“Good men drink good beer.” -Hunter S. Thompson
We are living in a renaissance of craft brewing in this country, ladies and gentlemen. Decades back, micro brewing took a terrible lashing as the market choked the life from it with big beer choking American palettes with corn and rice to dull the flavor and good senses of the beer drinking public by “branding” their beer when they were all the same anyway. I am a “big beer boycotter” and as such, I enjoy finely crafted beers from local breweries and independently owned brands that fight the good fight for full body flavor and calorie counts that make Amstel Light look like tap water (which it is). In this country, there are about 1500 craft brewers registered with the Association of Brewers, and on Saturday September 18th in Ventura, CA, a few of them were represented heartily at the second annual California Beer Festival at Mission Park.
I attended the first year and this year, I was stoked to be able to return; I stretched and limbered up for the gauntlet of brew I knew I would have to “endure” to do my job well. I had some concerns about some issues they had last year and was excited at the prospect of experiencing the day with the kinks worked out and more beer on tap for sampling. The lines moved much faster this year with the addition of a second entrance and an expedited ticketing process. They switched from mugs, which they ran out of last year early in the day, to sampling glasses which they had plenty of to go around. The idea of tickets for tastings went out the window thankfully in exchange for the smaller glass so the hostage exchange-like transaction of raffle tickets for brew was no more. Finally, and thankfully there were port-a-johns aplenty so that bathroom lines never exceeded the length of beer lines.
With the addition of an extra musical stage for great music to set the mood of the warm yet overcast day of beer tasting, they also expanded the square footage of the event to make room for the BBQ cook-off and the seething crowds the event brought out this year. The patronage was maybe three to four times more people than last year and despite this fact beer lines moved quickly and it never felt too crowded to enjoy oneself. The event’s advertising and increased attendance brought about the riff-raff to leading to scenes of a few people off in corners with dry heaves or too drunk to really control themselves. This is inevitable though and needs to be taken with a grain of salt because when you get enough people together for a beer festival, you are going to get those who just see it as a chance to get drunk as opposed to getting to taste true craftsmanship.
With the music going and the people flowing in ever so quickly I was ready to jump right in and get to tasting when I got in the door four minutes after noon…wait, what is that you say? You don’t start serving until 1? What the hell are you talking about!?
Yes, we have come to one of four major issues I had with the day’s events. The pouring of beer did not start until one hour after doors opened which means that for one hour all people are doing is milling about and frothing at the mouth for suds with nothing to do. Get a sample at the BBQ cook-off you say? Well, samples didn’t come off the BBQ until 12:30, still leaving you with thirty minutes…of…nothing. Sure there was some music, but sunshine in a park with no BBQ tasting yet and no beer makes Jack a dull boy. So, there you are getting cranky, hungry, thirsty, and frankly annoyed while you wait for the event to actually start.
But when it did get going, finally, I got to taste some great beers. A standout that I never even heard of was Eye of the Hawk by Mendocino Brewing Company. An 8% ABV traditionally brewed ale, this beer is bottle conditioned and brewed with pale and caramel malts as well as a proprietary strain of yeast. It has a dry finish and a warm body on the palette, which finishes also a little sharp because of the higher alcohol content. This beer is one you can’t rock a six-pack of in an afternoon, as it might be too much, but for a couple of beers with friends over some hot wings you could do a lot worse than a few pints of this.
Lagunitas and Trader Joe’s put out a couple of good summer drinkers I want to mention here. Lagunitas Brewing from Petaluma, CA, really known to me for a great IPA, offers a malty Pilsner in the Czech-styling for those that are not “hop heads” and want a beer that is a bit more mellow (which to me is synonymous with malty). I am an ale guy because I think Lagers are a little buttoned down and quieter company but with a very cold fermenting process and a summer day drinkability that is perfect for SoCal weather year ‘round, even during the upcoming fire season. Right on par with my impressions of the Lagunitas Pilsner is the Hofbrau Bock offered by Trader Joe’s, which uses lager hops that deliver a very crisp and flavorful beer that won’t knock you on your ass or leave you begrudging the night before. Though not my taste, in general these might be a fresh change of pace from burlier beers over BBQ burgers and dogs in the backyard on a Sunday afternoon.
