait.
Here’s some other stuff I drank, in roughly chronological order, according to my notes:
- Side Project Saison due Blé
- Monkish Arrivant Rye Farmhouse Saison with Brettanomyces
- Brasserie Dunham Saison du Pinacle
- Hill Farmstead Brother Soigné Saison
- Beachwood BBQ Amalgamator India Pale Ale
- Brouwerij West Dog Ate My Homework Blackberry Saison
- Crooked Stave Vieille Artisanal Saison
- Bluejacket Rheinard de Vos Flanders Red
- Jester King Omniscience & Proselytism
- Cellarmaker Imperial Coffee & Cigarettes Smoked Porter
- Tahoe Mountain Mars Hotel Saison
- Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek
- The Bruery Bottleworks XII Wild Ale
- Anchorage Time Waits for No One Imperial Stout
- Struise Black Damnation I (Black Berry Albert) Imperial Stout
- Arizona Wilderness Old Brood Barrel Aged Quadrupel
I drank 2-4 ounces of each of the above, doubling up on none, and trying countless sips from my wife’s and other Atlanta friends’ glasses. Of the beers in that list, several were world-class selections I’d never had before. Most were good to great, a couple excellent. A few were drinkable, but nothing special. And I only poured out one, which was just gross. I also didn’t realize, at the time, how many saisons I gravitated toward. There was a perhaps-surprising lack of IPAs in the house, though I do recall tasting my wife’s pour of Cellarmaker’s Rodney Dankerfield Double IPA and finding satisfaction that such a silly name was bestowed upon such a fantastic beer.
“Doesn’t that guy look like a Hanson?” my wife asks a couple hours in. She’s gesturing at Taylor Hanson, who definitely does look like a Hanson, and who’s pouring his and his brothers’ Mmmhops Pale Ale. As it turns out, a year ago almost to the day, I sat down with the Hansons to drink and talk about the beer. Taylor’s extremely gregarious and great at being a famous human in public, so of course he remembers this and mentions that my hair has gotten longer. We sip Mmmhops, and remember a close pal who’s back home in Atlanta celebrating her 30th birthday. We were bummed to miss it, but she was a huge Hanson fan back in the day, so we ask Taylor if he can help us out. He’s great at being a famous human in public, so of course he obliges.
Speaking of Atlantans, there’s a lot of them at The Festival. In addition to Orpheus’ Pellett, the owners of two of Georgia’s best beer bars are here, sampling, mingling, and hanging. There’s also a distributor in attendance, which means all three tiers of the Peach State’s system are in the house. Even those who aren’t from Georgia seem to be excited about the state. I very literally almost run into a man wearing a Burnt Hickory Brewing t-shirt. Turns out, he works for Shelton Brothers and is based out of Germany, but fell in love with the Kennesaw, GA punk rock lovers while visiting his wife’s family in the Atlanta area. Elsewhere, one of Monkish Brewing Co.’s representatives practically squeals when she sees my Wrecking Bar Brewpub t-shirt. “I’m going to Atlanta soon!” she says. I tell her she should make sure to visit Wrecking Bar, and she takes a picture of my shirt.
I’m standing on the expansive slab of pavement that separates CRAFTED from the soon-to-open Brouwerij West, as well as a smattering of food trucks from a couple walls of porta-potties. I’ve got a little buzz. From the beers, sure, but also from a well-planned event filled with joyous humans happily chatting about shared interests. The thing about beer festivals is that they’re extremely hard to do just right. Go too broad or too big and it’s an unmitigated shitshow, replete with pretzel necklaces and costumes—the kind of thing that only a blacked-out kid in his early twenties can truly enjoy.
The Great American Beer Festival, for example, with its 50,000 people crammed into a massive building in Downtown Denver, feels more like Dragon*Con than an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon tasting exotic beers. When someone drops his tasting glass in the Colorado Convention Center, a series of Ooooooooooohs reverberate out from the impact site like a frat-party atomic blast.
On the other side of the spectrum, regional festivals suffer from featuring the same old beers. If I’m going to give you my $50+ and fight a crowd, you’d better be bringing something I can’t get at the bottle shop.
The Festival finds a pleasant middle ground: a mix of intense-but-approachable obsessives—both the folks making and drinking the beers—in a space that has plenty of room for all of them, and plenty of booths so that, for the most part, nobody’s waiting around for tasty beer.
It’s while I’m having this revelatory moment, staring up from the pavement at the sun as it starts to duck behind some palms, that someone drops his substantial and well-designed Festival tasting glass, which happens to be made out of actual glass. It shatters on the concrete, and those surrounding the carnage yell, “Ooooooooooh!” like a pack of juvenile delinquents as a frowning, beleaguered security guard shuffles up to make sure no one steps on the shrapnel.
Okay, so maybe you can’t win ‘em all. But I’ll let it slide for the best beer festival I’ve ever attended. And I’ll be back next year for sure, wherever they decide to hold this thing.