|Back and front covers of the official pamphlet|
I had high hopes and low expectations going into this year's Extreme Beer Fest. My only true festival experience came a few years back and suffice to say it turned me off to the idea of going to another big event. It had started off smoothly enough with manageable lines and a lively environment but within an hour it had turned into an intolerable shit-show filled with beer bros and the requisite Affliction/Tap Out attired crews basically turning a craft beer event into something better suited for the "down for whatever" crowd. Then again, I had attended numerous smaller Dogfish Head events at their brewery in Milton and they were the polar opposite of that god-awful brewfest on Governor's Island: each event was expertly run, the crowds never got out of hand (or too large, for that matter thanks to responsible attendance limits), and the focus was always on the beer and local food; the Extreme Beer Fest, in turn, proved to be exactly the same as the latter.
I purchased tickets for the first session that would run from 6-9:30 pm on Friday. I had loose plans to meet up with a friend of mine who was going to the event as well albeit with a separate group of people. They planned on hitting up some of the local breweries before heading over while I was concerned about the line. I had spent a few nights during the week geeking out as I highlighted my printout of the beer list and plotted out my order of operations based upon the map furnished by BeerAdvocate; as nerdtastic as it seemed, it proved to be a smart move on my end.
Based upon the aforementioned time concern, I showed up at 4:40 on Friday afternoon; I wound up being forty-first in line. With 2,250 tickets sold for each session, I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten there when I did...especially when it started snowing about a half an hour into the wait. My buddy arrived nearly an hour after I did but I never saw him outside: the line had extended so far beyond me that it wrapped around the building completely to the other side.
|Sample page from the pamphlet|
Now, admittedly, I was a little disappointed when I saw the beer list for the 2015 event. I remember poring over a previous year's list with saliva-soaked envy, perusing a seemingly never-ending sequence of monstrously high abv brews as well as others with remarkably innovative or exotic ingredients. That one had featured a handful of beers north of 20% in abv as well as some of the most sought after brews from craft breweries across the country; this year's focus seemed to be more on barrel aged beers and sours. Fortunately for me, these are the two exact styles that I am presently enamored with and thoroughly enjoy exploring.
Before diving into my experience at the event, I want to reiterate how well-run the Extreme Beer Fest was. I waited on line for almost an hour and a half but it was because I elected to get there nearly an hour and a half early! It wasn't long after 6 pm that the line started moving indoors. Aside from that, a swarm of well-prepared volunteers would sporadically make their way down the line first checking IDs and then checking people in and issuing wristbands. This made for a much smoother entry into the event and undoubtedly sped the entire process up exponentially.
Once inside, we were each given a disposable sample cup to use for the fest. I had seen people complaining online about this in reference to previous events but it just straight up works better this way. Giving out glass samplers would be disastrous and distributing souvenir ones to 2,250 attendees wouldn't be cost effective when people would wind up losing them or possibly breaking them depending upon their makeup. As it was, the pours were slated to be limited to two ounces, which rendered this little guy the perfect receptacle at a little over four ounces (plenty of space for the beer and the head to rest nicely).
What ensued following my entrance was far less than the frenetic pandemonium that I was expecting and more just an excited, thrilling drinking atmosphere: no one was running around, making mad dashes for coveted breweries nor were people shouting and arguing. Simply put, it was a civilized, utterly enjoyable event right from the start. Then again, my liver might beg to differ.
In total, I partook in thirty-three different samples to varying degrees. I had a game plan going in and that was simply not to repeat the night of and morning after the 2013 Beer Bloggers Conference where I had thirty samples, twenty-one of which came in a brutal fifteen minute span before heading over to the Boston Beer Company. THIS time, I swore, I would slow-play it and not exceed a total amount of ounces consumed; I was tested almost immediately and am proud to say that I succeeded in my mission.
The biggest challenge with attending an event like this is restraint. You're talking about almost a hundred of the best breweries around bringing some of their most coveted brews and, naturally, you'll want to try them all...but it's impossible to do so. With that said, I had come to the Extreme Beer Fest (nerd alert!) with a color-coded list of the beers and breweries. I highlighted my most desired samples in one color and a secondary collection in another thereby putting an upper limit on what I would feasibly go after. I knew that, once the lines began forming, it would be difficult to adhere to that plan perfectly and so I allowed for the requisite amount of wiggle room. Basically, I wanted to be able to enjoy myself while still ensuring that I wouldn't have an awful night. My wife and kids were waiting for me back at the hotel and the last thing that I wanted was to be a sick, vomiting mess upon returning to them.
