August 21, 2017

Let The Fests Begin. . . by Joel Mann, Staff Wine Tasting Guy

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Springtime kicks off the beer festival season in Arizona. It almost marches in lockstep with the words “pitchers and catchers” to open spring training. While some fests may change, there are several throughout the year one can count on. It begins with the Strong Beer Festival which occurred just last weekend as I write this.

The Great Arizona Beer Festival is of course the big event during the season, usually in March. When the weather is blazing hot, action shifts to the cool climes of Flagstaff and the summertime Made in the Shade Festival. The year wraps-up come fall down in Tucson at the Great Tucson Beer Festival. Strolling about a nice park or stadium with the sun shining and a wide selection of beers to sip on always makes for an enjoyable afternoon. There’s usually entertainment, either in the form of music or people to razz when they can’t ring the bell in the high striker strongman game.

The fests are always good fun, and this month I’m giving a recap of the 2014 Strong Beer Festival.
It’s been a few years since I’ve attended the Strong Beer Fest. My last time, the event was still held at the old Mesa Amphitheater. The festival moved to Steele Park in downtown Phoenix starting in 2010. Strong Beer showcases the big beers – high gravity, high alcohol, big hops, robust flavors, etc. Essentially, anything that is the exact opposite of light, easy-drinking lager beer.

Of course, the vendors do tend to bring a few easy to quaff selections as one does need a palate cleanser every so often when consuming hearty fare.

The day itself was pleasant, if a bit warm in the upper 80s for mid-February. I was a little surprised at the size of the crowd, which was more than I anticipated but still a reasonable level. My previous experience with Strong Beer was that the nature of the beers brought out the hard-core geeks versus the casual beer drinker. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and tip my cap to the beer scene in Phoenix for having such a plentiful group of serious beer drinkers.

Kudos to the event organizers for bringing the cool zone equipment deployed at various points around the park as well. The trailer with the cold misting fans in particular was a nice touch on a warm day. And, yes, the high striker was there. I did hit the bell, and then watched the comedy of others in their attempts. A perfunctory mercy clap to the poor, 6’3”, athletic guy that just couldn’t figure out how to swing a hammer, but did manage to finally give a gentle tap of the bell around swing number 17.

There were two new brands that I know of making their debut to the market at the festival: Hangar 24 from Northern California, and Upslope from Colorado. Both served a tasty brew, with Upslope’s Foreign Style Stout being memorable given my particular preference for dark beers.
On the topic of dark beers, there were a number of coffee stouts at the event I found quite enjoyable.

I’ll comment on two. Sun Up Brewing came with an impressive White Russian Imperial Coffee Stout, weighing in at a hefty 9.2% ABV. It had a nice malty flavor with good hop balance, and a pleasant roasted, but not burnt, coffee flavor. Santa Fe’s Java Stout is always a winner with good malt/hop balance, and a slightly creamy coffee flavor. I also like the fact that Santa Fe Brewing sells the product in cans. Although not coffee stouts, Lagunitas sported a pair of hearty beers in Brown Shugga and The Hairy Eyeball that I enjoyed very much.

Beer festivals certainly are big fun. It’s a chance to sample a number of good beers all in one shot. Great Arizona will have passed by the time this article makes it to print. I recommend keeping one’s eyes open for other spring events if in Phoenix though, as there are usually a few others that pop up. For the readers up north, late spring into summer kicks off the festival season in your area.

Made in the Shade is always worth the trip, especially if you’re looking to escape the Phoenix heat. Just remember to plan ahead of time. Eat a big meal to set the stomach, and find the friend willing to be the designated driver (or just rotate drawing the short straw with your group of tasting friends).

Drink responsibly.

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