We were somewhere around the edge of wine country in Paso Robles when the craft beer began to take hold (1). Baked and dripping with sweat, I dump the remnants of my tasting plate on the ground and use it as a makeshift fan. The air is thick, hot and pointless, laying on us like a nightmare in a sleeping bag.
Black bugs have somehow managed to attach themselves to odd parts of my body and pinch every so often. “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn bugs?” (2). One clings to my armpit as I smack it and smack it again, making it bite harder. “Hey! Ouch!” I yelp as spectators laugh wildly. I duck in the bathroom and dunk my head under the sink, then sling on my hat to grab a beer…the only cold thing in this arid place called Paso Robles.
Flash backward a few hours as this Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival starts and I’m in ‘kid on Halloween’ mode. Media check-in and pre-fest starts early and I’m not taking any chances. It’s peaceful. Nearby cows moo. It’s time to drink.
Standing near Russian River’s booth I hear brewer/owner Vinnie Cilurzo say the words “five-day old Pliny” and “two-year old Temptation.” These words fish-hook the absolute cream of the beer-media (3). We walk like we’re in a Broadway musical, jazz hands fluttering to get a pour. A pretentious voice behind me mutters “I’ve had two-day old Pliny once” while clearing his throat nervously. The five-day old version must taste like piss to this guy. I toss it back, note the fresh Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and CTZ hops, and move on quickly for a glass rinse and something dark before it gets too hot. The forecast for today is nailed at 104 degrees.
At this festival, beers like Pliny the Elder are ‘just beers’. Not to discount the highly decorated Double IPA from Santa Rosa, but there’s some serious rarities to be consumed today. Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City, which ended up winning the People’s Choice award, and Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Lord from the psychedelic Three Floyds Brewing were among the barrel-aged treats that generally elude us on the West Coast. Mikkeller, The Lost Abbey and Firestone Walker were unleashing lambics, framboise and collaborations. Orange County’s sole representative, The Bruery, leaked several rarities on the crowd each hour.
As much as the public loves this festival, brewers also gush at the prospect of getting an invite. Tyler King, The Bruery’s senior director of brewing operations, put it well: “It’s an honor (to be here) no matter where you’re from. We love so many of these breweries and to pour beer next to them is pretty amazing.” Tony Yanow of Golden Road/Tony’s Darts Away/Mohawk Bend was equally excited: “We are a very young brewery and to present our beer alongside our heroes is an honor.”
Adding to the event’s allure, there’s international beer, too. Fascinated with the thought of sampling overseas freshies, my associate Daniel Fernandez and I make a trip to the fest’s ‘Little Germany’. “I had no idea Germans were so tall,” says Daniel with his sub-sombrero sized hat. The guys at Mahr’s Brau Bamburg put David Hasselhoff to shame, and the girl at BraufactuM is at least three inches taller than me in flats. We then visit Yo-Ho Brewing, who also brought their beers from Japan to last year’s inaugural invitational. Close by, Italy’s Birrificio Italiano poured Tipo Pils, a beer that inspired Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson to brew Pivo Pils, which should be arriving in the southland soon.
Of the many, many beers sampled, three are my standouts:
1. Mikkeller’s Spotancherry Lambic gives me repeatable goosebumps. Juicy tart cherries burst in my mouth with the tiniest sip. Tastes like fresh tart cherry pie.
2. Lagunitas is shocked to hear my love for Sonoma County Sour Stout. “It’s pretty shocking considering we aimed to break every rule when making it…a stout on a hot day that goes down easy? Shocking!” says the biker-looking guy pouring. Layered flavors and aromas strike hard, then hit in waves with each sip. Roastiness, oak, tart fruit, some pleasant funk. The sign aims to debunk its tastiness and only makes me want it more.
3. The Lost Abbey’s Framboise de Amorosa is also among my standouts. Very bright and clean raspberry tart without any metallic notes. Finishes dry with tons of flavor. Shocker, I know. Funky/sour/Belgian style beers are perfect for hot weather, I’ve learned.
Food at the festival is dotted potluck-style amongst breweries. 25 local restaurants brought small-plate tastes to serve throughout the day. I enjoyed the Bloody Mary Granita from Luna Red and Ancho Duck & Cheese Quesadilla from McPhee’s Grill. Near the end, most food was gone.
The music from Hot Buttered Rum fit the mood of the festival; hyperactive, progressive bluegrass is something I could very well be a fan of without knowing it. The White Buffalo also performed later in the day but I was blissfully altered by craft beer at that point in time (see top paragraph).
Gripes: 0! If you go to one festival a year in California, this is it. It’s like a GABF greatest hits mixtape in a small venue with really good food and music. This is the gold standard of beer festivals. Despite the hot temps, there was no problem finding shade, misters, water or an NFL sideline cooler.
Title,(1),(2),(3) – quotes inspired by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas copyright 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
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Greg Nagel has been a beer fan for over twenty years and recently attended Sierra Nevada Beer Camp (#94 – Sleight of Hand). Follow him on his gonzo beer trail at OCBeerBlog.com and on twitter at @OCBeerBlog