I apologize for the tardiness of this update, I’ve been drinking a lot of beer lately, and you know when you’re drinking and you just don’t feel like doing anything other than watching Ninja Warrior reruns? That’s been my affliction since Saturday. But I bravely overcame it this morning (I ran out of beer) so I figured I’d write up a recap/review of Saturday’s Brewfest event held at Governor’s Island, which, to my surprise, was not the setting for a remote secret laboratory where the governor conducts morally-questionable biological experiments on prisoners. Why I thought that would exist, I don’t know, I’m fucked up in some ways, more so than beer can ever fix.

So the event, yes, let’s talk about it. This was my first Brewfest, so I went in with few expectations, and ending up leaving feeling a bit… well, annoyed – but I’ll get to that later. The setting for the fest was ideal – a field with a lot of open space. Let’s face it, you could have held this thing in a prison yard and it would have been an ideal setting. By the way, there actually was a prison on the island, but I’m fairly certain most of the prisoners weren’t allowed to attend. Carnival-style booths flanked the perimeter of the field, each featuring a different craft brewery offering anywhere from 2 to 6 unique beers. At the north end, a stage was set up for bands to perform on during the event, and to the east of that stage, food stands featuring Heartland Brewery burgers, pizza, and pretzels (HB was the main sponsor of the event, according to my ticket.)

The festival opened at 3:30pm, unless you had a special Connoisseur’s Pass, which gave you access to the beer a full hour ahead of everyone else. Tony, Chaps and I are cheap pricks, so we sprung for the regular pass, and ended up having to wait an ungodly 10 minutes at the gate to be let in. Upon a brief frisk (I prefer my pat-downs to be thorough), we were handed a 4 ounce “tasting cup” and given a weird card with 24 stamps on it. Apparently, the original plan was to have each brewery stamp your card once, so you could only try 24 beers throughout the course of the day. Well, someone apparently forgot to tell the breweries this, because when I presented my card to the first booth, they looked at me like I had a dick on my forehead. I removed the dick and presented it again, and they just shrugged and served the next guy.

We managed to get in pretty early, so the first few booths that we visited had no line whatsoever. It was just walk up to the friendly dude behind the booth, hand him your cup, and be on your merry way, which in my opinion is the 2nd best way to run a brewfest, behind giving everyone a needle and having each brewery hand out IV bags full of beer (are you reading this Brewfest 2011??). This ease of drink acquisition was to be a brief flirtation, however, as more and more people began to arrive. We managed to hit up maybe 7 or 8 breweries close to the entrance before we encountered any real sort of resistance in the form of a line (shit!) requiring our buzz to take a backseat, as the sun beat down on us, making us even thirstier, requiring us to wait on yet another line. It was like a paradox wrapped in a conundrum: We had to wait in line for beer, which made us thirstier, which made us wait in another line for beer, which made us even thirstier. After about an hour of this shit, I started using my natural charm, not to mention all of the stealth skills I picked up watching Ninja Warrior reruns drunk, and just began cutting lines. You wouldn’t believe how easy it was either – I would literally just walk up to the booth in most instances, past everyone waiting in line, put my cup on the table, and get a refill. Some booths required advance techniques, like blending in with a large group near the front of the line, or walking up to the front with a half filled glass, acting like I had a problem with the beer, then leaning in to the guy behind the counter and saying “this beer is fucking delicious, can I have another”? You may use that technique, by the way, with my permission.

Ok asshole, we’re all proud of your line cutting techniques, so tell us about the beer. Yeah yeah, I was just getting to that. As you might imagine, we ended up trying a LOT of beer. I mean like 25 or 30 samples each. New breweries that I got to try that were pretty good were Middle Ages Brewery, Erie Brewing Co. , and Empire Brewing Co. I wasn’t impressed with Harlem Brewing Co. – their Sugar Hill beer was bland and uninspired. Although it’s widely distributed here, I’ve never had Lake Placid beer, and I was surprised by their Honey Rye – a very nice take on a style that is gaining a lot of attention. In fact, I’d say that behind wheat beers, rye beers were the widely available brew at the festival. My top 5 beers of the day were, in no particular order:

  1. Heavy Seas – Loose Cannon
  2. Kelso – Saison
  3. Innis & Gunn – Oak Aged Ale
  4. Stone – Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
  5. Left Hand – Chainsaw Ale

We were happy to see our old friend Dennis from Stone, who is becoming our own personal Candyman – he just appears in places you’d never expect. He told me to be on the lookout for Stone’s new 14th Anniversary Brew – the Emperial IPA, an all-British ingredient IPA. Our friends Mike and George from Brooklyn Brewery were there as well, but they had their hands full, as with 6 taps, including 2 Brewmaster’s Reserves (Blast! and Buzz Bomb), Brooklyn was by far the most popular tent. I was a bit disappointed to discover that not only was Dogfish Head NOT at the Brewfest, but Anheuser Bush WAS, with a rather large tent showcasing all of their “craft brands” which they either own or help distribute – Red Hook, Landshark, Kona, and Goose Island – as well as some of their own crappy offerings like Bud Light Lime and Golden Wheat. I don’t have any problem with Goose Island or Kona, but something just didn’t sit right with me having Budweiser, the largest mass producer of fizzy water, guilty of trying to run small craft breweries out of business, there.

My final thoughts on the event before I go watch Ninja Warrior 13 reruns, and the U.S. – Algeria World Cup game: The festival was fun, informative, and in general just had a good vibe to it (no punches in the face for cutting the lines), but it was oversold this year, which lead to unbelievably long lines (Tony waited, I kid you not, 80 minutes to purchase 2 HB burgers). I would have also liked to see somewhat more variety from some of the local breweries. I understand that their goal is to get people hooked on their flagship offerings, and I respect that, but a third tap with something unusual, rare, or aged would have been nice for loyal craft beer drinkers. Brooklyn and Empire did a good job with their selections, and I applaud them, so hopefully their success (Brooklyn literally ran out of beer about an hour before the festival ended) will inspire other breweries to bring more out of the cellar next year. I’m hoping that for 2011, they cap the number of attendees at 8,000 or so. One of the security staff told me there were close to 12,000 this year, and you could tell that neither the organizers, nor the brewers were prepared for those numbers. But what I go back in a heartbeat? Hell yes!