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).

 

SF Beer Week Kicks Off With Opening Gala

The SF Beer Week pressure valve was released on Friday, February 13, after weeks of social media fervor bolstered anticipation. With tickets in one hand and nervous fingers twitching for a treasured tasting glass, attendees formed a line that stretched around the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

At 3:30pm the doors leading to the Gala swung open for the ninety-minute VIP session. Inside Bay Area breweries lined the walls and occupied an island of taps in the center of the large room. For the time being, the floor was spacious and hopheads rushed around searching for the rare and unreleased. A line quickly formed in front of Russian River Brewing for a small keg of Pliny the Younger that emptied in minutes, but there was plenty of incredible beer to go around.

The highlight of the evening was the panel discussion that featured several brewing luminaries that included Terrence Sullivan, Vinnie Cilurzo, Pete Slosberg, Brian Hunt, Mark Carpenter, Shaun O’Sullivan, and Matt Brynildson. Rich Higgins, president of the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild, lobbed questions that fueled a wide-ranging discussion filled with history and knowledge laced with a passion for craft beer. Several video cameras were documenting the dialogue, which will hopefully reach a wider audience.

With highlights also come low-lights. When the doors opened for general admission at 5:00pm rumbles of discontent also trickled into an already packed hall. The line to get in was immense and ticket holders faced an hour-long wait or more. At one point they were even told capacity had been reached and refunds were offered. Topping it all off, when patient attendees finally crossed the threshold, commemorative glasses were gone in addition to some very desirable beer.

This debacle should have been avoided. Clearly way too many tickets had been sold. Jen Rizzo, author of the blog Pedals and Pints, was caught up in the headache and offers a very insightful editorial on her website.

Once tensions were eased with beer, the night carried on with tremendous fanfare. The Gala kicked off a week filled with over 300 tastings, beer dinners and other special events that will leave many beer connoisseur’s pleased in the end.

Update (2/14/2011): In response the difficulties surrounding the Gala festivities, organizers issued the following response via e-mail to ticket holders, which includes info on refunds and glassware.

Dear SF Beer Week Opening Gala ticket holders,

Thank you for your continued support of local craft beer and SF Beer Week! While the Opening Gala was a success on many fronts, we’d like to address our capacity issues with you, below.

We are profoundly sorry that some ticket holders couldn’t enter the Opening Gala. We are awed by your overwhelming support of the craft beer industry.  In brief, the problems we encountered were as follows:

1.  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the fire marshal and SF Beer Week planners all had different understandings of the event’s traffic flow and capacity. We sold tickets based on the total capacity for the venue.  On the night of the event, the YBCA and fire marshal worried that too many people in one particular area of the entire venue created a hazard.

2.  Peoples’ enthusiasm for particular beers created lines that crowded too many people into one particular area of the entire venue.  We could not predict this beer lovers’ bottleneck.  Consequently, YBCA staff limited admission for the entire venue.

We will send refunds to ticketed individuals who were not admitted to the event. The refunds will begin on Monday, Feb 14 through Eventbrite.  If you do not receive your refund by Feb 18, one week after the event, please reply to this email at openinggalasfbeerweek@gmail.com with your name and ticket information. Thank you for your continued patience and support of the many grass root events that combine to create SF Beer Week.

Further, if you did not receive a commemorative glass, more are on their way.  We will be in touch with more information in the week to come!

Best,

SF Beer Week
Opening Gala

Steve Donohue pouring his beer from Firehouse Brewery.

The crew from Devil’s Canyon Brewing.

Sugar filled palate cleansers were available along with a host of other food options.

Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing.

A Russian River Brewing magnum on ice.

Left to right: Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Pete Slosberg (formerly Pete’s Wicked Ales), Mark Carpenter (Anchor Brewing), Brian Hunt (Moonlight Brewing), Matt Brynildson (Firestone Walker), Shaun O’Sullivan (21st Amendment), Terrence Sullivan (Sierra Nevada)

Shaun O’Sullivan of 21st Amendment snapping photos of the action on stage next to Matt Brynildson from Firestone Walker.

Fan favorite Brian Hunt from Moonlight Brewing.

A new brew on the horizon (bottles were empty).

Tom Dalldorf (left) publisher of Celebrator Magazine with the Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton.

Two generations of brewers, Pete Slosberg with Patrick Horn and Bryan Hermannson of Pacific Brewing Laboratories.

Lead singer of The Brothers Comatose.