photo by all about beer

photo by all about beer

Discover the BEST at a FEST!

By Julie Johnson
Banner photo by All About Beer

Do you feel ambushed by the proliferating
array of beers on the shelves? In a beer bar, faced with a menu that offers double India pale ales, fruit-infused sour beers, and barrel-aged Belgian tripels, are you tempted to flee in confusion? Help is at hand! This fall, spend an afternoon at a beer festival. It’s the easiest and most entertaining way to discover which beers and styles you like best.

Festival formats vary, but many share these elements in common: Guests are charged a flat fee for admission to a session that generally lasts four hours. You will be given a small glass and a program listing participating breweries—often 50 or more—and the beers they are serving. You are free to sample any beer at the event, usually in two- or three-ounce pours. There will be food, entertainment, and perhaps merchandise. The best-executed festivals offer an educational component as well. For an extra charge, some offer a VIP ticket, with early entry and access to a VIP lounge with complimentary food and an expanded selection of beers.

How can a novice make the most of what is, on entry, a rather boggling range of choices? Jamie Bartholomaus is a veteran of many festivals, both as the founder of Foothills Brewing and the board president of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. He has this advice: “The whole point of a beer fest is to explore different flavors you can openly sample, as opposed to buying different beers individually.

Try new beers, new styles, or try something you haven’t had before. Or compare a beer that you drink regularly with other beers in that style so you can expand your understanding.”

 Photo of beericana by M. Eric Honeycutt

Photo of beericana by M. Eric Honeycutt

To make your next beer fest the best experience, here are a few pointers:

•  Dress casually and wear comfortable shoes—you may be on your feet for several hours. Bring a pen to note beers you especially enjoy. Don’t forget your ID.

•  Eat beforehand, and pause for a bite during the event.

•  Have a plan. Perhaps you want to concentrate on North Carolina breweries, so you have a better idea of local beers you’d like to stock at home. Or pick a particular style you’re unfamiliar with—say, hefeweizen—and try a wide range of examples. Or organize your selections around a tour of beer styles, paying attention to the contrasts between, for example, hop-accented and malt-accented beers, or lagers and ales.

•  Just as you would with a wine tasting, start light, with paler beers that are lower in alcohol. There are exceptions (some light-colored beers pack quite a punch), but these beers are less likely to overwhelm your palate. Save the big India pale ales, the porters and stouts, and any beer with “double” or “imperial” in the name for later samples.

•  Don’t try to get your “money’s worth.” The price of a festival ticket would buy about six pints of beer in a restaurant, which translates to (…quick calculation…) about 48 samples at a festival. Don’t even think about it. “The goal is to explore new beers, new styles, and new flavors—not to get all you can out of the buffet,” Bartholomaus advises. “Don’t feel like you have to drink the whole time.”

•  Drink water. It refreshes your palate, and moderates your alcohol intake.

•  It’s okay to dump samples. In fact, it’s a sign that you’ve been stepping outside your beer comfort zone, trying something you might not be willing to buy by the pint. “You don’t have to drink it if you don’t like it, and don’t feel like you have to finish every sample. It’s about avoiding intoxication as well as having a good time,” Bartholomaus says. Of course, good manners suggest that you not pour out a sample in front of its brewer.

•  Go with friends and discuss what you sample. Take advantage of any educational programs, which often take the form of sit-down tastings guided by an expert. You’ll appreciate the information—and a chair.

•  Get home safely: Use public transportation, nominate a designated driver, or walk.

While your memories are fresh, take a look at the program where you’ve jotted brief notes with the pen you remembered to bring. With a little luck, you’ve not only had a relaxed day in the sun with friends. You can now walk into any beer bar in the country, greet the server, and say something like this: “I’d like a locally-made brown ale, please; not too hoppy, session strength.” And get something you’re sure to enjoy.

Fall Festivals For Beer Fans

The festivals in this partial list all charge a single admission—generally between $35 and $50—for unlimited tastings, and they feature a large selection of beers and breweries. Many offer a designated driver ticket for guests who want to attend without drinking alcohol. All will require a valid ID for admission.

Beericana Craft Beer and Music Festival
September 8th, 12–6pm
Sugg Farm Park, Grigsby Avenue, Holly Springs

Triangle Hops for Hope
September 22nd, 2–6pm
Raleigh Beer Garden,
614 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh

Pours in the Pines
September 22nd, 2–6pm
Weymouth Center For The Arts,
555 East Connecticut Avenue, Southern Pines

World Beer Festival Durham
October 6th, 12–4 and 6–10pm
Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham

Hops & Harmony Craft Beer Fest
October 6th, 1–5pm
Downtown Statesville

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