Going into EBF, the two things that I dreaded the most were the lines and the potential assholes who would be populating them. I have a misanthropic streak and an aversion for waiting in excessively long queues--quite possibly the worst combination of traits for someone attending an event such as this. To my utter surprise and delight though neither the lines nor my fellow attendees proved to be problematic. The lines were often long in terms of people but not in terms of time; they moved quickly almost universally. The crowd at large seemed to be far more educated in terms of craft beer than the one at the other festival I had attended--a fact that likely created the fun, lighthearted environment. For the most part, the only clowns I encountered were later in the evening and were, oddly enough, almost exclusively of an older crowd (most were silver-haired folks at least in their fifties who you would think would have known how to handle themselves better!). I did have one asshole make an asinine comment about air conditioning that went over my head at the time. He interrupted a conversation that I was having with a nice couple from D.C. to make his quip and immediately I felt the Brooklyn rising up in me. You would think that people would know better than to antagonize strangers at an alcohol-themed event but fortunately good sense prevailed and I kept my mouth shut. It was only after the fact that I realized that he was probably making some forced attempt at humor about the dual sample glasses I was wielding at the time--a point I will explore shortly.
And here we are: it's not a good idea to walk around with more than one sample glass in your hand. My buddy had wanted to take a picture with a brewer while I wanted to get on another line so I took his sample for him and headed over to wait. It never dawned on me that this could be construed as double-fisting drinks and I was lucky not to get chastised for it; as it turned out, he had gotten reprimanded earlier in the evening as did other attendees. While some would bristle at such admonishment, I think it speaks to how seriously the event hosts take responsible drinking at the fest and it lends itself to reducing the opportunity for people to get out of hand.
|Me with Patrick Rue, founder of The Bruery|
Other highlights included Surly Brewing's Darkness and Abrasive--possibly the best Russian Imperial Stout and easily one of the best DIPAs I've ever had, Avery Brewing's Uncle Jacob's Stout--another absolute beast of a beer at nearly 17% abv, Firestone Walker's Agrestic and Bretta Rosé, everything from The Rare Barrel, Other Half Brewing's Green Diamonds--potentially the best DIPA I've had, and most of the Dogfish Head entries with ExtRemus, ExtRomulus, and Beer For Breakfast standing out as the best among them. I'm bummed that I didn't read more carefully that the 120 Minute IPA being offered was from 2011 but in retrospect it was probably a good thing since most of the 33 samples that I had were already well over 10% abv. I missed out on a number of other great beers and breweries but it was as much a result of the personal limits that I set upon myself as it was the lines. Ironically, the longest queue that I waited on was actually for food--the delectable delicacy called the Green Muenster by Roxy's Grilled Cheese. It really hit the spot as I took a much needed break from the bacchanal.
Ultimately, I felt like this was the best run event of its size that I've ever been to--beer-related or not. Dogfish Head and the Beer Advocate team really had everything well-thought out and created not just a festival filled with great beer but rather an opportunity to savor craft beer in a relaxed, responsible way. The pours really were limited to two ounces or less (at the discretion of the individual pourers for each brewery), there was a solid variety of food available for purchase at a reasonable price (reasonable at least in terms of my expectations for food of similar quality at chic craft beer locations), there was a seemingly unlimited supply of water available at a ridiculously reasonable price (ONE dollar a bottle! More on that in a minute), and there were a slew of cleaning stations that subconsciously discouraged overconsumption as well as the frivolous waste of sample cups (the stations had buckets in which to dump unwanted beer as well as Gatorade tanks filled with water used to rinse out the sampling cups).
Nothing demonstrated the sponsors' collective respect of beer and their adherence to fostering responsible drinking more to me than those one dollar bottles of water. Given the importance of staying hydrated while drinking, it would have been easy as hell for them to price gouge us but not only didn't they do that--they instead charged essentially a nominal fee leaving little excuse for revelers not to be responsible. Props to Dogfish and Beer Advocate for handling things in such a fashion. That alone makes me trust them with future events and leads me to believe that they truly stand behind the things they say about respecting craft beer.
With all of that said, I'd like to conclude with a few suggestions for having a successful, enjoyable experience at a festival like this. Many of these items are common sense and are covered by Beer Advocate in their survival guide but all of them are worth considering seriously:
I. SET A CONSUMPTION LIMIT GOING IN
Some people are blessed with the inherent ability to pace themselves unconsciously; I am not one of those people. I have a collector's mentality and the thrill of knocking beers off of my list can potentially derail my efforts to take it slowly. As it was, I had almost a third of my samples in the first twenty minutes or so even though I planned to space them out. What really helped was sticking to my "thirty samples or forty ounces" limit. I might've gone slightly over but without that guideline in place I can only imagine how much I would've had.
