Keeping Beer Weird
10 Best Alternative Beer Festivals
Festival fatigue: it’s when you find that the juggernaut gatherings you once looked forward to every year suddenly feel more like mandatory work conferences. (Those lanyards have something to do with it.) And it applies to the very best festivals in life, too, like those ones focused on beer. This is especially alarming. Has your passion for beer turned lukewarm, like a Sunday-morning wounded soldier on the coffee table? Is it all the talk of sales figures and changes in industry-related legislation? Perhaps you’re just thirsty for a shakeup. These 10 alternative beer festivals across the US will remind you that there’s more to celebrating craft beer than the Great American Beer festival. Chin up, meek beer geek; there’s plenty of buzzed adventures to be had.
Sly Fox Bock Fest & Goat Race
May 3, Pottstown, PA: Inaugurated in 2000, Sly Fox’s yearly beer festival is well on its way to canonization, and it’s right up there with rolling wheels of cheese down a hill in terms of weird backcountry tradition. Each year proud goat owners put their prized pets through a racing tournament; the goat that wins the hotly anticipated championship heat will have its name on that year’s new Maibock, released and tapped shortly after the winner crosses the finish line. (Previous winners include Peggy, Sundae, Savannah and Weird Beard.) This year the festival will take place at the Sly Fox brewery, which neighbors a wide-open field for the goats to hightail it across, and like every year, the brewery will offer up a their Slacker Bock, Helles Bock, Instigator Doppelbock, and two Eisbocks, in addition to a traditional German menu. All of the proceedings are accompanied by German Oompah music, really driving home that old-world feeling.
March 14, Tampa, FL: Cigar City’s Hunahpu Imperial Stout currently holds a 100 percent rating on Beer Advocate, by a count of 3,083, and a perfect 100 on Rate Beer. Released only once a year on Hunahpu’s Day, the ale is highly sought after — so much so that last year, some slimy opportunists sold counterfeit tickets. As a result, festival attendees vastly outnumbered the brewery’s supply of bottles, leaving thousands of inebriated beer geeks empty-handed. So they went apeshit, and this year’s even was very nearly canned. But to the delight of the beer world, Hunahpu lives on. Along with four bottles of the nigh-legendary ale, attendees will receive food from Cigar City Catering — including ropa vieja, traditional German fare and “Hunahpu’s Brownies” — access to 200 beers from over 60 brewers and complimentary swag (a tote bag and a beer glass). Fingers crossed that there are bottles enough, lest the crowd angrily reenact a Mayan ritual sacrifice.
All Ale to the Queen
March 28, Charlotte, NC: A renaissance faire and a beer festival had a drunken one-night stand, and nine months later All Ale to the Queen was born. Organized by Superfly Fabulous Events, the group behind several volunteer-heavy North Carolina and Tennessee beer events along with Colorado Cider Week, and sponsored by Blue Point Brewing, the festival is only in its second year of capping off Charlotte Beer Week. Attendees can dizzily sample over 100 craft beers from breweries in and out of North Carolina while gymnasts somersault from dizzying heights; they can enjoy beer cocktails at 10 mixology stations, sampling cocoa nib-infused beer from roaming mobile beer infusers between stops; they can enjoy one-off casks and compete for the role of Beer King or Queen.
And there’s jugglers, if you’re into that.
Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers
November 14-15, Chicago, IL: One-off barrel-aged beers aren’t a special concept when it comes to beer festivals — but dedicating a whole festival to them sure is. Just as the wind picks up in the Windy City, over 90 brewers from all over Illinois converge with 300 barrel-aged brews in tow, all meant for the National Wood Aged Beer Competition. Some might be available commercially after the event; others may be once-in-a-lifetime drinks. By its very nature, this is a beer fest like no other, and a bargain at $55 a ticket. The real pinch is deciding which of the 300+ barrels deserve are worthy of the 15 tastings included in the price of admission.
