Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review of The Festival US- Session 1

Well there was a bit of a hiccup in the road to reviewing The Festival US. See my post, "Craft Beer Coach is Back."

Will Wake Early for Beer
I drove up from NJ Saturday morning, checked in, and almost immediately caught the hotel shuttle down to Mechanics Hall. I shared the shuttle with a nice group from Bon Beer Voyage, a beer brewery tour company creatd and run by Ruth Berman. The quick story on Ruth is that her story is nearly like mine, and that of others entering the craft beer up a successful yet unfulfilling career in order to pursue a particular passion for the craft beer industry. To note, I plan to have Ruth participate in a Craft Beer Coach interview as her story is part of the quintessential energy and essence I am capturing from the people behind the industry.

It was only about 10:30 am. The Festival US does not open until 12. Ruth and her gang are going early to set up an exhibitor booth. I am going this early to secure my place to receive the Westvleteren XII gift pack of 6 bottles and two abbey glasses. It is a special release of a beer that can only be purchased at the monestary in Belgium....until today. When I get in line there are about 30 people ahead of me. My placement on the voucher list is secure. The mood is quite jovial, as is to be expected for what awaits attendees inside. The hour and a half goes by pretty quickly.

Upon the doors opening people rush upstairs to line up to get the voucher needed to pick up the Westvleteren XII gift pack at Julio's Liquors about 10 miles away. By law the gift pack could not be sold directly at The Festival US so they made arrangements for Julio's to dispense and accept payment for the gift packs.

Meeting the Brewer of a Memorable Brew
After receiving the voucher, the Westvleteren tasting line next to me was about 20 deep so I decided to visit the Bryggeriet Djaevlebryg (roughly translated as The Devil's Brewery) table. This brewery holds a special place in my heart from one of many visits to Copenhagen, DK, when I used to work for a Danish pharmaceutical company. My favorite pub in Copenhagen to wile away an evening was Den Tatoverede Enke (The Tatooed Widow). It is a great Belgian Pub and Brasserie where nearly every dish includes beer as an ingredient. Admittedly, I love pubs and pub grub so I have never dined in the restaurant upstairs.

Anyway, I am there one night and the chef walks out from the kitchen behind the bar with a tray of what look to be dark chocolates. He proceeds to pass them out to the pub patrons. I take a bite and the center is this incredible smoky, dark fruits, chocolatey, toffee-like substance. I immediately ask the bartender what is in the center and he points to a tap labeled Nekron Stout. The chef had reduced a pot down to a toffee-like consistency and dipped it in some dark chocolate. I immediately order a glass and to this day, this is the only beer I have ever felt incredibly compelled to post a review of on Beer Advocate (link to review). I was blown away by the complexity of the 3 distinct stages of flavor I experienced from Nekron Stout. I was informed that this was Nekron the Father and that they had a keg of Nekron the Son in back that they would tap next.

I had hoped that I would have had a follow up trip back soon (I was there every other month up to that point so odds were pretty good) but once back home I got word that I would be layed off at the end of the year so that put the kabosh on my trips to what is still my favorite city. I went back in November of that year on a personal visit with Danish friends but Nekron the Son was long gone by then. It was great to meet Per Olaf Huusfeldt, one of the forces behind Nekron Stout and to share the story of my first experience with Nekron Stout as a toffee. A quick sample of the Gudelos Imperial Stout was a tasty and strong way to start off the session.
Session 1 Tasting Highlights 
Just a quick word that I do not give in-depth tasting notes because tasting is such a subjective experience. I focus on general comparisons and impressions that give the reader the base style plus any outstanding qualities that I found unique, especially any particularly captivating malty profiles. I am a Malt Mind in a sea of Hop Heads. I hope to just give the reader enough of an idea of whether he or she will want to seek out that particular brewer or beer...not to tell you what I think that beer should taste like for you. 

I decided that since I was attending all 3 sessions I would focus my Session 1 efforts on Washburn Hall, a room featuring approximately two dozen of the breweries.

I grabbed a sample of Westvleteren XII since the line had died down. It was my first time having it. For me it had a very Belgian beer profile (duh!) so it was good but not "best in world" good in my personal opinion. Beers that blow me away are ones that accomplish flavor profiles that separate themselves from the pack. It tasted like so many other Belgians. Will I drink the six and enjoy it? No doubt but it seems I am fading in my interest of the more traditional styles. But hey, I have been drinking them since 1986. It's the ingenuity and boundary pushing of the American Craft Beer Industry that has me seeking the next mind blowing flavor profile.

One brewery in Washburn Hall that did rock my socks is Anchorage Brewing Company. I ran through the whole portfolio being offered at the festival. It was solid. A delicious mild sour (I am not a sour fan) called The Experiment. A Galaxy White IPA that had a strong but delicious cat piss profile. A Wit Bier called Whiteout that is just a bit funkified and then aged in French Chardonnay barrels. And then there is The Tides and Its Takers. A Triple with slight Brett funk. The amazing quality of this beer was the sweet "wetness" that you could just repeatedly wash over your palate to extend the flavor experience for as long as you desire. 

Another brewer that grabbed my attention was To Ol. The unique aspect of the portfolio came through in the moutfeel. There is a "creaminess" quality to the portfolio that I don't recall ever experiencing across a portfolio. I am big into moutfeel so To Ol stands out to me in this regard. Even their lager, Raid Beer, has a creamy, viscous mouthfeel which I found unique and enjoyable.

I sampled a few other brews from Buxton Brewery and Le Trou du Diable, whose La Buteuse (a triple blond) on tap and La Buteuse Brassin Special (aged in Apple Brandy barrels) in a bottle was a fun side-by-side comparison. The Brassin Special was a bit dry for my liking so I give the nod to the un-aged version. Their Smash Citra IPA was a lovely combo of cat piss and marijuana. It never feels good to describe someone's labor of fermented love as cat piss but it definitely is a good thing in the aroma and taste profile of IPAs. But as hunger set in it was time to pay a visit to the food truck court out back.

I decided on an order of crab and corn fritters from BT Smokehouse. They were amazing and really hit the spot after a couple of hours of sampling brews.

As Session 1 began to round up I paid a visit to the Bon Beer Voyage table. Ruth had an intriguing collection of photos and videos running showing her and tour attendees having a great time at world-renowned breweries of Belgium. The pictures look like everyone is having a blast on the voyages. A steady stream of festival attendees were signing up for a Bon Beer Voyage trip giveaway. My fingers are crossed! The canal tour on a barge look particularly interesting and one that goes on the bucket list. I learned that the guys helping out that day are the result of friendships formed during past voyages and they are volunteering their weekends to help out Ruth. What people will give up to help a fellow craft beer devotee.

A plan was made with the Bon Beer Voyage crew to get out to Julio's to pick up our Westvleteren bounty before Session 2. It was a rather seamless operation to retrieve the gift packs although I wish I had had more time to peruse the aisles of Julio's craft beer selection as it looked quite impressive. Probably for the best that I did not have time as I was already committed to droppping $85 for the Westy gift pack.

Stay tuned for the Session 2 recap.

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