Think we’re done? Are you one of few in CA that love a good Porter? I’ve got two, but only one you can buy. VIBE, which is literally a club of home brewers with beer aging in their garage or wherever they can fit it, offered many beers on the day and I tasted the Whiskey Porter that was brewed by brothers Joel and Justin. “Whiskey” is what sold me because if I’m not drinking beer then it is whiskey for me and a good porter can be hard to find so the marriage I found here was amazing. Wood chips are soaked in Johnny Walker Gold and left in the keg once brewed for a smooth and smoky beer with a roasted body and a great nose. Right up there with this porter was an amazing porter from Telegraph. Telegraph didn’t wow me last year, but I have to say the Porter is amazing with great coffee and chocolate taste and powerful aroma. It almost reminded me of undertones of nutty and somehow licorice flavors. The first flavors creep up slowly with an understated finish. After a sip of either of these brews you can breathe through your nose and smell those aromatic characters. These two give me hope for dark beer in CA.
Now last year, I mentioned that Karl Strauss was king in Hefeweizen with their Windansea, but Karl has got a problem because Wolf Creek dropped the gauntlet with their Howlin’ Hef, which is fruity with banana and clove playing lead singers with apricot singing back-up. With no sour bite of too much coriander or citrus you get with many hefs this one stands out as my favorite, when in the mood, and I dare you to try and put a lemon or orange on the rim because I will come to your house and revoke your beer drinkers license, it’s just how strongly I feel. If you are not a hop crazed lunatic and want something in the hef arena then search out this brew and treat her well because she will be good to you.
So the day is going great, the beer is flowing, you’ve had a few, trip to the bathroom was quick, and the tunes are rolling…let’s get some food. Wait, really not much of an option; BBQ is all you’ve got on hand. Now I love the idea of BBQ with beer in the park, but I am on gripe two, I want more food vendors and more options. Yes, have some smoked ribs and peach cobbler, but I might want a burger, chicken, fish tacos, or tacos, period; if you’re gonna have Dos Equis on tap then you gotta have tacos. With all this beer flowing and people getting rowdy then a wider variety of good food would be appreciated to soak up the great beer. I would have loved to have seen Spencer McKenzie’s or Aloha Steakhouse, or even Pinks Hotdogs represented. With these offerings also comes the option of non-alcoholic beverages to curb the buzz and rehydrate; would it kill ya to offer me a lemonade? Just saying.
I am also gonna get two other gripes out of the way right here. A small one for me is that it seems the craft brewers were a little slighted this year. Blue Moon was a major sponsor and though I love Firestone and can tolerate Sierra Nevada, though there are much better pales out there like at the Stone Brewing tent, I just feel that big beer was over represented. As a beer guy I loved last year as a lot of craft brewers came out and a lot of stuff I had never heard of was on tap for tasting. This year seemed a little more corporate and I just wanted to see a lot more small-timers getting to shine in the spotlight. VIBE home brewers was awesome to see, but a little more micros over majors would not have hurt.
Final gripe…you ran out of beer! Yes, I had to wait an hour to get my beer after entering and by three, two hours before it ends, tents were sold out and done; we paid forty bucks and there were beers I never even got a chance to drink. Lagunitas, Stone, The Brewhouse, Speakeasy, Weihenstafen started drying up, VIBE ran out of one beer by 2pm, and so forth. This is an all afternoon BEER festival and you are running out? It is four hours of pouring three ounce beers, bring enough beer. I think this is either poor event planning or poor judgment by brewers. It needs to be communicated that every brewer is required to bring a set amount of beer ample enough to serve start to finish. I left the event a little early to beat the crowd to Anacapa and I was expecting that by five the news would be reporting a riot in Mission Park after the place turned in to a dry county…you just can’t run out of beer, ever. I understand it happens at a music festival, but this is all about beer, so bring enough.
California Beer Festival was a lot of fun despite all my griping. It was some great music by Rey Fresco, My Brother’s Band, and many others. There was great BBQ, greater beer, and enough port-a-johns for a dozen construction sites. The crowd was full of fun people overall and the logistics of getting in and around were really ironed out this year. I had been looking forward to it since last year and it lived up to all my personal hype. There is nothing like beer and music in a park. You laugh with strangers in line, meet buzzed friends you never knew you had, and get to take a moment on the weekend and just breathe. Beer is no longer for the low brow and unrefined. Great beer is clearly appreciated in California and I am increasingly surprised by the quality of brew I find down here and where it comes from. Bert the Bear, official mascot of the CBF was around for photos Saturday and looking at him I kinda felt like a “Goldilocks of Beer.” Year one of the fest was too hard, year two was a little too soft, and I can only think that third time being the charm will mean next year’s fest will be just right. Prost!
If you missed out on this event in Ventura do not fret, the California Beer Festival is making a second stop in Claremont, CA Saturday, October 16 from 12-5 at The Village. Visit CaliforniaBeerFestival.com for more information and tickets; it is the only decision in your life that I guarantee you will not regret.
About the Author
Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://www.wesleybauman.wordpress.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly.
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