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Preparing for a Brew Fest

by Sara Doersam

One of the fastest growing aspects of the specialty beer segment is beer festivals. They're gushing onto the beer scene in virtually every state in the country, and most major cities play host to multiple beer fests. Another season of organized beer sipping, swishing, and savoring kicks off again as we head into spring.

With huge profits to be made, promotional companies are coming out of the woodwork to stage these labor intensive events. Conversely, many beer festivals are a labor of love, produced by breweries, enterprising beer aficionados, homebrew clubs, and craft beer organizations. It seems everyone is jumping into the fray with their own beer festival once they get wind of the big payoff.

If quaffing brew at a beer festival is in your future, take it from me, you need to be prepared. You'll not only be more comfortable, but also learn more if you show up with the proper accessories and attire. Armed with beer etiquette awareness, you'll heighten your enjoyment and wow your friends with your suds savvy.

Prepping for a Beer Fest

When you've decided on a beer festival you want to attend, purchase your tickets in advance. They're usually less expensive in advance but moreover, there's nothing more disappointing then showing up at a beer festival only to be turned away because it's sold out. Besides, it's a hassle cooling your heels in line to purchase your ticket at the door because you're revved up for your quest for the best brew.

If you're taking public transportation, be sure to check the schedule well in advance. And don't forget to check departure times; you wouldn't want to be stranded at the corner instead of heading home because the last bus departed at 11 p.m. and you got to the bus stop at 11:05.

If you don't take public transportation, don't drive yourself. Treat a friend to a ticket to the festival in exchange for being a designated driver. I've seen increasing numbers of festivals offer discount tickets to designated drivers. So, be sure to inquire about designated driver discount tickets.

No need to feast before the fest, but be sure to have some food in your stomach before beginning the tasting session to ease the impact of any lapse in judgment you may make in beer quantity.

Beer Fest Attire

Casual (not sloppy) attire is standard beer fest fashion. Wear nonbinding clothes because after a day of suds sipping, you will likely experience beer bloating. Above all, wear comfortable hiking boots, walking shoes, or sport sandals. You'll be on your feet most of the session, and concrete convention center floors and asphalt parking lots are unforgiving surfaces. Shorts or jeans are fine but be sure you've got plenty of pockets for carrying accessories, which I'll discuss shortly.

Your favorite brewery or beer tee shirt is the uniform of the day, unless it's chilly outside, in which case wear it under a jacket or flannel shirt. Oh, and don't forget how unsightly stout stains can be on a white "Save the Ales" tee shirt.

Don your baseball cap emblazoned with your favorite beer or brewery logo. If the fest is alfresco, better bring sun block and UV ray-blocking, polarized sun glasses that adjust to the changing light underneath or outside of the beer tents.

Accessorizing for a Beer Fest

You might want to strap a plastic beer mug on your belt for any unexpected double-fisted sampling opportunities. If you're fortunate enough to own a hands-free beer glass that hangs in balance by a cord around your neck, wear it.

There are usually plenty of freebie trinkets such as coasters, brochures, posters, bottle openers, buttons and pins, magnets, temporary tattoos, souvenir glasses and more -- all for the taking. You'll need someplace to stash it all, so a canvas or nylon backpack or shoulder duffel will come in handy.

Bring an inexpensive bottle opener because you never know if your favorite brewer will slip you a bottle of his private stock barleywine. Tote your camera if you're looking for photo opportunities (don't forget film and flash), and bring a bottle or two of water. I've seen peddlers selling water at festivals for $2 a bottle and more, and believe me, you'll wish you had some -- especially if you're under the hot sun. If you want to cut costs, throw some snacks into your backpack too.

Pick up a festival program upon entry so you can map out your plan of attack; after all, you don't want to spend this valuable time sampling bland or boring beer. Go for the good stuff. Begin with your 10 "most wanted" list because your taste buds will loose their edge quickly. Don't forget to savor, not guzzle your beer -- especially at the beginning when they really hit the spot.

Scope out the locations of the rest rooms, food court, and, if necessary, arrange a rendezvous point for you and your friends.

