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Best of the Fests

Craft beer festivals have become a fantastic way to sample and explore the myriad new offerings with friends in a social setting.

Jamie Bogner September 14, 2015

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Beer festivals have come a long way over the past ten years. What used to be an excuse for over-consumption has become a fantastic way to sample and explore the myriad new craft offerings with friends in a social setting. The quality of beer plus diversity of breweries represented at some of the best festivals are at an all-time high. Here are some festivals that are leading the way.

Shelton Brothers The Festival_

location rotates_

No beer fest you attend will ever be the same after you spend a session or two at craft-beer importer Shelton Brothers’ The Festival. While the location rotates year-to-year (Massachusetts, Maine, and California have all hosted), what doesn’t change is the unprecedented, world-class lineup of brewers who attend. Calling it beer-geek heaven is an understatement—we enjoyed pours of Drie Fonteinen Hommage from legendary brewer/blender Armand Debelder himself, loved the Hill Farmstead saisons that Shaun Hill poured, went back for as much Treehouse Julius IPA as cofounder Dean Rohan would pour for us, grabbed pours of extremely limited Bruery beers such as Wineification and Blue BBLs, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. You could spend thousands of dollars bartering, trading, and hunting down the incredible number of amazing beers served at The Festival, but a plane ticket, hotel room, and session ticket is much more cost effective.

Great American Beer Festival_

Denver, Colorado_

GABF is the festival that a vocal minority seems to love to hate, but that’s only because there's nothing else like it in the world. The 49,000 attendees over four sessions sample what is the largest collection of different beers under one roof, anywhere (in 2014, that was more than 3,500 different beers). Even the most ambitious samplers could get no more than 10 percent through the beer list if they attended every session, but going for quantity misses the entire point of this craft-beer spectacle. At the 2014 edition, we enjoyed a number of heavily hyped beers, such as Toppling Goliath Assassin or Port Brewing Churchill’s Finest Hour, and the one-ounce sample was about the same amount we’d get at a bottle share with beer-trading friends. But the real fun was found in the very small breweries who attend—from the foraged gruits of Scratch Brewing (Illinois) to the progressive IPAs of Melvin Brewing (Wyoming). You’ll hear some people complain about the size of the crowd, but in our experience over the past few years, we’ve never had to wait very long (if at all) for pours. Simple math explains it—the ratio of number of beers being poured per attendee is one of the best anywhere, so as long as you skip the line for Hunahpu’s, you can walk right up and grab a pour of The Rare Barrel sours. Then, there are the other festivals that happen concurrently in Denver the same weekend, such as…

What the Funk? Festival_

Denver, Colorado_

GABF is the main show, but WTF? (and Denver Rare Beer) are just as much reason to trek to Denver in the fall. What the Funk?, produced by Crooked Stave Artisans, is one of the best showcases of sour and wild beer that we’ve ever had the pleasure to attend. The beer list features such breweries as Jester King (Austin, Texas), Side Project (St. Louis, Missouri), Casey Brewing & Blending (Glenwood Springs, Colorado), Sante Adairius Rustic Ales (Capitola, California), Wicked Weed (Asheville, North Carolina), Crooked Stave (Denver, Colorado) and many more. Festivals like WTF? are a far less expensive way than trading to try their impossible-to-find, highly coveted beers. The location is killer, the DJ-driven vibe is electric, and the beer is phenomenal.

Festival of Barrel Aged Beer_

Chicago, Illinois_

Ninety breweries, 300 barrel-aged beers. That’s one heck of a way to warm up a cold November weekend in Chicago. The town that virtually invented spirit–barrel-aged stouts is host to this yearly celebration of the art of the barrel, with everything from obscure projects such as Bourbon County Brand Stout aged for two years in Templeton Rye barrels to incredibly limited-release wild ales from Side Project (St. Louis). Given how many folks in Chicago camp out for the Bourbon County release each year, it’s no surprise that the event has been so successful that they’re moving to three sessions in 2015.

Zwanze Day_

various locations worldwide_

The annual celebration of all-things-Cantillon is a must for sour-beer lovers. Cantillon’s highly coveted lambics are poured in a volume that is mind-boggling for anyone who has tried to hunt down their beer through stores in the United States (where the beer typically sells out immediately upon release). The structure of the event varies depending on location—some are bars that charge by the glass, some are breweries with an upfront ticket price that includes a set number of pours—and the demand can vary from a line that forms hours ahead of the event to a casual bar environment with no waiting. But regardless, this volume of kegs and bottles of Cantillon is a sight to be seen.

Firestone Walker Invitational_

Paso Robles, California_

Tickets sell out in minutes for this yearly celebration in Paso Robles, and for good reason—Firestone Walker has developed a well-deserved reputation for high-level execution in everything they do, from packaged beer to taproom experience to events. The invitational draws some of their best friends in brewing from around the country (think Surly, Cigar City, Odell, Jester King, 3 Floyds, and the list goes on).

Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines Festival_

Vail, Colorado_

One of the most unique destination beer festivals in the country, Vail’s Big Beers fest is a yearly staple for many of the big names in American craft beer. Sure, it’s a thinly veiled excuse for Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, Adam Avery, and other notable brewers to get in some turns on Vail’s back bowls together while purporting to “work,” but the brewer-centric education track is a draw for anyone interested in the technical side of brewing, and the grand tasting is a Who’s Who of top U.S. breweries. The friendly vibe and chance to talk with brewers themselves at the tasting make it special, and the brewers bring their A-game year after year—it’s not often you see Tomme Arthur pouring Lost Abbey Veritas 014 or Goose Island’s brewers pouring 2010-vintage Bourbon County Rare at a beer festival.

Great Taste of the Midwest_

Madison, Wisconsin_

Produced by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, the Great Taste of the Midwest is one of the oldest beer festivals in the country and features 150 brewers pouring 1,000 different beers with a decidedly Midwest focus. From Chicagoland faves such as Revolution, Pipeworks, Off Color, and Half Acre to St. Louis’s upstarts Perennial (who poured Barrel-Aged Abraxas at the 2014 event), the lineup of brewers is first class. In addition, the beer list for each brewery is one of the deepest we’ve ever seen—3 Floyds, for example, poured sixteen different beers at last year’s festival!

Hunahpu’s Day_

Tampa, Florida_

An unmitigated disaster in 2014 with counterfeit tickets and a crowd twice the capacity, Hunahpu’s Day bounced back in 2015 as an exclusive event that’s pushing the limit of what fans will pay for beer festivals with its $200 ticket. But with four bottles of Hunahpu’s Stout included in the admission on top of a full-on festival with guest taps of beers such as Heady Topper from The Alchemist (Waterbury, Vermont) and A Night to End All Dawns from Kane Brewing (Ocean Township, New Jersey), the event is much more than just a release party—it’s the best beer festival in the southeastern United States.

Craft Beer & Brewing is launching our first beer festival in October in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Participating breweries include Avery Brewing, Jester King, The Bruery, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, Perennial Artisan Ales, and more. And you can sign up for special brewing education classes with Randy Mosher, Stan Hieronymus, John Palmer, and Brad Smith. Grab your tickets before they’re gone.

Other Great Festivals of Note

Festival of Dark Arts

Astoria, Oregon

Stone Anniversary Celebration & Invitational

Escondido, California

World Beer Festival

Cleveland, Ohio; Columbia, South Carolina; Durham, North Carolina; and Raleigh, North Carolina

Hill Farmstead Festival of Farmhouse Ales

Greensboro Bend, Vermont

Surly Darkness Day

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Belgium Comes to Cooperstown

Cooperstown, New York

Extreme Beer Fest

Boston, Massachusetts