Taking Stock of Beer Lands at Outside Lands

Craft beer milestones are usually marked with dollar signs, percentages and the number of new breweries. We have the Brewers Association to thank for collecting and dispersing this data in shiny pie charts and graphs. They illustrate a great story in simple, straightforward terms, but they don’t tell you where craft beer is finding new niches, broad exposure and courting new fans.

In San Francisco last weekend, while serious beer fans were toasting Toronado’s 25th Anniversary, an even bigger event for local craft beer, in the grander scheme of growth, was taking place in Golden Gate Park. Organizers of the Outside Lands music festival finally carved out a place for craft beer at the event. Heineken’s exclusive contract was over and Beer Lands was born. It was the last piece in a puzzle of San Francisco centric gourmet food and beverage options for thousands of attendees, and by the end of the three day festival, it was clear that demand wildly exceeded expectations.

Dave McLean, brewmaster and owner of Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery, was tasked with organizing the details of Beer Lands in partnership with festival organizers and Best Beverage Catering. In addition to the main beer sponsors, Heineken and Sierra Nevada Brewing, McLean invited 13 other breweries to pour alongside his own: 21st Amendment, Anchor Brewing, Bear Republic Brewery, Drake’s Brewing, Firestone Walker, Iron Springs Brewery, Linden Street Brewery, Lost Coast Brewery, Mad River Brewing Company, North Coast Brewing Company, Pacific Brewing Laboratory, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, and The Bruery.

Beer Lands was located at Lindley Meadow, right next to the festival’s entrance, near three food trucks, the Sutro Stage, and The Barbary, which featured comedy and variety acts. Overall it was a good spot for festivalgoers to grab a beer upon entrance, or to hang out during lunch or a dinner break, but if you needed a quick beer during a big show, it was a hike to get there. Heineken and Sierra Nevada occupied key locations near the big stages. That’s what you get for six figure sponsorship deals.

The Beer Lands t-shirt made for servers. Brewers couldn’t serve the beer due to CA ABC regulations. Once it’s sold to a distributor it can’t touched by the manufacturer, but a few brewers and representatives were in attendance talking to customers.

If you’ve never been to Outside Lands, then you should know that the main organizers place a high priority on event staging (making the whole place look cool), and the Beer Lands tent was no exception. Reclaimed barn wood and sheets of polished copper trumped ugly jockey boxes, typically used for serving beer at festivals. Signage was also carefully crafted to look sharp and professional, which displayed the brewery names and festival prices.

Dave McLean standing in a sea of kegs. A large trailer was set on the ground and covered in reclaimed wood. Holes were made for tap lines.

The beer wasn’t cheap, think baseball park prices, but that’s to be expected at a major festival serving above average beer. One-dollar tickets had to be purchased first, then exchanged for beer. Attendees could buy one ticket, or packs of ten, which they used to get a 4 oz taste or a full pint. Most of the beers were priced at $3 for 4 oz pours and $9 for a pint. The Bruery’s Mischief and North Coast Brewing’s Pranqster were the only exception. Mischief was priced at $6 for 4 oz and $15 for a pint, while Pranqster was $6 for 4 oz and $12 for a pint. The two-tier pricing structure allowed people to try new beer without the burden of high cost.

Here’s what the breweries offered:

Sierra Nevada Brewing

Outside Lands Saison
Kellerweis

Heineken

Newcastle Summer
Amstel Wheat

Pacific Brewing Laboratory

Squid Ink
Nautilus

Drake’s Brewing

1500 Pale
Amber

21st Amendment

Hell or High Watermelon
Back in Black

Linden Street Brewery

Urban Peoples’ Common
Burning Oak

Mad River Brewing

Extra Pale
Jamaica Red

Lost Coast Brewery

Great White
Downtown Brown

Anchor Brewing

Steam
Summer

Bear Republic

Racer 5
El Oso

North Coast Brewing

Scrimshaw Pilsner
Pranqster

Firestone Walker 

Pivo
Double Barrel Ale

Magnolia Brewery

Proving Ground IPA
Kalifornia Kolsch

Iron Springs Brewery

Chazz Cat Rye
JC Flyer

Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

Big Daddy
Payback Porter

The Bruery

Mischief
Humulus APA

Although the prices may have turned some people away, consumption was off the charts compared to what organizers expected. At the start of day two, Dave McLean said they already poured 75% of the beer they expected to serve during the entire three-day festival. A massive pile of empty kegs was waiting to get picked up and a few breweries were rushing to supply more. By Sunday afternoon, most of the beers mentioned above were gone or replaced by others. A few breweries were completely wiped out, including Pacific Brewing Laboratories and Anchor Brewing.

Empty kegs at the end of Beer Lands Day #1, estimated at over 100.

Beer Lands is a clear example of craft beer’s surging popularity and growth. It also represents a big milestone for craft beer on a local level. Dave McLean use to hang out in parking lots before Grateful Dead shows drinking craft beer served by underground merchants on skateboards. It’s where he acquired a taste for good beer and was inspired to brew. That’s when mega brewers dominated music venues. Now they’re using noisemakers to attract people to their booths (no joke), because craft beer has crashed the party and people are demanding it.

The downside of corporate sponsorship is that all beer had to be served in Heineken cups.  

A First-Timer Goes to Boonville

“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.
True.

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).

 

Beer Revolution Celebrates 1st Anniversary

On the eve of Super Bowl Sunday Beer Revolution in Oakland celebrated its first anniversary. Owners Rebecca and Fraggle opened the bottle shop and taproom in the midst of a sluggish economy, but a steady schedule of special events and the great selection have solidified the stores reputation. The venue has become a destination for the entire craft beer community.

The festivities got off to a slow start when the doors remained closed a half hour past opening. Early arrivals twitched and paced with anticipation pondering the delay. Little did they know, Rebecca and Fraggle were still putting the final touches on the expanded tap list and spanking new chalkboards containing forty-two draft beers. Once the doors opened they bounced between customers until reinforcements arrived at 4:00pm, which allowed them to relax and toast their success.

The new chalkboards contain a ton of draft options.

A glass of Chairman’s Little Red from Iron Springs Brewery served from a firkin.

A magnum of St. Feullien Triple being poured for the toast.

Rebecca & Fraggle (center) toast success.