Next weekend is the cataclysmic event known as the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest. Breweries from all over the state converge on Devil’s Backbone Basecamp to show off their wares and try to take home a little hardware for themselves. It is one of the largest festivals in the state and unofficially marks the end of the summer beer festival lineup. This seems like the perfect time to dust off one of our first articles that we wrote back in April of 2014 called ‘Dr. Brewlove, Or How I Learned How To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomber’ (just kidding, but that was fairly cleaver). Naw, it was actually a guide for attending beer festivals. We’ve updated a few things but the overall meaning rings true.
1. Plan your trip in advance. If this is your first festival, scout it out. Anything that touts ‘Great American’ or ‘World of’ might not be the first one you tackle. Look for smaller festivals that have a decent amount of local breweries, usually in the neighborhood of 10-20. That will offer you some variety without feeling overwhelmed. A lot of civic organizations and non-profits host smaller gatherings and have plenty of food and entertainment as well. You also won’t have massive crowds that you would usually see at larger gatherings either.
2. Location, Location, Location. Look for something close to your place of residence, or at least close where you are staying that weekend. If you live in Hampton Roads and there is a huge festival in Charlottesville, don’t think that you are going to make it a day trip. I guarantee you, no matter where you are in The Commonwealth, you will find at least 5 festivals of varying sizes that you can get to with a designated driver or a cab. That helps everyone out.
3. Get there early and leave early. Most of these festivals are Saturday or Sunday and usually run from around noon til about 5pm. Just like in the old days waiting for that new rock ‘n roll tape or video game, you are going to want to get there when the doors open. Two big reasons for that. First, the breweries that are represented have a limited amount of their product. The festival will give them the number of advanced tickets and will plan for the walkups. But if it is a beautiful day and not much else is going on in the area, more people tend to come out. This will put a run on the stock, especially the good stuff. Secondly, the latter in the day it gets, the more people that don’t have plans of attack just go after anything, and that can sour a day quickly.
4. Don’t go after everything. Even at smaller festivals, there will be around 15 breweries or distributors that will offer a variety of their product. Add that up and you are looking at as few as 50 different beers. You will not tackle everything, even if it is just tasting pours around 4 oz. Look up the vendors online and figure out where you want to go. Our advice is to start with breweries you might not get in the area, then go after the things you don’t usually see around. For example, if you know XYZ brewery will be there, don’t start with their signature beer you had on tap at your favorite restaurant. Start with the more obscure offerings. I also tend to stay away from distributors tents until everything else is exhausted. Chances are you’ve had, or are going to have, everything they are bringing, so while the illusion of variety is present, you’ll see most of the product hitting stores in that area in a short time.
5. Food and Water (and rest) are your friends. I can’t express this enough. Have a solid breakfast or an early lunch. There will be food vendors there, and usually a food truck or two, but you aren’t going to fill up on food, it will probably be enough of a mid-day snack. And hydrate yourself. There are water stations set up everywhere, and it’s not just for looks. Bring a water bottle in if you can and make sure to take as much water in as possible. One step I use is every time I do a lap, I find a place to sit, get some water, and take some notes. You will make several passes around the event so this is a perfect way to break up the day.
6. Ask questions (when it is slower). You don’t have to be annoying, but if you show a real interest in what you are tasting, most breweries, especially smaller ones, will be glad to answer a few questions you have. And most of the time, the breweries will send people brew masters and/or owners to the festivals, so they know the product well. And if you are taking notes, they will usually want to make sure you know what you are drinking, cause it might end up on some blog or website at one point or another. Key an eye on traffic though. If it is elbow-to-elbow, swing back around when it is slower with your questions.
7. Be smart. Festivals usually give out wristbands and glasses that are good for X pours in Y ounce glasses. If a festival ticket includes 20 4 oz tastings, conceivably, that’s 80 oz. of beer. And if you plan on going for a few hours, you could easily find yourself in trouble quickly. This is not like hanging out on your porch with some friends drinking light beer. This is a huge step up in ABV, so mind what you are having. The $40-60 price tag might make you think you need the value of all of your pours, but in the many years I have been to festivals, I have never made it to the end of one and used them all up. Also, you aren’t going to like everything you try, so just like going to a winery, it is okay to pour out something that is just bad. If you go into festivals looking for different beers you want to try and not to try to push the envelope, you will have a great experience.