On a warm weekend morning, I got in my car and drove two states to the Brattleboro Brewer’s Festival in Brattleboro, VT. Fellow beer bloggers Tim & Amy Brady (www.hereforthebeer.com) rallied their local and national beer community to pull off the first ever Brattleboro Beer fest. With a little bit of a unique philosophy (embracing both super-local and small distribution brewers side-by-side with “the big guys”) the event featured about 40 brewers, ranging from bigshots such as Stone, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head to everything awesome that New England has to offer (including Smuttynose, Rock Art, Magic Hat and many others that I hadn’t yet met).

I walked in and was immediately greeted by friendly volunteers in bright yellow shirts. Each attendee got a complimentary tasting glass, and eight tickets – good for one pour each. I was then strapped with a Bud Lite wristband and I walk… wait. Bud Lite?

Turns out that Budweiser was a sponsor. And while I wouldn’t turn money/sponsorship down if I were hosting an event, I did chuckle a little bit about the juxtaposition of Bud Lite around my wrist and craft beer in my hand. Later, I found out that there was actually a Budweiser vendor – offering Shock Topand Kona Longboard. Judging from the sighs coming from the beautiful girl looking at her cell phone next to the truck, there weren’t a lot of takers. I chuckled a bit more.

The attendance, I would have to guess may have been about 800 people. Bands playing classic rock and groovy tunes were just right for the tone of the event, and there were lots of tattoos, beards, khaki shorts and smiles. (A twitter friend asked me about the prevalence of “hippies” but I have to say there were more my-dad’s-age Grateful Dead fans than there were flower children.) There were young and old – the average age was probably late 30s.

I was happily surprised to see lots of women walking around enjoying their beer, and everyone was well-mannered and content. Sometimes it’s an accomplishment in and of itself to set the right “attitude” for the fest – and I think they did this very successfully. By setting up a “Beer Education” tent and seminar, I think that the focus became about good beer, not about getting drunk. And that tone was supported by the brewers, too, who brought a lot of special brews that a beer geek would appreciate.

In addition to the beer, the Grafton Cheese Company (who, by the way, make some epic cheddars..) paired with some local brewers to offer cheese samples with the beer samples. The Rock Art Brewery’s Vermonster (yes, the same one with the Monster Energy Drink controversy) went fabulously with the cave-aged cheddar (a tip that I definitely appreciated!) and Element Brewery’s Dark Matter was a treat with their smoked cheddar.  My favorite pairing might have to have been the Lawson’s Finest Liquids Oak-Aged Fayston Maple Imperial Stoutand a cheese they’re calling “Duet” which is Grafton’s 1 year cheddar with a layer of St. Pete’s Select Minnesota Bleu Cheese. Awesome on many scales, and not just because I’ve recently become a fan of good bleu cheese.

If you haven’t heard of Element Brewery, you may not be alone. The western Massachussets based brewery has a limited range, but a nice set of beers brewed with geeky names like Red Giantand Dark Matter. I tried both, and found them to be quite satisfying. I hope I see more of them soon.

While there, I caught up with the Maine Beer Company and got a chance to try their new beer, Zoe. Their first beer, Spring Peeper, has been a huge success, and they’re still a tiny brewery that started a batch at a time. Zoe itself is a hoppy beer that’s got a beautiful brown/orange color to it. They use 7 malts and 3 hop varieties to make something they describe as “well balanced but hop forward.” The smell was great – and the taste was awesome. Its got a great thick mouthfeel, and a really nice hop taste on the front end and one that lingers on your lips for a little while. I asked them where I could get it in Maine, and they said they’re currently working with limited distribution, so some beverage stores around Maine will carry it, but getting it at Whole Foods is usually a good call.

What I enjoyed most about the fest (other than the fact that everyone was genuinely having a great time, responsibly) was talking to brewers that I didn’t know. The folks at Element were friendly and bright, and I really liked getting to know the guys over at the Brewery of the Trapp Family Lodge.  My “must visit” list has grown considerably, and I got to sample some great beers (I’ll  be adding my ratings and descriptions to Ratebeer soon.)

Another part of this beer fest was a pub crawl throughout the Brattleboro/Putney area. Local taxis donated their transportation for the day (actually they were paid by the state) and old-school yellow schoolbuses were used to transport pub crawlers around town. I really appreciated the safety offered up by this service. Because I didn’t have too much time, I wasn’t able to go to many stops, but did get to stop at the Putney Inn. There, they offered up special tastings of Harpoon and Switchback Beer paired with Grafton cheddars. Though I didn’t think that any one pairing stood out among the others, I was really surprised and happy to taste Harpoon’s newest seasonal, their Belgian Pale Ale. Though its color didn’t look as dark as I expected (it was reeeealyy pushing being clear yellow and was hard to tell apart from the other Harpoon beers) it was tasty, yeasty and of high quality. I would buy a six pack of it in a heartbeat.

Overall, this fest hit all the right marks. The crowd was jovial but under control, the music was groovy but not overwhelming, the pours were appropriate (not stingy) and food delicious. A feeling of community and local support was a common theme, and I felt really at home talking to festival attendees, brewers and volunteers alike. A few breweries I was looking for missed out on this year’s fest, but I really hope that they see that it was a great success, and that they join next year.

A special thanks and shout out to Tim & Amy at Hereforthebeer.com for putting on such a great event. Cheers!