Northern Lights Rare Beer Festival
March 28, St. Paul, MN St. Paul has a reputation as Minneapolis’ stuffy older sibling — but the Northern Lights Rare Beer Festival is proof that as the elder of the two, St. Paul has exquisite taste in beer. From Duluth’s own Bent Paddle Brewing Co. to Brooklyn Brewery, every beer maker in attendance brings their A game with one-off and limited releases from years past. Some standouts from this year’s roster: Sam Adams Tetravis, Lagunitas Gnarleywine, North Coast Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin, Deschutes Abyss, Surly 2010 and 2011 Darkness, and a good handful of offerings from Lakefront and Boulevard. Proceeds from the festival go to Pints for Prostates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating men about the importance of prostate cancer screenings and assisting men who are fighting the disease.
March 14, Harbor Springs, MI: Fact: everything is more fun when you’re drunk. (Notable exception: filing taxes.) This includes skiing, and the wise folks at Boyne Highlands Ski Lodge capitalized on this with the sixth annual Brew-Ski Festival. The two-day festival features 285 beers from over 65 breweries and pub snacks, all at the foot of Boyne’s slopes, which are open for routine use; those looking to pay the full $262 to stay the weekend can also look forward to daily breakfast and hors d’oeuvres.
Beer Bacon Music
May 16, Frederick, MD Perhaps the most self-explanatory festival on this list, Beer Bacon Music’s greasy crown jewel is its two-ton bacon bar. Honestly, the 100+ beers on offer almost feel like an afterthought, so we’ll focus on what really matters here. Last year’s festival featured bacon and bacon-based snacks from eight different eateries in the area. Some examples: bacon-wrapped mozzarella sticks, bacon oreos, bacon thyme sausage, bacon soft pretzels dipped in chocolate (or peanut butter, or caramel), and spreadable bacon. Some quick numbers: those two tons of straight-up bacon alone amount to roughly 9,752,233 calories. Add that to however many hundreds of kegs of beer are necessary to fill two full days of beer enthusiasm, and you’ve got about enough calories to give an entire small nation cardiac arrest.
Kona Brewers Festival
March 11-14, Kona, HI The Kona Brewers Festival bears a deceptive name; it’s not a showcase for just the brewers of Hawaii (and a reasonably large smattering of mainland brewers), but for over 30 of Kona’s best restaurants and for Hawaii’s musicians and performers as well, all of whom preserve and celebrate the state’s heritage as heartily as one would expect. The four-day festival also includes the Suds and Sea Benefit Cruise, the 8th Annual Run for the Hops, and the Brews and Blues Concert, all of which support child welfare and environmental causes.
Strange Brew Fest
April 19, Reno, Nevada: The Brewers Cabinet, a craft brewery and event host, just recently announced the return of its Strange Brew Fest on Facebook. Details on this year’s attendees are sparse, but last year’s menu should give you a good idea of what to expect. Some examples: Bubble Gum Ale (Brewers Cabinet), Sunny D Saison (Under the Rose Brewing), Sour Bock Infused with Sour Patch Candy (Mammoth Brewing), and a Sushi Porter (BJ’s Brewery). Each beer is crafted specifically for the event, leaving the interpretation of “strange” up to the brewer — but balls-out weirdness is encouraged. Tickets should be available soon.
Oskar Blues Burning Can Festival
July 17-18, Reed Ranch, NC Originally held in the brewery’s home state of Colorado, Oskar Blues’s Burning Can Festival has been moved to their satellite brewery in North Carolina. As the name implies, the festival is a celebration of canned beer, with over 30 aluminum-allied breweries represented. Details on this year’s outing are as-of-yet sparse, but the change in location should in no way the festival’s unique emphasis on outdoor sports; in Colorado, the festival happened concurrently with Lyons Outdoor Games, an outdoor athletics festival featuring events like a pro kayaking race, a dirt bike jumping contest, and — naturally — a corn hole tournament.