The sun was shining, jockey boxes were being connected to kegs of fresh beer. Bags of ice were being delivered to some 50 booths. A line of excited beer lovers was forming down the block. Green-shirted volunteers were attending to their assigned tasks. It all looked so familiar. Pretty soon craft beer festivals should become something communities can take for granted again.
Right now, they have a lot of extra sparkle. This post is our attempt to mark the spirit of the times before it all flows into … well, whatever the next months and years bring. Saturday we went to Spring Brews Fest and it was lovely.
Getting There – Sometimes the Journey is NOT the Destination
After taking BART to Concord, we met two enthusiastic fest-goers on the short walk over to Todos Santos Plaza. Griffin and Tony had ridden all the way from San Bruno, over an hour on the train, to get to the fest. It was a reminder that public transit is still a valued dynamic in what you might call “the local as beer tourist,” one of the thoughts that inspired us to launch the Beer By BART Destinations list 15 years ago.
In this time, which we are optimistically thinking of as the Pandemic Recovery (knowing full well that we felt that way a year ago and we were so wrong), some of the normalcy we are looking for includes craft beer festivals featuring pleasant conversations with strangers over nice beers – and the ability to go home safely on the trains and busses that got us there affordably without driving.
Transit seems fragile in the current world. Masks are still required. Some infrastructure investment and vision would obviously be welcome – vehicles seemed worn and stations are dirtier than we remembered. Then again, gas prices are rising some insane percentage week after week as war grips Europe. It’s time to ride again.
So far, our daytime trips have been fine, but after dark travel has gotten stranger, as we share space with people trying to catch some sleep on the trains. So part of the experience of grabbing a train to a fest now tells us that times are very hard for some of us in this crazy era of housing desperation in the face of immense wealth. What a time.
Resurrecting Festival Season: Party at the Ancient Agora
Spring Brews Fest grew out of the Brewing Network’s Winterfest over a decade ago. Justin Crossley, the founder of The Brewing Network and instigator of many festivals, is also one of the owners of The Hop Grenade, the elite beer bar on the square, facing out over the green park at Todos Santos Plaza. Over the years, the Spring Brews festival has developed into the opening event for “festival season,” as brewers tend to call it.
When we talked with Justin, he told us that while tickets did not sell out, as expected from pre-pandemic years, it looked like sales would be good enough to make some money for their charitable cause. The fest supports summer music and arts programs in that very same community park. He was juggling some extra obstacles this year, in part because of the two-year hiatus and in part because of shifting costs. “How does ice get so much more expensive,” he laughed. “There’s not much of a supply chain issue there!”
“Looking around, I can see that this is perhaps 20% an industry event,” he reflected appreciatively. It was easy to see that he was delighted with the energy of the event, grinning and greeting friends as he circulated to solve logistical puzzles and minor problems.
We noticed the influence of having so many people who work with or around beer taking part in this stealth “industry event.” The whole crowd mingled on a day with perfect weather, listened to live bands, and tasted beers from favorite breweries and newcomers alike. But part of the friendly outgoing vibe arose from that subset of people who were meeting so many old pals.
Gary Valenziano, founder and beer-buyer at Porky’s Pizza’s two east bay locations told us, “Being at a festival for the first time in a while is wonderful because I get to meet new brewery owners and brewers and I get to reconnect with people that I’ve known for over 30 years.”
Russ Rasmussen of Craft Beer and Wine, a shop in Alamada, said “It’s like a high school reunion without the name tags.”
Beyond the greetings of long-lost friends was upbeat energy as people went on a mission to meet future brewing collaborators, share shop talk and business ideas, taste new brands to order for their bars or shops, or to meet owners and head brewers who might offer them their next job. Somehow that subtext of people looking towards the future and doing work transformed the whole affair. It’s community life in the ancient marketplace, the agora. Reliving the roots of civilization, but with even more amazing beer.
Beers Made for Passion Alone
One of the hallmarks of the Spring Brew Fest (and Winterfest before it) is that over the years, the festival worked diligently to find a way to pour homebrewed beer for the public in a festival setting. Homebrew cannot be legally sold because the person making it is not licensed by the feds and state to comply with laws and pay the significant taxes that go along with making alcohol. However, years ago the late Mike “Tasty” McDole, who we wrote about recently, created “Tasty’s Tasting Room” for the outdoor charitable festival and threaded the needle for legally sharing tastes of the best amateur brews in the region. Seasoned attendees made a beeline to the table.
“We did our best to make Tasty proud, pouring at the tasting room named in his honor,” said Brian Cooper of the Mad Zymurgists Homebrew Club, contributing in conjunction with DOZE, the local Diablo Valley club. “The vast majority of the 22 homebrew kegs blew before the end of the day, so it seems the crowd approved, too.” Brian, a top-ranked beer judge, noted that many of the homemade beers were “competition-quality” examples.
A Concord Festival with a Concord Vibe
We noticed that the attendees were not as thoroughly white and male as at some festivals we’ve attended. Saturday felt not just like a step back to a pleasant beer event of past years, but in some ways a step forward to something beyond the old normal, into the ongoing evolution of festivals and of beer. As a benefit for arts in the public sphere, it’s fitting that the crowd had the feel of the happy local public rather than just an invasion of core beer fanatics. And we all were beer-appreciators, with nearly everyone tasting, comparing, and refining their personal palates. The affirmations of the craft beer movement, that breweries are good for communities, and that the mission of bringing good beer to the people is a worthy way to live, felt alive on Todos Santos Plaza. Craft beer as a movement still holds onto these classic values even as some of the beers diverge and evolve.
Most of the people we spoke with were experiencing the re-emergence of Spring in the light of all the weird recent history. It was reassuringly familiar.
“It’s life,” said Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Company. “Life has been missed.”
Explore Beer By BART: Use our acclaimed destination list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places and their related transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.