This past weekend was the sixth annual SD International Beer Festival held at the San Diego County fair, and Beer of Tomorrow made the trek south to check-out the event. 130+ Breweries under a single roof and wristband for unlimited tasters led to a very beery afternoon indeed.
The festival is held in the Del Mar Arena building on the fairgrounds, and admission to the fair was required to get to the beer festival. The $35 wristband got you admission to one of the five 4-hour sessions, a plastic taster glass and unlimited pours from the staggering number of booths. The big caveat was that the breweries only pour a 1oz taster. Needless to say, the event was more about trying as much as you could and having a good time than it was about really evaluating the plethora of craft beers available.
We attended the first saturday session, and the arena was packed with people. But even thousands of beer-fans packing the arena floor, the wait-times for a taster pour were minimal. Often you could thread your way through the throngs of people milling in front of the stations and get a sample with no delay at all.
The nearly 140 breweries (PDF link) were set-up along long rows of tables, and each had between two and four of their beers on offer (usually being poured from bottles). There were also a handful of merchandise booths selling bottle openers, tee shirts, and craft beer swag among the sample-stations. A couple of food stands were mixed among the beer, and in-and-outs were encouraged during the session so you could snag food from the fair proper.
Overall we had a good time at the festival, but it was not without its moments of frustration. A few notable elements that worked against the festival were:
1 oz tasters. This is really a silly amount to try to judge a beer with. Sure, you get to sample a huge variety of beers with this system, but how much stock can you put in opinions formed after 20-some tasters?
- The staff. While the staff wasn’t bad in any way, it was a bit of a disappointment to not run into anyone from the breweries who’s beer we were enjoying. I know there were some brewery reps around the festival, but we didn’t see any of them. The people who were pouring the beer more often than not had no knowledge of what they were pouring, or even just general beer knowledge.
- The Cost. Including admission to the SD fair, the beerfest will set you back nearly $50 per-person. Sure, you’re going to get loaded (1oz at a time), but even is you manage 40-tasters in a 4-hour session you per/oz cost is $1.25 (comparable to a $20 pint!). obviously you don’t expect to get a bargain when drinking at a beer festival, but on-top of parking, and the insane prices for food and water at the fair, we definitely felt like we’d paid a premium to attend.
- They ran out of beer! This is the first festival we’ve been to on this scale, so we don’t know if this is the norm, but with an hour to go in our session nearly 1/2 of the breweries were outof beer. The majority of the rest were down to a single variety, and we missed out on many beers and brewers that we wanted to sample. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been as big a negative if we’d been at the fest since the beginning of our session that started at 11am, but our plan was to arrive around 12:30pm and enjoy a solid two-and-a-half hours of beer before the session ended.
However, many of the competition brews were already tapped-out by 1pm, and we saw several sample stations that had nothing available the whole time we were there. We never expect all the beers from all the breweries to be available for the entire 4-hour session, but pickings got slim fast. Especially considering the premium we paid to attend in the first place.
Like we said, we had an over-all positive opinion of the event, and we don’t mean to paint it in a bad-light. There were plenty of highlights from the festival:
The crowd. It was huge, but nearly without exception everyone was cool and polite. Quite the feat after four-hours of beer drinking with a few hundred other people! And even with the festival floor being crowded elbow-to-elbow with beer fans there was never really a wait to get a beer!
- The breweries. The official list makes for nearly 140 different breweries, and walking into the festival it was totally overwhelming (in an awesome way). While there were not very many brewers present that we can’t get in normal distribution in california, there were scads of local and regional brewers showing off their best brews.
- The beer. Unlike some other festivals where the brewers pour their two biggest and most common brews, the beer that we sampled was often the more off-beat varieties. Stone Brewing, for example, was pouring the excellent Sublimely Self Righteous, Runiation, Levitation, and even their barley wine: Old Guardian, and not the pale ale and IPA that I would have expected.
Speaking of the beers, we tried so many, and the environment was so kinetic, that we quickly decided to give-up on note-taking and instead focus on just enjoying ourselves and sampling as much as we could. Some of our favorites that we can recall were:
- Aztec Brewing: We tried three beers from the new Vista brewers: a chipotle IPA, a Alt Bier, and a dry-hopped red ale, and all three were quite excellent.
- Pretty Things: We’d had the Babayaga Autumn seasonal before, but a few months later the profile of this beer, featuring rosemary-smoked malts, was full and round. Probably my personal best-in-show.
- Jolly Pumpkin: Actually our first beer from the Missouri brewers the Maracaibo Especial is an autumn seasonal that was a little spicy, a little sour, and very complex. We’ll be on the look-out for more of this.
- Knee Deep: Their Hoptologist Double IPA was one of the last beers we sampled, and it was bold and hoppy enough to make an impact on even our tired and battered palate.
- Lost Abbey: We’re not sure how we’d missed the Devotion Blonde Ale before this, but as one of the first beers that we’d tried on the day we are confident in calling it an exceptional example of the style.
But the San Diego International Beer Festival isn’t just a good time; it’s a serious contest with dozens of medals handed out to the best beers poured during the event. This year The Lost Abbey dethroned the Pizza Port brewers to take the Best Of Show prizes with their Spring-seasonal Carnevale saison! You can view the rest of the medal winners here (PDF link).
And congratulations to Long Beach’s Beachwood BBQ for their seven total medals in the competition!
Have you been to the SD Beer Feat? Tell us your thoughts on the event in the comments!
- All Photos by Julie Verive