II. HAVE A GAME PLAN IN PLACE
Knowing what you want to sample before you go in will make for a smoother, far more enjoyable experience than simply winging it. Even still, it'll likely be impossible for things to go exactly as you'd like so be sure to build in some flexibility. Select your half-dozen or so most desired beers and seek those out early; you never know what beers might kick thereby robbing you of an opportunity to try something amazing.
III. UNDERSTAND WHERE THE LONGEST LINES WILL BE
I was lucky enough to have tried Founders' CBS in February and thus had the luxury of not having to wait on the line at EBF for it. It would've been my number one beer though and I would've gone to Founders immediately because I knew that CBS, KBS, and the other Founders entries would all likely draw a monster crowd. Though I wanted to try things from certain breweries, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to do so simply because of their reputation. I didn't want to spend most of the night waiting in lines and so I sacrificed some of the most popular ones for other, less pined-for breweries. The result? A stress-free night filled with exactly the amount of amazing beer I had hoped to enjoy.
IV. MAKE USE OF THE MAP
Though this and the preceding point are essentially just aspects of having a game plan, there's something to be said for visualizing the space you'll be in and planning out a route. In my case, I saw that the Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head would be at one central spot while Surly Brewing was all the way in the back near the corner. I made a quick pit stop to try the Kosmic Mother Funk and then made a beeline for Surly. From there it was off to Avery, back over to the Lost Abbey, then Shmaltz and the Rare Barrel. I didn't stick to the exact route I had laid out initially but my preparation paid off because I didn't waste much time if any wandering around looking for breweries (something that could become potentially time-consuming as the lines started to fill up making it more difficult to look around).
V. IF YOU GO WITH FRIENDS KEEP YOUR LIMIT IN MIND
I attended EBF basically by myself (I bumped into my buddy twice during the night but was alone for the rest of it) and, for me, it was a very good thing. I didn't realize it until later but if I had gone with a friend (or, worse, a group) I would've been bombarded with multiple samples to try all at once. There's no way I would've been able to resist the temptation to overconsume and would've blown past my limit less than an hour in. If you're going with friends who are willing to share their samples with you then just be aware of how much you're drinking and how quickly.
VI. HYDRATE WAY MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO
I can't emphasize this one enough. I was at the event from 6 o'clock until 8:30 and I polished off FIVE 12 ounce bottles of water while I was there. I then downed a 32 ounce Gatorade and another bottle of water back at the hotel before going to sleep. I was basically good this morning but just to be sure I downed a bottle of coconut water. The end result? Absolutely no hangover after a monster night of drinking.
VII. EAT AT LEAST ONCE MIDWAY THROUGH AND BEFOREHAND
A full stomach will slow the effect of the alcohol and will help your body to process it better in the long run. I ate a big lunch around 3 o'clock and then had a bagel with cream cheese while I was waiting on line at 5. I took advantage of the food stands and rocked a grilled cheese at 7 before finishing the night with some gross, greasy, (but helpful!) fast food at 9 o'clock. This one's more about helping you the next day more so than the night of!
VIII. BE WILLING TO DUMP BEER/ASK FOR SMALL POURS
I know that it's sacrilegious to say but at events like this you really have to be comfortable with dumping some beer IF YOU ARE LOOKING TO SAMPLE A WIDE SELECTION. If you're interested in sticking to only a few breweries and beers then by all means drink away BUT if you're going for variety and quantity then it's almost a necessity that you pour some for your homies along the way. I placed a higher value on the number of beers that I tried and thus knew that in order to come nearest to my 30 beers/40 ounces mark that I would have to forgo some of my samples. I asked for small pours and many of the pourers honored my request. Some didn't though and so I was forced to toss the excess when I wasn't a fan of what was in my cup. Thus the cleaning stations/dump buckets! I was able to have 33 samples in total and consumed the maximum amount for only my favorite ones. Simply put, if you drink everything that's put into your cup, you're in for a long night and an even longer day after.
IX. KNOW WHEN TO CALL IT QUITS
This final point might just be commonsense but it goes a long way to ensuring that you have the best night and next day possible. Just because the event lasts three and a half hours doesn't mean you have to be there drinking throughout that entire time. I left voluntarily an hour early because I had people I wanted to get back to and a weekend ahead that I wanted to enjoy without paying homage to the porcelain god.
Know yourself, your tendencies, your limits, and, most importantly, know when it's time to go home.