It was the best of beer fests, it was the worst of beer fests… I speak of two beer fests that my wife Lisa and I attended in May and June of this year. The first was the Philadelphia International Great Beer Expo held during Philly Beer Week. It was held at the Cruise Terminal at the Philadelphia Naval Station. This would be only my second beer festival, the first was one I attended at Split Rock in Pennsylvania with a bunch of people from work. But that had been a while ago and the details escape me, except the fact that this is where I got my Edgar Allen Poe beer quote ceramic pint glass. The quote?
Filled with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
On my brain - quaintest thoughts - queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.
Not quite Annabelle Lee, but the sentiment is quite beautiful.
We had thought that the beer fest in Philly would be a nice ramp up to the next one we had scheduled which was the New York City Brewfest. The one in NY had a more extensive and illustrious list of breweries and was being held on Governor’s Island. The brewery list for the Philly event was not as expansive or impressive. So we went to Philly with no expectations and to NY with high excitement. We apparently got it backwards.
Rather than taking the buses from the parking lot of the stadium where the Eagles play football, we drove right into the Naval Station and parked really close to the venue. Apparently not everyone knew you could do that since the lot never really got full. Walking up to the building to get in line we noticed many of the people wearing chains of pretzels around their necks. What a great idea, even if they looked ridiculous. The pretzels help soak up some of the alcohol and the salt helps to retain water. This supposedly results in less potty breaks and a milder hangover. Despite getting primo parking, we still had a lot to learn about attending these festivals.
Once inside you are given literature and, most importantly, your tasting cup. It’s a small, plastic cup that has the name of the event on it and the prime sponsor…Miller. The sponsorship did not thrill me, but they did pay for the tasting cups. I was not going to put any of their beer into it, however I would be putting some Michelob in it. I had noticed that Michelob had started a craft beer division and that they’d be there. I figured I’d give it a try so I would be putting a Michelob product into my Miller-adorned, 4 ounce, plastic tasting cup. Time to start the rounds.
The first table stop was at Yards. Yards is famous for owning the beer recipes from some of our Founding Fathers and having them served at the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia. They offer Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale, George Washington’s Tavern Porter, Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale (for those of you who don’t know Colonial American history, Poor Richard was a nom de plume of Ben Franklin's) and Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale. Lisa had Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and I, of course, had the saison. It was the first American beer called a saison that I tried that was actually a saison. Due to this, Yards impressed me. Blue Point was next and I had their famous, award-winning Smoked Lager. It lived up to the hype. Heavy Seas was there represented by an over-tasked man dressed as a sailor who refused to have more than one bottle open at a time. Next time, get someone who knows how to work a beer festival regardless if they’ll wear the sailor suit or not. Weyerbacher didn’t show up even though they were listed, but Boulder was there and the microbar even had Stone’s Old Guardian Barleywine.
One whole portion of the terminal was given over to InBev and Miller-Coors. This is where the NASCAR beers were represented so this is where the Michelob Craft Brews set up. I gave them a shot and was sorely disappointed at their efforts. They’ve got a lot to learn yet, but I like the thought process. It might be indicative of a switch in mentality for American beer drinkers...or not. Since so many people associate Anheiser-Busch with bad beer (and rightfully so) they also associate InBev with bad beer because they own A-B. Yes, they own Budweiser, Becks and Stella Artois, but there are many really good brands that fall under their umbrella. Leffe, Hoegaarden, Bass, Boddington’s, Franziskaner, Murphy’s and Spaten are some of the good ones, so don’t judge them too harshly. They are from Belgium after all which means they know good beer. They’re also smart and recognize cash cows when they see them. If by selling Budweiser at sporting events, Franziskaner continues to be exported to the United States, then I’m a fan. If having to put up with Stella Artois swilling beer snob wannabees means that Leffe is readily available, then I'm all for it.
