“I can’t believe you’ve never been to Boonville!” shocked beer drinkers would cry. In the Bay Area beer world, it’s like admitting you’d never had an IPA.
Photos: Rick Hayes (left) & Alberto Gutierrez (right)
The actual Legendary Boonville Beer Fest, now in its 15th year, is a four-hour beer festival at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds down the street from Anderson Valley Brewing Company. It’s a fine example of a commercial fest, with unlimited sampling and a wide array of micro and regional breweries. It’s a 2+ hour drive from the Bay Area though and we’ve got plenty of festivals at home. The big draw for many is camping in the surrounding area, turning the fest into an all-weekend beerathon (and smokeathon, if that’s how you roll).
Photo: Alberto Gutierrez
I was lucky enough to be granted a spot in the brewers’ camp by Ale Industries in Concord. A lot of the positivity I feel towards Boonville is thanks to those guys and their fun-loving camping crew. Ale Industries’ Morgan Cox has been attending Boonville for a decade and he knows what he’s doing (and grills a mean pork dinner). When I arrived there were already four good beers on tap at the campsite: two from Ale Industries and two from homebrewer and MoreBeer employee Jesse Warren. “Roughing it,” this ain’t.
But let’s try to separate my lucky break from the average person’s Boonville experience. Its official name even includes the adjective “Legendary,” but how legendary is it, really?
The legend: It’s chaos.
True, but that’s not necessarily an insult. Repeat attendees seem to declare this festival a hot mess with a big smile on their faces. Weird, loud, and crazy stuff does occur, beyond the normal beer fest antics of cheering for dropped glasses. Costumes, singing, drinking games, and depantsing…I saw it all in a few short hours.
There is bad behavior, but it doesn’t dominate the festival or ruin the day. For every out-of-control bro emptying his bladder on a fence there’s a beer geek taking notes and most festival attendees are somewhere between those two extremes. They’re drinking beer, making merry and learning a little something about what they like and what good breweries can offer them.
If you keep a sense of humor, you can have an amusing time people-watching the shenanigans. Just make sure you control your own consumption somewhat so you can laugh about the guy passed out under a tree, not be that guy.
Iron Springs Brewing Ambrewlance / Photo: Rick Hayes
The legend: A marching band?
True. The Humboldt Firkin Tappers, a band of mostly-local musicians, travel the festival and the campgrounds doing marching-band arrangements of rock and pop songs. Some find them irritating, and rumor has it they’ll drain all the beer at your campsite if you’re not careful, but for my money there’s nothing better than hearing Cee Lo’s “F*** You” played on brass instruments by drunk people.
The Humboldt Firkin Tappers / Photo: Rick Hayes
The legend: The weather’s gonna suck.
This year, true. Friday and Saturday were chilly and overcast, and then it rained on-and-off from Saturday night through Sunday. On the way out of town, on windy Route 128, it hailed. Hailed! We get it, Mother Nature: you’re not a beer fan. Please don’t send frogs and locusts next year.
The key is to pack lots of layers – more than you think you’ll need – and make sure someone in your group brings a canopy. The other survival tactic is attitude. Decide in advance not to let lame weather dictate your mood, and if you’re finding this difficult, drink more delicious beer until it’s easy.
The legend: The four-hour festival just gets in the way of your three-day camping party.
Well…true and false. Any weekend when I can sleep in a tent is a good one, and I consider a beer festival in the middle to be a bonus, not a nuisance. But that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not a brewer. Hauling kegs, setting up, cleaning up and staying sober to truck it all back through town is not as enjoyable as chilling with friends at the campsite. When you see brewers at fests like this let them know you like their beer so they remember it’s worth it.
Dan Del Grande of Bison Organic Beer (Center) & the Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton (right) / Photo: Alberto Gutierrez
A corollary legend you’ll hear among beer industry people is, “If you can’t get a spot in brewers’ camp, it’s not worth it.” The brewers’ camp does have a few distinct advantages over the general campsite. For instance, fire pits are allowed, brewers tend to go all-out on camp food (Marin Brewing smoked two whole pigs), it’s less rowdy (notice I said “less” rather than “not”), and there’s little chance of running out of beer. However, I think the main benefit of the brewers’ camp for most people camping there is a little more touchy-feely than most will admit: that’s where their friends are. I enjoyed meeting new people during the weekend, but I spent most of my time hanging out with familiar faces from the Bay Area and getting to know friends-of-friends I’m sure I’ll see again soon. That would have been fantastic with or without fire pits.
Marin Brewing’s Whole Pig Roast Prep / Photo: Alberto Gutierrez
If you don’t socialize with beer industry people and have no shot at a space in brewers’ camp, don’t despair. I think anyone who brings a crew of beer buddies, lots of quality beer, and coolers of home-cooked food and/or a small barbecue can have a great time in the general camp. In either camp, you’ll need to arrive early to secure a good spot and bring earplugs, ibuprofen, water and maybe toilet paper (see below).
The legend: The porta potties can make a grown man cry.
Mostly false. From the sound of things, the toilet situation was much improved this year. They got cleaned at least once, had paper at least half the time, and – while they were definitely still beer festival porta johns – didn’t nearly approach the levels of hurl-inducing vileness I’d been warned about. Thanks, AVBC!
The legend: Boonville is awesome.
Thanks again to my hosts Morgan Cox (Ale Industries Co-Owner and Camp Food Master) and Steve Lopas (Ale Industries Co-Owner and Chairman of the Coffee).