Don't forget to bring a pen so you can take beer notes. I prefer to take notes right on my program, but if you don't want to mark up your program, bring a note pad. If you own any pocket guides to beer, they may come in handy for looking up beer information. In many cases, the festival program offer descriptions of each beer served.

Many beer festivals offer very cool door and raffle prizes so stash some extra cash for buying raffle tickets. Besides, you may want to purchase some snacks, beer wear or merchandise that you couldn't otherwise find.

Earlier I mentioned shorts or pants with plenty of pockets. That's where you'll be carrying your bottle opener, cash, pen, note pad, program, pocket guide and anything else to which you might want easy access.

Beer Fest Etiquette

Plan to wait in line for some things like festival entry, toilet facilities, food, water, and beer. If the festival is well organized, the lines should be at a minimum. Pushing and shoving at the beer booths is never cool. Likewise, after you've gotten your beer, move well away from the tables so others can get their beer.

Expect to receive small portions of beer -- usually 2-3 ounces each. It doesn't seem like much, but it adds up to a lot of beer quaffing. If you are served a beer you don't like, don't hesitate to dump it. There are usually dump buckets at the serving tables. Why get one step closer to your personal limit drinking marginal beers? (If the festival offers free entry and you buy a token for each beer, you can expect to receive 6 ounce or larger servings, which you can split with friends if you'd like to sample more beers through the course of the event.)

Children are inappropriate at beer festivals, so find a sitter or ask Mom and Dad to take care of them. This is an adult, not a family activity. Dogs are usually allowed at outdoor festivals (check before bringing Bowzer), but I've seen far too many dogs suffer from heat prostration and paw burn from being lead around on hot pavement by their unsuspecting masters.

Take a few minutes to ask questions, talk to brewery representatives, or better yet, the brewer himself, if he's there. The more you learn about beer styles, the brewing process, and historical idiosyncrasies of beer and breweries, the richer and more fulfilling your beer experiences will be. The brewery representatives and brewers will appreciate it too and may show you some extra courtesy or kindness. Of course, it goes without saying, but a "please," a smile, and a "thank-you" or a compliment on a beer will go a long way with busy, tired volunteers or brewery reps.

Post beer fest evaluation

After you've attended the beer festival and you feel up to it, evaluate your experience. Was your game plan a good one? Would you have done better to visit the food court early before the lines developed? Did you bring your pocket guide but never look at it? At your next festival, use the strategies that worked and dump the ones that didn't and before you know it you'll be a savvy beer explorer.

Here is a sampling of beer festivals throughout the United States and abroad:

Monterey, California
Monterey Beer Festival
early June; (831) 521-7921
Monterey County Fairgrounds

Durham, North Carolina
Southeastern Microbrewers' Invitational
mid-March; (919) 490-1474
Approaching it's 5th year, this fledgling fest has received early accolades.

Fort Collins, Colorado
Colorado Brewers Festival
last Saturday in June; (303) 498-9070

Adamstown, Pennsylvania
Great Eastern Invitational Microbrewery Festivals
June, July & September; (215) 484-4387
All three hosted and sponsored by Stoudt Brewing Co.

Portland, Oregon
Oregon Brewers Festival
mid-July; (503) 222-7150
Largest attended beer festival in the country.

San Francisco, California
KQED Beer Festival
July; (415) 553-2200
A San Francisco tradition. Primary fund raiser for public television.

London, England
Great British Beer Festival
early August; 01-144-141-9411-087
The Queen Mum of beer fests in the U.K. Hosted and sponsored by the U.K.'s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

Chicago, Illinois
Real Ale Fest
early October; (312) 665-1300 or e-mail
The only all-cask-conditioned ale fest in the country. Hosted by Goose Island Brewing Co. and sponsored by the Craft Beer Institute and Chicago Beer Society homebrew club.

Munich, Germany
mid-September-early October
Begun in 1810, this is the most famous beer festival in the world.

Denver, Colorado
Great American Beer Festival
late September; (303) 447-0816 or visit the Web site at http://www.aob.org/aob/gabf/gabf.html
Biggest selection of commercial beers served at a U.S. beer fest. Hosted and sponsored by the Association of Brewers.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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