Top tips for enjoying a beer festival

Beer festivals are fantastic for discovering new beers and breweries. I’ve put together the following advice based on experience of attending festivals.

  1. Develop a plan of attack: Festivals can vary in their size and approach, some may be banks of taps manned by enthusiastic volunteers or others may be stands with the brewers themselves, either way there could be 100s of different beers that could be sampled. Have a look at the festival guide and get a sense of the breweries present and the types of beers on offer and target breweries that you want to try or particular styles that you may like.
  2. Don’t ask, don’t learn: Confused about beer, don’t know what a IPA is or what hops do? Ask. Beer festivals aren’t just for beer nerds like me (don’t worry there’ll be plenty of us at the festival) and don’t feel intimidated by other people asking fairly intense questions. Brewers are more than happy to talk to you because they want to win you over and gain new customers. Feel free to tell them what styles you like and let them suggest beers to try. You might like them and when the festival returns, you might be the one asking those tricky questions
  3. Leave the darker, heavier beers to last: A simple Belgian rule is starting with the lighter beers first and move in ascending order of alcohol strength before moving gradually darker. It’s basically about intensity of flavour, try a hoppy beer before a lager for example and you may not be able to detect little else but carbonated water. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule – lambics, anyone?
  4. Sample before you buy: Festivals are a time to discover something new as well as reacquainting yourself with old friends. It’s not in the breweries interest if the only beer you try from them is not for you (they may have plenty of other that do) so don’t be afraid to ask before you buy. It’s also a great way of getting to learn about different styles and tick off a number of the beers at a festival.
  5. Take notes: This can be as simple as noting down the beers you like, you can quickly forget otherwise. I’ll leave it up to you how best to record what you tried, some guides have notes sections under the beers or others can be simply recorded on the back of beer mats etc (I use my iPhone for instance). However, I must warn you that this can quickly become addictive and and you could be in danger of becoming a “beer ticker” like the rest of us.
  6. Talk to the brewers: Get to know their story, their inspiration and where the beer comes from, it can give you an added appreciation of the beer in your glass. Who says that wine can be the only one with terroir!
  7. Visit breweries making their festival debut: New breweries are popping all over the place. Festivals are often the first time outside select venues or localities that the general public get to sample them. Stop by and see them and give them some encouragement. It’s a good feeling when you see a start-up brewery that you first met at a festival starts becoming available over the months in off licences and bars. It gives you a sense of belonging to a movement.
  8. Take to social media: Festivals can feature limited runs or rotating taps of beers that you might want to try. Also, some beers may be even more popular than expected and run out early. Twitter can be a great way of finding up to the minute information on latest developments, so get learning the hashtag for the festival. If you like a beer or brewery, take a photo and tell the world. Following a brewery that you like is a great way of finding out if they’re coming to an outlet near you.
  9. Food: Beer and food matching is a real thing. Check out if they’re food stands and use it as an opportunity to try first hand what styles of beers go with particular foods. Who knows you might be doing the food vendor a favour!
  10. Look for water stations: This is my version of the “Surgeon General’s Warning”, you can easily pass more than a couple of hours at a beer festival, so hydration will be an issue (especially as the venue heats up) as it is with drinking in general but it also helps cleanse the palate and will assist you moving from beer to beer and appreciating each one on their merits.
  11. Go to more festivals: It’s like when your holiday’s over, the advice is to start planning for the next one. It’s the same with beer festivals and there’s plenty of them out there and can be a great idea for planning a weekend break away or getting a gang of friends to come to the next one. They’re in the large part fairly chilled affairs and enjoyable experiences, you’ll be hooked. Check out sites like www.beoir.org for a list of festivals upcoming in Ireland (the next one is never that far away).

 

Festival goers taking advantage of the weather at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival


Beer festivals are a great place to try beers from exciting places, in this case Revolution IPA from Spain’s Molta Birra brewery

 

Great British Beer Festival – One of the largest out there


Beer for breakfast (on a Tuesday night, of course)

Difficult to work out if smoke is coming from the pan or the beer

A Tuesday night in January just has that dreary feel to it. Tuesdays are not that great and January is one of those months we hope to get out of the way as fast as possible. I did however use a recent one to conduct another experiment of beer and food matching, this time beer to go with breakfast.

