Trekking to Boonville; and the art of the beer festival

A few weeks ago we volunteered to help Derek Smith of Black Diamond pour at the legendary Boonville beer festival. Both of us like his beers and brewing sensibilities and we both have Fridays off now, so we packed up our tent and headed up in the morning, with a rendezvous about an hour and a half out, at Russian River in Santa Rosa. We were happy to see some familiar faces there, and to meet up with Derek and Jen. After some Consecration and food, we headed up 101 towards Boonville, home to the Anderson Valley Brewery, which hosts this annual festival.

It was raining already when we’d left San Francisco, and by the time we pitched our backpacking tent in the brewers’ encampment the rain was merrily soaking the ground. (Our small contingent from Black Diamond was sharing resources with a large, energetic contingent from Blue Frog who had already created an elaborate camp and a fire-circle.) While there was some disappointment at the meteorologic conditions, it was offset by good cheer brought by wandering about and seeing old friends including Mario, Peter and Sammy, and Jay (Each is a prolific Bay Area Beer Blogger.)

We savored some very tasty beers on the evening before the festival — one we both loved was a deliciously souring edition of Drakes‘ Batch 2000. At one time this was the more sedate half of a blended sour beer called “It’s Fity.” Now the portion we tried is getting its own complexity and funk, and was a treat to try. Most of the time the rain was light enough so that people could stay out around campfire circles. By the time we opted to try to get ourselves into our tent without introducing much mud, things were mostly quiet, with a few loud pockets of continued hanging-out.

Speakeasy Tent at Anderson Valley

The morning had a spirit of anticipation, with aromas of coffee and bacon drifting over the brewers’ camp. There were signs of some campers who had had rough nights. One guy told us he was too drunk to find his tent so he slept out shivering in a damp camp chair. There was widespread grumbling about the mess the last late-night partiers had made of the porta-potties, something on a different level of adversity than mere rain. The launch of the actual festival was still a few hours away.

What would it be like for us to pour at the festival? Gail has not served beer since she worked as a bartender in the early 80s to support her underground theater habit of that time, and Steve has only poured at private parties. We love to talk to people about interesting beer flavors, and in sharing the learning process for people who are trying new styles of beer, so we were eager to go. We walked the short distance down the road to the fairgrounds to help set up.

Festival Jockeybox

We had everything in place when fans of craft beer began streaming in. With Derek’s calm guidance, we started to pour Black Diamond’s Belgian Blonde, recently christened “Free Style” ale. This is a very drinkable, delicate yet complex beer, with delicate tropical fruit flavors from the yeast, clean almost honey-like malt flavors and slightly spicy hops all playing a part. The finish is lightly crisp, making another sip seem like the only possible response. It was fun to pour because it works for neophytes and those who have done a lot of focused tasting alike.

The IPA, now “Jagged Edge” in its new packaging, was similarly accessible, obviously tasty and well-crafted. It’s an English IPA, with traditional British ingredients including English hop varieties. This makes for different flavors and balance than the familiar West Coast IPAs many Californians know so well. We found that talking about the differences got some of the tasters reading the detailed description sheets Derek had prepared.

We also were pouring a special rye IPA made during the fall harvest with fresh “wet” hops grown near Clear Lake. Typically such a beer would not be available after harvest season, but the fresh-picked taste persisted in this complex brew, marked by many fresh leafy aromas and flavors.

Set up for a festival in a Sheep Barn

The festival takes place on the county fairgrounds. Because of the rain, this year many booths were set up inside a sheep barn! Mendocino County Fair is known for wool and apples, so lamb-judging is a big deal there. However, the aisles made for judging sheep in their pens were never made for a crowd as large as this one. Unfortunately, having brewers on two sides of the walkway meant that the festival-goers were crammed in like livestock, making it very hard for people to get to the next beer they wanted, and in some cases likely to chug whatever beer they could get close to. People were out of the rain, but that was the only advantage.

Ballast Point with their firkin

To wrap up what is getting to be a very long post, this festival is justifiably legendary, with an amazing line up of breweries, but it suffers a few of the classic festival dilemmas. Last summer we had read Jessica Jones’ piece on good beer festivals, which deserves to be remembered.

Her key observations include preventing crowding, (rain certainly makes it tougher) and the pros and cons of arranging the ticketing structure to avoid large percentages of binge drinking participants. For example, some festivals set the cover charge to include a limited number of drinks, then set a modest price for additional pours, so that when one is too drunk to go get another handful of tokens, one will slow down for a while. Fewer people who have consumed at the extreme end of their range encourages better community spirit among other things.

We’d add that it is useful to provide readily available drinking water. In addition, setting things up so it is clear that you have the option to dump beer you don’t want to finish, even if it is not “bad,” can help enhance a beer tasting session. A good festival means respecting ourselves and each other as well as the beers.

Choices can be tough for festival-goers when there are so many talented brewers on hand, and an unknown number of new or special beers to sample in one afternoon. This is a great time and place to be alive in the history of beer, and this gem of a festival proves what riches there are to enjoy.

Thanks to all the breweries who participated and to Anderson Valley, long a community leader, for gathering us together. And thanks to Derek Smith and Black Diamond for letting us experience the other side of the tap handles.

Steve and Gail

Explore Beer By BART – see our list of the Bay Area best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

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