As a fortunate gemini, I got to attend the American Craft Beer Festival this year on my birthday – June 19. Put on by Beeradvocate.com and covered by three Hop Press writers (Josh Christie, Steve K. and myself), this festival featured hundreds of beers from some of the biggest names and some of the best of the East Coast brewers. Harppon helped to organize the event by donating some materials/supplies (wristbands, etc.) and there were at least 15 breweries from Massachussets present. The culmination of Boston Beer Week, the attendees seemed primed to get some good beer.

The Great: Saturday Afternoon Session Dressed in what would arguably be inappropriate footware (vinyl heels) I was admitted to the all in advance of the eager line outside. The space was huge – it reminded me of the New York State Fair’s “Center of Progress” building -and there was a hum of brewer activity. Lines were connected, signs were adjusted, and programs were arranged neatly on the table for the participants. Volunteers in bright orange and staff in bright purple (including the Alstroms themselves) buzzed around the venue in preparation. I took a moment to scope out the brewers that were there. Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada, Stone, Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Co.), Southern Tier… there were many well-known favorites. And some that were well known and infamous -but not yet known to me. Duck Rabbit, Pretty Things, Opa Opa and others offered up their beer in 2 oz compostable cups.

Within a few minutes, like the production of a movie, everyone was in their places on the set, and the crowd seeped into the hall. I was able to maneuver quite easily, and the lines were managable and quick. What seemed to be an equal ratio of men to women (yay!) wandered around, comparing notes. Not having attended the friday evening session, I couldn’t compare the attendance of this one to that, but needless to say it was full without being overwhelming. I had great conversations with several of the pourers – and though this differed from brewery to brewery, for the most part I didn’t have trouble asking a few questions about certain beers without feeling like I was gumming up the works. Some breweries were not as into that as others, but that kind of comes with the territory.

The Fun: An interesting phenomenon happened about 3/4 through the session.New England Beer company tapped a keg of Imperial Stout Trooper – an unadvertized happening and a really special brew. When it was tapped, a spontaneous “WOOO!!!” erupted from the line watching the proceedings unfold. What was awesome was that the original noise then traveled, like a wave, throughout the entire exhibit hall – with people raising their beers and cheering. It was really cool when it happened spontaneously – and it happened  several more times throughout the evening. I saw a few guys trying to start one, and fail – which was an interesting observation in crowd phsychology (the answer- it depended on the density near you.)

The crowds, for the most part, were not super-intoxicated, though some definitely had consumed more beer than others. A few groups in matching shirts wandered around in packs, and I did see more than a few beer geeks crossing beers off of their bucket lists.

After a while of drinking, I went and wandered into the food section, expecting festival food – pretzels, nachos, maybe a hot dog. I was so wrong! The food was great – cheese stuffed pretzels, sausage sandwiches, even vegetarian options. I had a pulled pork sandwich which was fabulous – and I have to give a lot of credit to event organizers for picking delicious foods and pricing them appropriately. A large sandwich was in the $5-7 range, which I thought was very reasonable. Water was cheap, too (only a few cents more than the neighboring 7-11). Some people complained about the prices, but others were quick to correct them. “Dude,” I heard someone say, “It’s way better than Fenway – Shut up and eat!” As for beer, I got to sample some incredible things – but missed both Sam Adam’s Kosmic Mother Funk and Dogfish Head’s Worldwide Stout that I was looking forward to (at some point they poured it through Randal the Enamel Animal filled with coffee beans – wow).

The Ugly: Saturday Night Session In sharp contrast to the saturday afternoon session, this session seemed far more crowded. Luckily, I had a pair of more comfortable shoes to change into, and friends to wander around with for the second session. Though I am terrible at estimating crowd size, I know that there was now suddenly a line for everything – and it was a lot harder to get around the hall. I was a little frustrated because I couldn’t bring my friends around to all of the beers that I really wanted to show them. The section of the hall that had Stone, Rogue, Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada was pretty much impassible with people.

Also unfortunate was that several breweries had different strategies for dosing out their beer – some brought a set amount of beer for each session, others brought a set amount of beer for all of the sessions, meaning that if you went to the last session you were less likely to get great beer. Honestly, I didn’t think that was a great idea, since people in the later session were paying just as much for their ticket as those who could manage to take Friday off to go to the first. I’d urge brewers to rethink this so that they don’t end up with the infamous “Out of Beer” sign that I saw pop up on several stations.

Summary: Being the largest beer fest that I’ve ever attended, I think this is good practice if I can make it out to Colorado for GABF. I learned a lot of things – and would definitely do a few things differently next time.

  1. If you’re with people, wearing something goofy, obvious and tall is basically the only way you’ll ever find each other
  2. If I want to tweet/write I can’t do that with a beer in my hand, so having a partner willing to hold my beer is key
  3. Eating well beforehand, but packing a little cash for good eats within is a good idea
  4. Comfier shoes. Comfier shoes, and did I mention comfy shoes?
  5. If you want time to meet/chat with the brewers, come to the earliest sessions.

Coming soon – a wrap up of the most surprising beers that I tasted at ACBF. Stay tuned!