The anticipation began well before the kickoff. The line formed at least 45 minutes before the doors opened for the first of two sessions. We watched, we scoffed, then we couldn’t take it anymore. We succumbed 20 minutes before the doors would open. Good thing, too. The line stretched down the hall, around the corner and into the hotel lobby by the time things got underway.
The State College Microbrewers and Importers Exposition http://www.scbrewexpo.com/) was held at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center in State College, Pennsylvania. The festival consisted of two four-hour sessions: one from noon until four, the other from six to ten. The $32 tickets included a tasting glass and all the samples you could drink, a “gourmet international buffet,” and any or all of three seminars, provided there was space left. Not a bad deal!
The space was large, but it didn’t take long for the 800 or so of us who attended the early session to begin feeling crowded, especially around the edges, where there were lines to get to the beers. There were 1500 at the later session, which spilled out into the courtyard of the hotel. I can only imagine that the tasting tables operated on a “to the victor goes the spoils basis.” Sharpen your elbows, boys! These were serious beer drinkers, too, not the dilettantes you get at a lot of festivals. And this was a serious festival.
After finally making it through the doors, we made a beeline to the head table to register for Stephen Beaumont’s “Old World vs. New World” tasting. We managed to get the last four slots. “We,” by the way, consisted of me, argo0, daniwerks, and his wife and 13-month-old son (easily the youngest person in the room by twenty years). After that, we wandered around to check out the lay of the land. The brewers and vendors were packed in along the walls, and the centerpiece of the room was a pyramid of beer bottles from breweries around the world. A nice selection and, for some of us, a pleasant walk down memory lane.
<A HREF=images/features/beeramid1.jpg>see for yourself
We were pleased to see a number of fabulous, but familiar, brewers – Bell’s, Allagash, Dogfish Head, Troegs, and Unibroue, to name a few. We were also glad there were a number we hadn’t tried before – Bullfrog Brewery, Heavyweight, Nodding Head, McKenzie’s Brew House, and Yards among them. We stuck to the ones we hadn’t had before. I especially liked the McKenzie’s Belgian-style beers, which were pleasant and flavorful. And Bullfrog Brewery brought about a dozen beers, which they switched out as the day wore on. The highlight there, as far as I’m concerned, was the Bière de Garde. Unfortunately, they did not break out their stronger beers, like their barleywine, until the evening session. Judging by the selections we did taste, those were probably quite good.
After a bit of tasting, it was time for the seminar. The room was packed, of course. Stephen Beaumont was the headliner, though we also heard good things about Andy Musser’s “The Legend and Beers of Anchor Brewing,” and Tom Baker’s “Don’t Drink that Beer, It’s Old!” seminars. Stephen Beaumont brought great stories and eight good beers – four pairs, each with an “old world” and a “new world” example of the same style. The man doesn’t mess around, either. He began with a Berliner weisse pair. One was Nodding Head’s and the other was Berliner Kindl’s. The second pairing was two tripels: Allagash and Affligem. The third was Baltic porters – Heavyweight’s Perkuno’s Hammer vs. Saku’s porter. Each time, we had two very different beers, each with its own character, but with fundamental flavors in common: the tart lactic acidity of the Berliner weisses; the candy sugar and alcohol qualities of the tripels, and the sweet coffee flavors of the Baltic porters.
The last pair was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Victory Hop Devil. How, you ask, do these qualify as old and new world versions of a style? Because Stephen Beaumont considers Sierra Nevada’s pale ale the first example of a highly-hopped American pale ale, and Hop Devil is a more recent example of the style. Sierra Nevada pushed the hop boundaries in its day, but now, next to Hop Devil, it seems mild, rounded, balanced, even a little malty. How far we Americans have come with our overhopped beer since our “old world” days! Both are, of course, wonderfully flavorful beers, but it was fun to try them side-by-side and marvel at the differences.
After the seminar, we moved to the German-themed buffet, which provided hearty sustenance for a high-intensity beer festival. It didn’t take long for us to eat and get back to business, though. With only about forty-five minutes left, we had to act quickly. We staked out base of operation near one of the water tables and finished with a frenzy of tasting. Appalachian Brewing, Lancaster Malt Brewing, Sly Fox, and Brewer’s Art were among those we tried in the final countdown. At the end, we dragged ourselves back to our rooms and slipped into the kind of sweet, carefree nap you can only get with the satisfaction of having risen to the challenge of a good beer festival.
One of the local brewers we didn’t hit during the festival was Otto’s, which is in State College. We decided to go there for dinner, instead. It’s a pleasant brewpub with a family atmosphere. The menu ranges from standard pub fare (beer battered fish and chips) to some nouveau yuppie dishes (sesame-glazed ahi tuna). Both the food and the beers were good. The table favorites were the beer battered fish and chips and the Weizenbock. The Red Mo Ale was a close second, and the Double D IPA and the Belgian Style Wit were good, too. We were so stuffed by the end of dinner that we couldn’t bring ourselves to order a second round. Our loss.
All in all, this is a festival worth attending. Even though it’s not really big enough to make the trek every year, unless you live within easy distance, it has an impressive range of brewers in attendance. It also has good food and great seminars, which makes it stand out from run-of-the-mill festivals. And the charm of the farms, fields, and rolling hills and mountains of central Pennsylvania, combined with the many respected breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars within fairly easy distance makes this a great summer destination.