We’ve attended and volunteered at three major beer festivals in recent memory: Seattle International (SIB), April Brews Day, and most recently WA Beer Commission's Winter Beer Fest. Here’s some tried and true brew fest advice from Beers at the Bottom:
Let's be frank: beer festivals cost money, for all parties involved. So, like many festivals, brew fests depend on unpaid people-power to keep the taps flowing. As a festival attendee, take advantage of this when you can by volunteering. Every beer fest operates a little differently, which means that each volunteer experience is unique. Most fests will employ volunteers for set-up and take down duties, and many offer volunteers with a class 12 or 13 liquor license the chance to pour tasters. Other activities might include selling merchandise or drink tickets. Most tasks are relatively easy, and volunteer shifts rarely exceed more than a few hours.
The perks? Free admission to the festival in almost all cases. Add this to the bonus of meeting many of the individuals in the craft beer scene—brewers and consumers alike—and getting a behind-the-curtain look at how festivals work. The popularity of volunteer shifts is on a steady increase though, so sign up or inquire early to grab a shift.
Establish Base Camp
Once your volunteer shift is over, its time to establish Base Camp. During summer festivals this could mean a lush, sunny patch of grass near mainstage. The rest of the year, your camp will most likely be a chair-less standup table. Establishing Base Camp is important for several reasons:
1) You’ll always know where to find your stuff and at least one of your buddies.
2) Tables provide a place to set your food and drink, as well as a hard writing surface if you plan on taking notes. No awkwardly juggling necessary.
3) Tables and sunny grass patches are often scarce and highly sought-after. Grab a piece of prime real estate early on and you’ll be much more likely to make some new friends.
During Winter Beer Fest, we snagged one of the few available tables early in the evening and held onto it throughout the night. Every so often a new couple would saunter up, looking for a place to rest their glass or chow down on some street food. Our table introduced us to a spunky dancing French-Canadian lady and her charming, laid back husband, a hip younger couple who complemented and complimented our beer taste, and welcomed fellow volunteers to join us for a cheers. We even scored some extra tokens when a table-buddy had to leave early.
Line your stomach with something other than beer. This will allow you to taste more beers in the long run without passing out or getting sick from all those 9.5% ABV stouts. We had some fantastic pizza from Streetzeria at Winter Beer Fest. Not sure if it was the best pizza we’ve ever had or if we were just famished from volunteering without lunch (perhaps both?), but those handmade personal pies really hit the spot.
Drink plenty of water. It may be wise to bring your own, as some festivals charge for bottled water (though you can probably get a free one for volunteering – we did).
Plan your route
Any solid brew fest will provide an info booklet with descriptions of each brewery, their featured beers, and a map of the grounds. Set aside a few minutes at Base Camp for browsing this handy guide. Don’t be afraid to mark it up either – we go through each page, circling beers we’re interested in and getting really excited about brews we’ve never tasted or even heard of. It’s truly a beautiful thing.
Get off the beaten path
You've been given a list of close to a hundred beers—how do you decide which to order? For some, given that many choices, the best bet is to go with something familiar and avoid debating all together. We urge you to fight that kind of impulse at a beer festival. Make a challenge of only getting tasters of beer you've never had before. Seek out breweries from far flung corners that you would never see on tap at your favorite bar. It's safe to say that more often than not these breweries have shorter lines, which means you have quicker access to beer. It also means you might be able to talk with the brewery rep and learn more—there are some quirky geniuses in the beer world. At the last brew fest we attended, Rachel’s favorite beer of the night was brewed by a Seattle microbrewery that we’d never even heard of.
Breweries often use festivals as tasting grounds for seasonal or limited release beers. This is a great opportunity to try something unique from a brewery you don't visit frequently, or to check out a unique offering from an old favorite. Sometimes its worth the gamble to try something outrageous, and other times you can walk away from the table and say, “well at least I know now.” A stout brewed with peanut butter? Delicious. An eggnog cream ale? Well, it sure was...different. Bottom line: try something new.
Taste more beer
They're called tasters for a reason. Admission to a beer fest usually includes enough tasters to equal up to about 2 pints, at four ounce pours each. We optimize our tasters by splitting them, doubling the amount of styles we can try. On occasion, there have been beers that one of use really wanted, and the other wanted nothing to do with. A good rule of thumb if you're splitting tasters, is to reserve one taster that is simply for yourself. This way you won't feel guilty for making your partner split something they absolutely hate, and conversely won't have to give up trying an interesting beer just because you know they won't like it.
Sober up – or call a cab
It goes with out saying: don't drive drunk. When you've finished your tasters, switch to water. Have a snack, even if that means going on an adventure to the nearest grocery store. Or hang out at the festival grounds and people-watch. Sometimes beer festivals sponsor other non-drinking events like live music or giveaways. When sobering up after Winter Beer Fest’s strong winter warmers, we went around to brewery tables looking for swag. We both ended up with temporary tattoos, some hop-flavored lip balm, and a really goofy Christmas picture. Which was far more amusing than the alternative.