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Craft Beer Festivals: A Survival Guide

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Brews on the Bay Beer Festival. Photo by David Jensen.

Although craft beer festivals are a year-round activity, the majority take place during spring, summer and fall. With the variety of breweries and beer styles present at most festivals, these events provide the perfect venue to further your beer education. I hope that this guide will encourage to you attend a few beer festivals and that the tips I share below will help you get the most out of each one you attend.

Get the Lay of the Land

Most beer festivals usually fall one of few different formats. First is the very simple pay-per-beer, where you simply pay as you go. Sometimes a bar will feature several special taps over a weekend and all you need to do is show up and pick out the beer you want.

The next format is quite common: pay an entrance fee, receive a commemorative glass, and use tasting tickets or tokens to sample the beer, usually with the option to buy more tickets or tokens.

There are also festivals with unlimited tastings. Oftentimes at unlimited tasting festivals you’ll receive a tasting glass, but will only be allowed a specific amount (usually one to five ounces) of beer per sample. Depending on the rules determined by organizers of the festival, this limit may be flexible or it may be very strict. The Great American Beer Festival, for instance, sticks to a very strict one-ounce pour per tasting. And with several hundreds of beers to try, you don’t want much more than one ounce at a time.

The final category of beer festivals are “beer weeks,” which are more like seven to ten days encompassing various beer events in a single locale. Beer week events take place in cities across the country, such as San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C. and more every year. A typical beer week includes events such as beer dinners, special release events, brewery nights and beer festivals. Beer weeks are a great way to experience a lot of different beer, explore a new city and meet fellow beer enthusiasts.

Pay Attention to The Theme

Besides the format of the tastings, festivals also vary by the theme. Many festivals are general purpose with plenty of craft beer from breweries in your region or from all over the country. A variation of this theme are festivals, such as Brews on the Bay in San Francisco, where only a select group of breweries are invited. In this case, Brews on the Bay consists of the breweries that comprise the San Francisco Brewers Guild. Some of my favorite festivals are the ones themed for a specific style of beer or a specific way of producing or dispensing a beer. I find it to be a great way to compare and contrast how different breweries interpret a style or push the limits to produce new and creative beers. Examples of these types of festivals are the San Diego Real Ale Festival (only cask-conditioned beer), Toronado’s Barleywine Festival in San Francisco, and The Bistro Barrel-Aged Beer Festival in Hayward, CA.

Devise Your Game Plan

Regardless of the format or theme of the beer festival, here are some tips to help maximize your enjoyment of the festival while being a responsible craft beer drinker.

1. Don’t drive. Make arrangements to get to and from the festival by public transportation or taxi, or if you’re close enough, just walk. This is especially poignant for festivals that require an admission fee. You’ll be hard pressed to find a designated driver to pay admission and not drink. If the festival or beer week takes place over multiple days, consider booking a hotel near the event.

2. Eat before you arrive. Even though many beer festivals have food available, it’s usually expensive, lines can be long, and you might be so interested in the beer and socializing that you forget to stop and eat.

3. Drink plenty of water. The more time you spend at the festival, the more important this is. Aim to drink as much water as beer and even when you fall short of this goal, you’ll be much better off for it. Also, find out in advance whether you can bring in your own water. Even if the festival organizers claim they’ll have plenty of water available, they often run out or water can be difficult to find. I’ve only been to one beer festival (the Great American Beer Festival) that had plentiful and convenient water stations. At every other festival I’ve attended, it’s been a struggle to get enough water when I didn’t bring my own.

4. Develop a sampling strategy. Your strategy will depend first on the size of the festival. At medium-sized and large festivals you won’t be able to sample everything. Since a festival is a great way to try new beer, I recommend focusing on beer that you’ve never tried before. After that, you still might need to narrow down the field. To do that, you can try one or more of the following:

  • Try beer from breweries you’ve never tried before.
  • Sample only one or two different beer styles.
  • Drink beer from a specific region. This strategy works well at very large or national beer festivals.
  • Divide and conquer. Have your friends try something different and report back.
  • Discover crowd favorites by making new friends at the festival (this is easy at beer festivals even for introverts). I like to ask people why they like the one they recommended. I’ve discovered many a wonderful beer this way.

I hope that this guide helps you have an enjoyable craft beer festival season. If you have any other tips, suggestions or a format of beer festival that I didn’t mention, please leave a comment.

Editor’s Note: Thirsty for more beer news? Check out these interviews with Executive Director of Philly Beer Week Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack) and beer blogger Johnny Brooke of Beer Review Dude.

  • Ladyface Ale Companie

    Great survival guide, David, especially bringing your own water and, at large festivals, developing a sampling strategy. May we add – keep an eye out for small pop-up beer sampling events like the recent ColLAboration in Burbank. It’s a small, savvy crowd and some really special ales.

    • Beer47

      Yes, that is something that I neglected to mention. Places like the Jug Shop in San Francisco have tastings every Friday. They are generally very reasonably priced and a great way to sample many different beers in one sitting.

  • TA

    I might add avoid the Frat party known as the Anderson Valley Beer Fest

  • John L

    Great post David. These tips will come in handy at the SF Int’l BeerFest this weekend.

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David Jensen is based out of San Francisco and is the primary writer and photographer for Beer 47, a blog focused on craft beer, beer events, cooking with beer, and homebrewing. In addition to the blog, you can frequently find David on Twitter as @beer47, tweeting interesting news and sparking up conversations about craft beer while sipping his favorite Double IPA. By day David is a software engineer for a small Internet company.