Last night I attended the inaugural American Craft Beer Festival with my friends Peter and Will. We purchased tickets about a month ago and have been looking forward to the event ever since. The celebration boasts 75 American brewers bringing a collective 300+ beers-- and for the most part, these ain't no ordinary beers you'll find at a local store. We're talking complicated, experimental, and often high-alcohol content brews. The format of the festival is one large room lined with brewer booths. Participants are given a tasting cup, sort of a mini-beer mug, with a graduation of 2 oz and extra head space above, and 3.5 hours to taste as many beers as they can. I prepared for the event by printing the beer list and systematically perusing it, circling beers I felt I needed to taste before the night ended. The number of beers, even after passing over several very interesting ones, climbed quickly to 67. Doing some quick mental math (and rounding down to 60, assuming I could somewhat easily knock another 7 beers from the list), this would add up to 120 oz., or the equivalent of 10 regular 12 oz. beers. But, since about half of those on my list were on the order of 7-8% alcohol (and typical beer runs more along the lines of 4.5-5%), I was looking at the equivalent of more like 15 beers. Maybe this was doable in college, but those days are long gone. Even up to the point of the day of the festival I was checking over my list and trying to cross off more beers, but it was not easy.

We met at the Barking Crab for a quick bite and had some fried calamari (good) and Jonah crab claws (overpriced, too much work). Will and Peter both had beer with dinner and I just shook my head in disbelief while sipping my water. We were aiming to arrive 30 minutes before the doors opened, but of course arrived closer to 15 minutes of the start. Luckily we seemed to just barely beat the real rush. Once the line started moving, we were inside with plenty of space to move around within about 6 minutes, overwhelmed with the choices and the difficulty of deciding which beers to make a priority of visiting first. Judging from the population density of the room, that line was still outside for a good 30 minutes for those arriving later than ourselves.

All of my planning mostly fell apart once confronted with the selection of beers. I did not know if there was any organization as to the brewers (i.e. alphabetical, which was clearly not the case), so we just started close to the door, checked out the brewer name, referenced my master list, and looked for circles. If I had circles, then we went and tasted, if not, we moved on. This was definitely not the best strategy, as I missed out tasting 4 or 5 beers that I really wanted to, because the place did get crowded as the night wore on, and a couple of breweries proved very popular to the point of running out of some selections. Additionally, early in the night was definitely the time to taste something I really wanted to take some notes on or remember.

Still, on the whole I feel we did quite well, and I got to taste most of the beers that I really wanted to. My biggest disappointment was Dogfish Head, which we skipped twice due to the line of people waiting for it, only to come back late in the night and find they were out of both the 120 minute IPA and their Immort Ale (an Oak aged barleywine with juniper, vanilla, and maple syrup, weighing in at 11% alcohol). There were additionally about 3 beers on my list that were supposed to be at the fest but did not make it due to brewer technical difficulties.

Should anybody end up reading this for a review of the setup as a whole, or even for advice in planning such events, I'd say it was great and definitely worth the money, but it would be nice if it could be held in an even larger space (or reduce admittance, add sessions). As I said above, early in the evening it was easy to get from booth to booth and there was a leisurely pace to it, time to talk with the brewers, etc. Once the room filled, it was still pretty easy to get a beer from most booths, but there were a handful which garnered a decent sized line, waiting in which took as much as 5-10 minutes, and you felt you needed to get your drink and get out of the way. Moving between booths became the real limiting factor as you needed to make a path through the throng of people.

Without further ado, let me tell you about the beers!
I think my favorite would have to be Cambridge Brewing Company's Kriek Du Cambridge - a spontaneously fermented double lambic sour beer. It was very tart and just fantastic, certainly a challenge to the typical notion of beer.
In a somewhat similar style, the first runner up would go to The Livery, with their offering of "Carvaceous" - an imperial IPA/sour red blend. The hop smell on this was fantastic, I didn't think the sour came through as much as I'd have liked but I think it did smooth things out, and whatever the case, the final product was a very drinkable tasty brew.
I was quite impressed with Lagunitas for both their Lucky 13 Mondo Red and their Hop Stoopid Imperial IPA. Actually hop stoopid might tie for 2nd place with Carvaceous. It was primarily floral aroma hops, such a fresh scent, without too much bitterness in the beer itself.
Sam Adams gets special mention for their offering of Sahti- a beer I'd heard of and figured I'd need to travel to Finland to try. This style of beer is flavored with juniper berries instead of, or in addition to, the hops you find in pretty much every other beer you've ever had. You might be able to imagine how it tastes- as overheard from a fellow attendee "it tastes like eating a Christmas tree"-- well, sort of, but I found it very refreshing, not too strong, but yes, a very "evergreen" flavor. If you're reading, Jim Koch, I would buy this beer.
I was impressed by Paper City Brewery's Radler. This is basically a german style lager mixed with lemon juice-- apparently it's pretty common if you frequent Germany, but I'd never had it and found it light and refreshing.
I liked HE'BREW's Rejewvenator- a Belgian Dubbel with fig juice-- very tasty!
I'll give special mention to one of two brewers from the South- the Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery from Farmville, NC. They make a very nice milk stout I was pleased to learn last night.
Stone Brewing Co. also made a nice showing with their Double Bastard Ale on French Oak Chips and their Chipotle Smoked Porter. Both were excellent.
Let me name just a few more I was happy with:
Ommegang Biere de Mars
Ithaca Brewing Co. Brute - an American Golden Sour, definitely top ten.
Moat Mountain Smoke House - Moat Maerzen
Oskar Blues Brewery - Old Chub, a scottish ale, probably top 5, if there are still any spots left.
Blue Moon Ebb Tide- belgian pale ale with hops and hibiscus
The list could go on.
As a general rule I was not overly impressed with the really high alcohol content beers/barleywines. For instance, harpoon led the pack straggled behind the 18% offerings of Dogfish Head which I didn't get with their 14% alcohol offering Leviathan Triticus. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't beer either. Maybe in a different setting with time to really sit back and sip some offerings such as this one I'd have appreciated them, but given the format, they were just too much, and a couple of them went unfinished.

So, good job to the beer advocate guys for putting on quite the event.
Apologies for the terrible quality of these pictures, they're clearly of the cameraphone variety.