I’ve been debating how to go about this, as the first two weekends of November found me outdoors freezing my butt off to try a bunch of beer. On the one hand, I had a generally miserable time. On the other, part of that is me being a dumbass and forgetting to wear a coat when there are flurries outside.
So whatever I may have felt about food, prices, weather, location, parking, or any of a hundred things which make me cranky, what’s undeniable is these two establishments went out of their way to find rare beers and bring them to us. Since the whole point of VBR is tell you about good beer, and where to find it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Location: Rustico Alexandria
Date: November 1, 2014
Brewers Present: Over 30, with several cideries and vineyards as well, but a general focus on Virginia companies
What We Ate: Cheese fries, the first chili I’ve ever seen with chickpeas
What We Liked: Did I mention variety? Holy crap! This was the most diverse festival lineup I’d ever seen, and all I wanted to do was try everything…but alas, the weather and the need to make it home alive won that battle. While the wine seemed a bit out of place, the cideries were a really nice touch. The two I liked the most were also the first two I tried in the Old Ox Oxtoberfest and the Heritage Teddy, a Wet Hopped IPA. I’d been looking forward to trying Old Ox for a while, and any time I can find some Heritage is enough for a first pump.
Get Out and Try: Old Ox, Heritage. I’ll say a little more about the Heritage Teddy, as their brewing staff took some pain to explain to tasters the importance of the Wet Hop method. It’s clearly an investment of time, money, and effort to not just source everything locally but do so seamlessly. Heritage likes to experiment, so this seemed a natural fit for them and it clearly showed.
Overall: I left with some mixed feelings. While the price was a bit steep, the charity involvement as well as bringing in some really small brewers explains a bit of that. The fries were great, but the chili was…not. I also froze my nuts off, and it took 25 minutes of driving to feel my hands again. But, once again, the focus should (rightfully) be on the beer. With two dozen brands, and one or (usually) two beers each, this all but begged for a full day in the sun.
Mad Fox Cask Ale Festival
Location: Falls Church, VA
Date: November 8, 2014
Brewers Present: 22, mostly regional, but with a few such as Terrapin and Schlafly that made a bit of a trek
What We Tried: Port City Optimal Wit (stick to the original), Oliver 3 Lions Ale, Capitol City Ist Gud Weizenbock, 3 Stars Pandemic Breakfast Porter, Terrapin Liquid Bliss, Blue Mountain Big Blue Double IPA, Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale, Mad Fox Gridlock Pale Lager
What We Ate: Massive beef hot dogs slathered in a bunch of different sauces
What We Liked: Well, it was a little more sheltered from the wind. No seriously, cask ales are serious business. Mad Fox has some particularly good ones such as the Orange Whip, and that they’re making a deal out of getting others to drop the suds and bring some “real ales” to check out is good stuff.
Get Out and Try: 3 Stars, Oliver Brewing Co. The real winner is the English-style 3 Lions Ale, which is just about how you’d imagine a cask ale to taste. The nutty and malt notes are aided by the lack of carbonation. As for the Breakfast Porter, there’s a gravy boat load of flavor to be had to offset the imperial style. Chocolate, whiskey, coffee grounds (fresh, that is)…a bit of everything.
Overall: Cask ales are a bit of an acquired taste. I like the concept for the festival, but in general prefer the taste and carbonation of draught beers. That being said, this allows the brewers to experiment a bit more which is always a good thing. The tasting format here is preferable to going after full pints, and Mad Fox generally does a decent job in pairing food, music, etc. I also feel for the band as they were deliberately plucking away on their instruments without the benefit of picks or gloves. Yikes.
Final Thoughts: Craft beer is still kind of a new thing here in Virginia. You’ll find the big festivals in Boston, Denver, and further out West, but these are great avenues for brewers to market and beer lovers to discover those items which are hard to find behind the bar or in the grocery aisle. So rather than gripe, I eventually realized I do appreciate what these folks are trying to do. You try and be a microbrewer for a week – I’ve seen the owner of Forge Brew Works at almost every event imaginable over the past few months, and passion is what drives places like Rustico to join in on the fun, too. What may be an issue, though, is that with the explosion in competition comes, well, competition. So while we might enjoy having the brewers there to chat with us, it’s not realistic given everything they have on their plate.
So the suggestion I really have is that while a lot of places have great ideas, a little bit more collaboration might be in order. A great example is the DC Craft Beer Festival that just happened on the 22nd. While we were out of town and couldn’t make it to that one, the sheer scope meant you really did get everyone to one place with one singular focus. Of course it’s not possible to do that every weekend which makes the smaller festivals or gatherings fun, but even us beer drinkers can only be in so many places at once without ending up in marriage counseling or AA. That makes it tough to pick and choose…which is also a glorious thing.
So thank you to Rustico and Mad Fox for even daring to try these outdoor events after the weather had started taking a downward turn. I would never have gotten to try some of the smaller brewers from RVA, 757, the Southside, or even some local brews in hard to reach spots.