Feelin' Festive

(Originally printed in Southern Draft Brew News Southwest in 1998.)

I know it's unseemly to gloat, but did you notice the results from the Great American Beer Festival in the last issue of SDBN? Despite giving the rest of the country a pretty good head start, Texas brewers came in fourth place overall with 11 medals (including six golds), putting us ahead of New York and Washington, and only one medal behind Oregon. When you consider that until fairly recently Shiner Bock was probably the best Texas-brewed beer out there, ranking with the big boys is something to brag about.

Worth noting is that the Texas beers won medals in demanding categories. While it's about time Celis won gold medals for styles they practically introduced to the U.S., Belgian and French-Style Specialty Ales (Celis White) and Belgian-Style Ale (Celis Grand Cru), winning medals in categories like English Old Ale/Strong Ale (Village Brewery's Resolution Ale) and Bohemian-Style Pilsner (Waterloo Brewing's Prairie Dog Pils) show that Texas brewers are making more than just alcohol-laced thirst-quenchers. Now if we can just get more people drinking these beers.

This is where the festivals come in. I love fall in Texas for any number of reasons. College football. Cool weather. Wurstfest in New Braunfels and Oktoberfest in Ft. Worth. Election day arguments over a couple of pints. And the Texas Brewers Festival.

If you've never been to a beer festival, you're missing out. Whether it's the frenzy of the Great American in Denver or the low-key camaraderie of the monthly get-together at a local homebrew shop, there's nothing that gets your thirst up like a festival. And why not? Is there any beverage truly more festive than beer? Are there any people more truly committed to having a great time than beer lovers? Nope. So what are you waiting for?

I went to my first Texas Brewers Festival in 1994. I remember sampling Shiner, Celis, Saint Arnold, a couple of brewpubs, and not much more. Not because of the amount of sampling - although I did plenty of that - but because there just wasn't that much more there. There were a lot of Amber Ales, as I recall. It's better now. These days you can go to a TBF and sample some of the best beers in the U.S., hear some great live music, and even get something besides turkey legs to eat. (Is there some law that requires turkey legs be served at all outdoor events?)

I've been to every TBF since '94, and, hopefully, I'll see a lot of you at one of this year's events. Seriously, you owe it to yourself and to your local brewers to get out and sample their efforts, and you'll never have a better opportunity. And I'd like to pass along a few tips to make your Festival even more festive.

First, go with a friend. Several friends if you can. Beer festivals are social events, so be sociable.

Second, go slow. Faced with dozens if not hundreds of beers to try, your first impulse will be to try them all, right now. So you start slamming samples, and next thing you know you're being helped to the car. Take it easy. Sip. Think and talk about every taste. Most beer festivals, including the TBF, run for at least two days, so there's no rush. You'll have plenty of time to try everything once, and time to go back to the good stuff for seconds, thirds, etc.

Third, stick with the two-ounce sample size. The mugs are tempting, but you need to save them until you've tried a lot and are ready to focus on two or three particular brews.

Fourth, eat. Even if it's a turkey leg.

Fifth, ask questions. A lot of the booths will be staffed by volunteers who may or may not know much about the beers they're pouring, but every so often you'll be able to speak to a brewer who'll tell you everything you want to know about his beers. Ask.

Sixth, take notes. The more meticulous, the better. On the one hand, they'll help you remember the differences between three different IPAs. On the other hand, they're funny as hell to look at the day after the festival. My notes invariably start out as pretentiously as you might think, then progressively disintegrate to scrawled comments like, "tastes like I'm licking a cat." I have one page of notes from the 1996 Oregon Brewers Festival that consists solely of the word, "Yum," over and over. Too bad I forgot to write down which beer I was referring to.

Seventh, and most important, take a cab. It's worth it.


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