This blog is about the beer scene in New Jersey and the surrounding environs, so Philly qualifies. However there was a more specific tie to New Jersey that came out of this beer fest. River Horse was there...they were late, but they were there. They brought their Double Wit and Hop Hazard with them and I loved them both. I wish their whole line was as good. I got to talking to one of the brewers about the hops they use for Hop-a-lotamus which led to a discussion on craft beer in general. This discussion went on for over half an hour, to the dismay of the other people from the brewery who were picking up his slack as he chatted. The end result was that it prompted us to hunt down their brewery in Lambertville once we left the brew fest. We were going to that town on the Delaware River anyway to have dinner at the Lambertville Inn for Lisa’s birthday and we had plenty of time.
We arrived at the brewery just in time to tag along with the last tour of the day. The guide at the Weyerbacher tour was much more personable and easier to hear. We didn’t learn much, but seeing this historic building and how they altered it to become a brewery was pretty neat. We had a few samples at the bar which were underwhelming. They had four beers on tap and they charge a buck for six samples. We gave them two dollars; we each had two samples and then left to walk around Lambertville until it was time for dinner. That was also disappointing. It was still a nice day overall and we had really enjoyed the beer expo and eagerly read all the beer magazines that we snatched up while there.
That was the good, now for the bad. We were really looking forward to the New York City Brew Fest, from the ferry ride over to being on Governor’s Island to being able to try beer from so many great breweries. We packed water and a bunch of pretzels, not quite ready yet to make a necklace out of them. This was going to be great! The disappointment started off before we even got to the island. My plan to get to the ferry terminal worked beautifully. We caught the light rail in Weehawkin, took it to the Marin Boulevard stop and walked to the dock. What excited us about taking the ferry over was that the Red Bull Air Race was being held at Liberty State Park, just south of there. When we got to the terminal we could hear the planes as they corkscrewed through the course and even caught a glimpse of one every now and then as they performed a “knife edge” through one of the gates. As we watched the camera ‘copters swoop and dive to get the best angles, we couldn’t wait to get on the water and clear the headland so we could see the whole course. Once we cleared the Coast Guard building we could see all the pylons, but we also noticed the camera ‘copters leaving the scene. The racing was over and we didn’t get to see much of anything. Bummer!
When we got to Governor’s Island we could see that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of other people disembarking from other ferries with more waiting to dock. The walk to the entrance of the festival was on the far side of the island and by the time we got there the line to get in was not so much a line as a huge mass of people shuffling forward a few inches at a time when they got a chance, all toward one point...the gate. It took us 45 minutes to get inside! But once inside we marveled at how well it was set up. The only complaint I had at Philly was that it was sometimes hard to tell what brewery was at what table. The booths here were very well marked and walking through and reading the signs broadcast that many of the best breweries had shown up. This would be the last really good thought about the event I’d have for the rest of the day.
Reports the next day said that over 10,000 people attended the New York City Brew Fest, which was probably about 5,000 more than should have been there. The venue was cram-packed and the lines to get your 4 ounce sample were about 30 people deep. In Philly, the lines were no more than 8 people deep and I was sometimes forced to down what was left in my glass in order to get my next sample. In New York, your glass was dry before you even got halfway to the front. And once you got to the front, seeing what the breweries brought was another letdown. None of them had brought any of their seasonals or special beers. It was all the year-around offerings. At one point I remember getting to the front of one line and when asked which one I wanted I replied, “Whichever one is NOT an IPA”. EVERY brewery brought an IPA with them, in some cases both taps produced hops in liquid form. Don’t get me wrong, I love IPAs, but after a dozen or so you want something a little maltier to counterbalance the hops you’ve been pounding. And forget about doing so with food. The lines for food were over an hour long! They seriously oversold and under-delivered.
Another difference I noticed between the two festivals was the camaraderie. It existed at both, but it was different. In New York you made connections by commiserating with each other about the overcrowding and lack of anything special to taste. In Philly it was more of a drunken love-in. One person would raise their glass aloft and howl and everyone would follow suit. Maneuvering around each other was friendly and casual. Trying to get around the one in New York was not easy and people didn’t really want to get out of your way. And don’t try to tell me that this is the difference between the two cities. The City of Brotherly Love is anything but friendly. I have always found the Big Apple to be friendlier. It was the difference in the conditions at each festival that drove the mood of the crowd. I know which one I’ll return to and which one I’ll avoid like the plague. Live and learn. Bigger is not better.
Next Time: In the Footsteps of the Druids