Beer aficionados and assorted revelers of all types were treated to gorgeous weather, a historic setting, and an awful lot of beer, food and music at Durham, NC’s World Beer Festival, which took place on October 3rd. Upwards of 4000 attendees sampled over 300 beers from over 150 breweries – everything from local brewing mainstays, such as Foothills and Big Boss, to exotic brands from around the United States and the world. This was my first beer festival of any kind, and given my recent infatuation with craft beer, I felt like a kid turned loose in an amusement park.
All About Beer, a world-renowned magazine based in Durham, couldn’t have asked for a better day to throw their hometown festival. A nearly cloudless 80-degree day lent itself to a noon start and plenty of thirst. The $40 entry fee quickly became a bargain, as waiting beer booths covered the entire outfield of the historic Durham Athletic Park. I got right to it, first tasting Weeping Willow Wit from Mother Earth Brewing out of Kinston, NC.
Situated in the still-recovering eastern part of the state, which was ravaged by floods in 1999, the organic brewery – which started brewing just weeks ago – hopes to make a name for itself amidst a struggling local economy. They could put Kinston on the map, because the Weeping Willow withstood a host of challengers to stand as my favorite light, summery beer of the day.
As the music of Dub Addis provided a pleasant reggae atmosphere, I found myself not knowing where to go next. I made some tasting choices at random, like Fort Collins (CO) Brewery‘s Chocolate Stout (nothing to write home about) and Deschutes Brewery out of Bend, OR, whose Mirror Pond Pale Ale met my approval as a beer that could be enjoyed on a regular basis. Alas, I was forced to savor the few sips I had, as their beers are not available in North Carolina yet.
After a few stellar examples of styles like Whites (Weeping Willow, Hoegaarden), Pilsners (Moon River out of Savannah, GA) and Pale Ales (Mirror Pond, Thomas Creek‘s Up the Creek IPA), I began to reach out into the realm of big flavor. I tried two “smoked” beers, which was a style that I had never had before. Holland, Michigan’s New Holland Brewing boasted an impressive list of beers, but I was urged to try their Charkoota Rye Smoked Doppelbock Lager. The immediate blast of smoky flavor and savory texture was like nothing I had ever tried before. I then gave Rogue‘s Chipotle Ale (Newport, OR) a try for comparison. While a perfectly good beer, the Chipotle couldn’t match the complexity and wallop of the New Holland selection.
Soon after a few more tastes of some heavy hitters, such as North Coast Brewing Company‘s Brother Thelonious (from Fort Bragg, CA, which carries a swingin’ 9.3% ABV), Atwater Block Brewery‘s remarkably unique Vanilla Java Porter, and Allagash Brewery‘s Black Belgian-Style Stout (Detroit, MI), food beckoned. The festival boasts a selection of local food that makes deciding what to eat very tough. I eventually passed up Rudino’s, Sitar India Palace, and Revolution in favor of the best bargain at the event – a two-dollar soft taco from Chubby’s. 2009 has been a big year for Chubby’s in the Raleigh/Durham area, and the restaurant has become a much-discussed favorite since the two locations opened. I found their basic chicken and rice taco to be fresh and perfectly sized, as it did not leave me with an overly “full” feeling at all.
I quickly traversed the booths in search of sweet, light, after-meal beers, as the jazz-funk sounds of Funkuponya replaced the reggae vibe with slick, frantic instrumental jams. I found the sweet beers in spades, and experienced some of my most memorable tasting with R.J. Rocker’s Son of a Peach Wheat Ale (Spartanburg, SC) and Founder’s Cerise (Grand Rapids, MI). Where the Son of a Peach balanced mega-peach flavor with a classic wheaty, unfiltered taste, Cerise simply bombards the drinker with many levels of cherry flavor, from sweet to tart. Son of a Peach is more drinkable than Cerise, which is almost a “novelty” beer in my opinion, but both were highlights of the day.
I couldn’t attend a beer festival in October without trying some of the seasonals on tap, and I fell in love with Magic Hat‘s Roxy Rolles (Burlington, VT). Out of the tap, this beer is probably the best amber ale I have ever tried. Nutty, with a malty caramel side, it also has a hoppy bite that makes it perfect for the fall. Speaking of Autumn, Terrapin Beer Company – one of the leaders in the southern craft beer market out of Athens, GA – offered their Pumpkinfest seasonal just in time for October, and it was smooth, spicy, and delectable. A special surprise was Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s Christmas Ale (Cleveland, OH). I was hesitant to try a winter warmer on such a warm day, but the chance at such a unique beer was irresistible. I was shocked at how accessible the beer was. It wasn’t a heavy beer, as I had expected, and the flavors were simply accentuated and presented, immediately imparting a holiday spirit via cinnamon and honey flavors. The Christmas Ale was one of a handful of beers that I considered tasting twice.
In the festival’s handy guide, I marked the beers that I tasted. This reference proved invaluable when recounting the day, as there were some beers that just didn’t make much of an impact on my memory. I barely remember trying Big Boss‘ Monkey Bizz-ness Farmhouse Ale (Raleigh, NC), and they are a beloved favorite of mine. Another one of my favorite breweries, Abita (Abita Springs, LA), offered their Andygator Dopplebock, which I had never tasted. I was underwhelmed by the mild nature of the beer, though in the beer’s defense, I like to be tested a bit more. Adventurousness aside, Andygator is a perfectly fine and strong Dopplebock. It just isn’t doing much beyond that. At least Abita offered something that isn’t available in stores in my area, unlike New Belgium Brewing. I was looking forward to trying one of the prolific Colorado brewery’s many special releases, but they only offered beers that are already available in every grocery store around.
I don’t know if I’m biased because I have lived in the south all of my life, but I thought the Southern brewers shone the brightest at the event, followed closely by the Michigan contingent. Michigan scored every time I sampled the state’s wares – Atwater Block, Founders, and New Holland would be a boon to any state’s brewery lineup. Aviator Brewing Company‘s Hot Rod Red (Holly Springs, NC) changed my perception of Irish Red Ales forever, and Big Boss’ Harvest Time Pumpkin Ale lived up to the hype I had been hearing. Thomas Creek, out of Greenville, SC, could soon be a force given their tasty, wide variety of styles and likable artwork and t-shirts, and Moon River has a similarly fun-loving vibe that comes through in their beer. Red Oak, a draft-only brewery in Whitsett, NC (just minutes from my home), scored big points with their Battlefield Bock. It’s not often I get to the brewery to try their special brews, so it was a real treat.
It’s as tough to convey the atmosphere and celebratory nature of the World Beer Festival as it is to explain the difference between a good “tasting” beer and a beer that can be consumed en mass. Festival favorites like Founder’s Cerise, New Holland’s Smoked Rye Doppelbock, and Atwater Block’s Vanilla Java Porter are perfectly good to inspect, analyze, and marvel at, but there’s nothing like Deschutes’ Mirror Pond Pale Ale or Mother Earth’s Weeping Willow Wit when it comes to drinkability. If you’re looking for a place to indulge your wildest and basest beer fantasies, you might find nirvana in October at the old ballpark in Durham.