Objectivity and rigour are important in conducting any such experiment so I would like to point out that I conducted this in the evening time (health and safety of course necessitated this). The idea came to me by looking in the fridge and deciding that all I felt like for dinner was a fry. This got me wondering what beers would match and this of course would be applicable for those who avail of all-day breakfasts (or brunch if you want to be posh) as well.

A number of beer books feature beers to go with breakfasts as part of general guides to food matching but I haven’t had the opportunity to try them. Besides a few early houses, we really don’t have a culture of early morning drinking (probably for the best). When I was working in Brussels I went to grab a coffee and a pain au chocolate in a café under the Berlaymont (aka European Commission HQ). I didn’t stand just stand out because I wasn’t wearing a grey suit, I was the only person not partaking of a beer at breakfast (it was 7.45am or in Brussels 07h45). Observing this scene, it wasn’t some romanticised scene portrayed in many a beer book, it was simply something that was done and they were drinking cheap lager straight from the can.

So with the pan on the hob and the sausages frying away, I selected the beers to be used. With such a meal we overload on fatty foods. A crisp lager to cut through such food would be too easy a choice. A Mild Ale, breakfast in a glass in its own right, could be a runner but I had none at hand. I was thinking of beers that contain flavours that our brains would easily make the connection with breakfast time. Unfortunately I didn’t have Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast to hand, so I focussed on wheat because of our familiarity with cereal, bread etc. With a fried breakfast, we have an unbelievable ability to consume a wide array of pork products so why not try and match it with a smoked beer. The two beers selected were these: Weisser Hirsch, a Hefeweizen by Privatbrauerei Höss der Hirschbräu and Schlenkerla’s Aecht Rauchbier Märzen

The two contenders

First up, Hirschbräu’s Hefeweizen poured extremely pale with a good head and remarkable lacing around the glass. The aroma was an incredible blend of ripe banana and clove. It had a pleasant body with an off-dry finish. Frying the sausages resulted in some caramelisation occurring, which clearly allowed the food to really emphasise the sweetness in the beer, reminiscent of Weetabix. It also matched perfectly when the toast was taken into account. This beer was refreshing in the finish and gave me the impression, like I had a fresh juice alongside my meal.

The second beer being possibly the most iconic of smoked beers. I must admit that I do enjoy Schlenkerla’s Aecht Rauchbier Märzen once in a while (and I also mean no more that one at a time as well). This is a beer that needs food for it to be truly enjoyed. I’ve read how well this goes with German sausages and now its time to see how well it goes with an Irish fry. It pours a rich caramel colour that’s on the point of turning burnt. There’s no head and the beer itself has a transparency to it that you wouldn’t expect in such a dark beer. On the aroma front, it is pure smoke, so much so that you don’t know if it’s the beer or that you’re burning the pan. Besides intense smoke, bacon and leather aromas (what a combination) come through. This beer is clearly enjoyable with food. It works, don’t get me wrong but I feel that it was not the right match on this occasion as I did not have the ingredients on hand that would really allow it to shine.

Difficult to work out if smoke is coming from the pan or the beer

The Aecht Rauchbier Märzen deserves real quality ingredients, from the type of sausage to the type or rasher. Smoked meats would come into their own alongside this beer. How I wished I had one alongside a fantastic breakfast that I had in the Loveless Café during a recent trip to Nashville. The pit-cooked pork barbeque & eggs could be the ideal match for this beer (although it was smoked with hickory wood, unlike the beer which has malts kilned above beech).

The Loveless Café’s famous pit-cooked pork barbeque & eggs is just crying out to be served alongside Bamberg’s finest

This was certainly a fun experiment for a Tuesday night. I would be leaning on the hefeweizen as a good match, although if I had a breakfast roll and was consuming everything at once, the rauchbier might win out. I doubt, however, if I will be reaching out for a beer anytime soon alongside my breakfast and will most likely be sticking with coffee. That is not to say that you can’t match beer with breakfast.