Ask a Cicerone: How to Get the Most Out of a Beer Festival

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Beer pros share their advice on the best way to approach a beer fest. [Photo: Adam Lindsley]

Outdoor beer festivals make summer better, and not just because they offer an opportunity to drink outside. At a beer fest you get the chance to taste rare, less-available beers, meet your beer heroes, try beers of the same style side by side, and learn a thing or two. But is there a best way to attack a massive beer event? Are there any tips you should keep in mind?

We asked our crew of Certified Cicerones for their expert advice on how to get the most out of a beer festival. Here's what they had to say.

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[Photo: Chris Lehault]

"If you're going for a more casual outing, basic advice is to start with lighter flavored beers first, so as not to blow out your palate. Then move on to stronger beers as you make your way through the event. For example: start with lagers or blonde ales, move onto reds or amber ales, up to stouts and porters, then end with the super hoppy IPAs or strong imperial stouts.

However, the great thing about beer festivals is that they allow you to try new styles for the first time without having to invest in a sixpack. Pick a style that is new to you and try all the different versions from multiple breweries. This will give you the full spectrum of what that style can taste like and allow you to make an informed decision the next time you're at your favorite pub or beer store."—Hannah Davis (Molson Coors UK)

"Beer festival planners rarely provide the optimal setting for assessing the quality of a given beer, but there are a few tricks you can implement to bypass these conditions. One of them is to bring your own glass. Polyethylene mugs common at beer festivals quickly volatilize aromatics and give off a plastic aroma that interferes with the beer. By assessing beer out of proper glassware (snifter, tulip, etc.) you'll be able to fully identify flavor. Consider waiting for your beer sample to rise in temperature—often jockey boxes used at beer festivals are too effective in chilling beer, dulling the beer's flavor and aroma. By waiting a second or warming the beer up in your hand, you can bring the sample up to proper serving temperature and get the most out of your 4 ounce pour."—Ryan Spencer (Bailey's Taproom)

"Limit your beer intake. Don't spend a lot of time drinking beers you have had before; seek out new and exciting ones. Pay extra for the VIP tent where the most interesting ones usually reside. Avoid driving by recruiting a designated driver or take a cab."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

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[Photo: Sean M. Buchan]

"Get there early. You'll avoid the crowds and the people who only show up to get wasted. The first thing I do when I get to a beer festival is locate the washrooms, it can save a lot of trouble later. I like to have a walk around and see who's pouring what and then make a bit of a game plan on what to try in which order. Obviously going lighter to heavier is best for your palate, but if there's a great brewery pouring a one-off that you know everyone is going to want to try, you might not want to wait."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"A big breakfast and lots of water will help your body weather the punishment you're about to submit it to by drinking considerable quantities of what may be high gravity brews under the blazing sun. A breakfast full of protein and fat (and especially eggs) gives you a nutritional foundation. You really can't drink enough water at a festival, and a one-for-one taster glass of H2O to beer is a good target to set."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow, Beer Paper LA)

"Avoid long lines, seek out booths where the brewers are pouring their own stuff as opposed to an intern or hired help. If you like a beer, or taste something you can't quite wrap your head around, don't hesitate to ask the brewer about it. When asking about beers, please don't ask questions designed to show off how much you already know!! This happens all the time, guys stick their nose over a beer and immediately start assuredly pontificating about the beer's ingredients and brewer's intentions/process. At a festival you often have access to the guy who actually designed the beer. Why not simply say, "Hey, I really like this, can you tell me a bit more about it?" or "I am not sure what to make of this beer, can you help me?" Most brewers are more than willing to engage in these conversations."—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)

"If there are more beers than you can sample, which is usually the case, look at the list and pick out some that look interesting. Go to those brewery tables first and enjoy their selection of beers. While you're at the tables, talk to people about which beers are their favorites so far or which are rare or one-off beers that you may not be able to find again. Craft beer drinkers generally like to share their opinions!"—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

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[Photo: Sean M. Buchan]

"Try new things! You're not getting married—it's just a few ounces at a time. Also, avoid the lines. Seriously, there are 200+ beers at any given festival, do you really need to get a couple ounces of that limited edition hyped-up brew while half the other booths at the fest are nearly empty? Forget the hype and cool factor—go taste a broad selection of beer that just sounds good to you!"—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewer's Guild)

"Water. Most festivals don't allow you to carry hydration packs, but they offer plenty of water stations. Take a permanent marker with you and make it your goal to hit these spots at least 5 times every hour for a full cup. Mark that visit on your hand, grab a slice of pizza and continue on."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

"There is usually a list of participating breweries and beers that will be served on the festival website. I like to look through the list of beers and breweries online to get a feel for what I really want to taste, but I'm not 'married' to those beers. I see too many attendees walking around with lists and missing out on the main point of any beer festival, fun! I like to make a list of about 4 to 6 beers that are must trys and then let the other beers be ones that people are talking about or maybe from a brewer that I was able to get introduced to. Be organized but not too organized—it is a day of beer drinking after all!"—Bill Carl (Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii)

"Slow down. Beer festivals aren't a race. Take the opportunity to chat it up with the brewers and reps. This is a really unique setting and time to talk to these professionals about something they are passionate about. You can learn a lot and many of these guys and girls are some of the most fun people you will ever have a beer with. Also, eat. Skip the pretzel necklace—most events now have great vendors, food trucks, etc. You may not remember everything from a beer festival but you will never forget that time you were chowing down a bahn mi, sipping the market's newest brew, and chatting it up with your favorite brewer."—Daniel Parker (Original Gravity)

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