There’s no denying that I have a skewed perspective on the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. I’ve been blessed with phenomenal access from the brewery two years running, and I have the luxury of hanging out behind the scenes and with the brewers and organizers. The event is considered one of the best beer festivals in the country, and I wholeheartedly agree, but it has very little to do with the beer.
The festival features around 50 brewers – all hand-picked by Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson – and each brewery is instructed to pour one “rare” beer and one “session” beer. Most of the attending breweries also bring a few other specialty kegs or feature bottle-pours of different beers. By my rough estimation, there are well over 150 unique brews being poured at the fest, and as soon as the gates for the general session open a flood of beer fans pour into the California Mid State Fairgrounds and rush to the more exciting, hyped breweries. Lines for Three Floyds, Russian River, Founders, and other top-tier breweries – many who only rarely make an appearance in California – can be long for the four-hour event. It’s impossible to try even close to everything. It often feels impossible to even make a dent in your “must drink” list (let alone try all the food or listen to any of the bands – there’s beer to drink!)
I didn’t even try this year. I had a short-list of half a dozen brews that I wanted to taste, and I had the privilege of the media session that gets an hour to sample before the festival opens to ticket holders. I was able to score my pours of Beatification, Barrel Aged Vietnamese Speedway Stout, Bretta Rosé, and most of my other “must haves”, but even with the extra hour, and a VIP pass to the front of most lines (which I rarely used as I feel like an asshole when I do), I still missed some of my short-listed brews (Death and Pinot, Kern River’s Citra).
I’m no ticker though. I wasn’t focused on trying everything, or even a lot of things. Hell, I had no less than four pours of Barrelworks Bretta Rosé, and another three of Bell’s Oarsman. I found what I liked and I stuck to it. As is always the case in craft beer, it’s the people who are more important to me. Friends, colleagues, brewers; the Invitational is like beer industry summer camp in a way. I may have missed some killer pours (that I may not ever have the chance to try again), but I was busy talking, laughing, and drinking with friends old and new. And I still wasn’t able to spend as much time with as many people as I would like.
From the brewer’s camp to the impromptu hotel bottle shares, FWIBF is an incredible gathering of beer lovers who share a passion. Most attendees probably have a feeling of anxious excitement during the scant four-hours of the fest as they flit from booth to booth; from taster to taster, always harboring that creeping dread that they won’t get to try everything they want to. I think that’s a fairly universal emotion for festival-going beer geeks. You get back from a festival, and as the buzz mellows you have that sinking feeling. “Shit! I forget to try beer X!” I have that same nervous excitement at the Invitational, but I’m nervous about missing people; forgetting to talk to a brewer; or not adequately thanking the hosts. This is especially true during the raucous post-festival Brewers dinner where media, VIPs, and brewers all mingle and really get to drinking. It’s during these precious hours that I try to do my flitting – from group to group, tent to tent – and soak up as much of the awesome beer people vibe. Yet, still I missed so many moments and conversations.
It really is the best kind of problem, and it’s a feeling that shines a spotlight on how amazing the event is for everyone involved. From the fans to the attending brewers to the Firestone staff – it’s an afternoon (or a day, or a weekend) that cannot be matched in the craft beer world.
I believe that beer, at it’s very essence, is a conduit for human connections. Beer begat civilization and revolution. Beer nourishes our bodies and alters our minds, but most importantly beer elevates our spirits. It brings us together and fosters communication. The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival – with its staggering list of beers available, its vast array of foods and entertainments on offer, and its carefully constructed and expertly executed experience – is a celebration of the connections that beer makes possible. The festival raised an undisclosed amount of money for its charitable beneficiary (the Pioneer Day Committee) and an additional $40,000 was donated to the Marine Corps Scholarship Program), but the goodwill that it facilitated between brewers and beer lovers of all stripes, and the personal connections made during the celebration cannot be quantified.
The biggest challenge for me during the festival is to be in the moment and stay mindful of just how rarefied an experience it is. Frankly, I don’t know how much of my experience at the event translates to the attendees who had to score a ticket (the event sold 3000 tickets in well under an hour this year), wait in line, and make the most of their four hours, but for me – thanks to the access and being treated like a friend and compatriot, the festival is one of the most edifying experiences I’ve had in craft beer.
For some people beer is just a way to get lit or quench a thirst. For others it’s a beloved hobby, an obsession, or even their livelihood. At this festival, all the beer fans come together with dignity, excitement, and respect – respect for the beers and the people who made them, and respect for everyone around them celebrating with them. It was my pleasure and honor to witness it and attempt to document – or at least to internalize – what I experienced. It reinforced my belief that beer is more than a luxury or an indulgence, and that beer really is something special that can lead to change, love, and a little bit of magic.
(And here’s a link to more of Julie’s great pictures from the event!)