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.  

Road Trip: Mad River Brewing is Built On History

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Empty mills, cement pilings in the waterways and inactive chimneys litter the landscape of Humboldt county. The logging industry used to be the lifeblood of the region, which is evident in the town of Blue Lake. Old buildings line the streets and the eastbound freeway almost tries to bypass the town, instead of going through it. It’s a shame really, because unless you know about Mad River Brewing, it’s easy to miss one of the best breweries in the country.

Don’t believe me? In 2010 they won so many awards at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) that I heard one person remark that they should have had a table on the stage to avoid walking up so many times. They brought home gold, silver and bronze medals for their beer along with Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. These are big accomplishments from what I thought was a small brewery in a struggling town. I recently drove all the way up to Blue Lake to find out how much this brewery could blow me away.

I met head brewer Dylan Schatz early in the morning before the pub opened.  A quiet guy with a great smile, Schatz grew up around Blue Lake so I guess it’s only fitting that he looks the part of Paul Bunyan.  He started out on the bottling line in 1999. After working with the brewer and taking a UC Davis course he assumed the duties of head brewer in 2005.  By the way, the bottling line he worked on, which is still in use, goes back to the 1950’s and was owned by Anchor Brewing. Yes, the 50’s, I didn’t screw that up. I’d like to think some of that Anchor spirit rubbed off on him in a good way.

A piece of history, Sierra Nevada’s old brewing equipment.

Speaking of history, Mad River is also using Sierra Nevada’s original mash tun and kettle. It looks like crap from all the welding repairs and paint chips, but this historic piece of equipment is the heart of the Mad River brewery. It’s a 10 barrel system and they have 100 barrel fermenters. As you might expect, they’re brewing like crazy, five batches per day in some instances to supply roughly 29 states and Japan with beer. Maybe it’s because they have to work so damn hard that they keep winning medals.

The pub itself is a must-see. The beautiful bar was made by a company directly across the street that makes bars for places around the world.  Locals fill the place, and where else can you get GABF winning beer for $3.75 a pint.  A pint!  Not a 10oz pour, a pint.  If I had Mad River right down the street from me I’d never leave.

Despite being in Northern California, you might be surprised to know how hard it is to find Mad River beer on tap or in bottles around the Bay Area. The best luck I’ve had is at BevMo! where they usually have their black ale, Serious Madness, and their John Barleycorn Barleywine. Both of those are my favorites. Ask at your local beer store, and if they don’t have it ask them to track it down from a distributor. If not, you can always take a road trip!