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American Craft Beer Fest: A Recap

Josh Augustine, June 03, 2014 -   

I had the opportunity to attend the American Craft Beer Fest (Presented by BeerAdvocate and Harpoon Brewing) in Boston, MA, USA on Friday the 31st day of May 2014. What follows is a recap of my experience.

I was set to attend the first of the three sessions that were offered over the weekend, which began Friday evening at 6 PM and lasted through 9:30 PM. The other two sessions happened the next day. The three and a half hour sessions struck me as a bit odd, as in my previous experience four hours is the standard, but the tail end tends to be a mess anyway, so this may be for the better.

I arrived at the general vicinity of the Seaport World Trade Center around 4 PM after a hearty lunch in Chinatown, walk along the lovely waterfront, and shorter-than-expected visit to the Trillium brewery (I had anticipated there being some measure of sit-down-and-hang-out-and-relax-over-a-flight sort of situation, but alas, there's just enough room to get a few quick samples and get growlers filled.) There were a couple of folks standing on the corner already near where the eventual entrance would be, but no real line just yet. I stopped into the cafe in the hotel across the street for a pre-game cup of coffee and tall glass of water. This isn't my first rodeo, after all. By 4:30 another four or 5 people had joined the original couple in line. I finished my coffee and wandered over to join them. I'm not typically one who shows up especially early to most events, but this was made possible by my less-packed-than-originally-planned afternoon.

The folks near me in line seemed to have the same plan that I did: Once inside get thyself to the Lawson's table, and figure out the rest later. There was speculation/hope that Lawson's would have Double Sunshine up for grabs. One couple had bought tickets to the early Saturday session in addition to the Friday session, and as they watched the line form, they made plans to get lined up three hours ahead of time for their Saturday visit.

4:30 must have been the sweet spot for arrival time at this particular session, as shortly after I made myself the 7th person in line, a trickle of people became a steady stream, and by 5:00 or so the line, now 4 people wide at the request of security, stretched maybe 2/3rds the length of the building (this is probably a pretty rough estimate as I was trying to gauge from my extreme front-of-line vantage point), and was rapidly lengthening. It was probably around this time that volunteers started checking IDs and wristbanding people in line, which was a prudent move. I believe there were 5000 tickets sold per session (though the first session didn't quite sell out), so trying to card and wristband people as they entered would have become a foolhardy endeavor. By 5:30 the line wrapped around the entire building and was still growing, and I actually started to think that showing up as far in advance as I did was worth it.

The doors opened promptly at 6 PM, and upon that time most of the people around me went into a jogging or faster pace through the entryway, grabbed tasting glasses without slowing down, and sped up a little bit more until they arrived at the Lawson's table (there was no Double Sunshine). I sauntered at my own pace to the Tree House booth right next to Lawson's, which at that point did not yet have a crowd, and started the night with a sample of the Tree House/Lawson's collaboration, "YARRRGGGHHH!" The fine folks at the Tree House table encouraged people to order it with the same exuberance with which it was named, and thus over the course of the night I frequently heard shouts of "YARRRGGGHHH!" echo throughout the room. I sipped on it slowly while going through the still-short Tree House line a second time for their Julius, then attempted to get to the Lawson's table. By that point, both Lawson's and Tree House's lines were about the same length.

After those first trips to grab a couple of big hype beers, I wandered about at a leisurely pace, occasionally swinging by the Lawson's and Tree House tables and braving the line at times where I might have been working through my current sample a bit more slowly. And honestly, as long as any of the lines got, they moved pretty quickly and I saw virtually no instances of people camping at the front right up next to the booths (unless there was nobody behind them). It didn't seem that either table ran out of any of their offerings, so there was no need to panic in the first place. Aside from those two, the longest lines seemed to be at Trillium and Pretty Things, with a few other stations having occasional bursts where a line would form, but not persist.

While there were plenty of big breweries in attendance (Ballast Point, Stone, Lagunitas, Boulevard, Dogfish Head, etc.) there were many that are regional to the New England area, many of which I wasn't previously familiar with. Because of this, I can't speak to whether or not there was anything especially rare available (Lagunitas had their limited Waldo's Special, Stone had Reason Be Damned, and there were probably a few others), but my impression is that a large portion of the beers present were standard beers and current seasonals. That said, it was still a great opportunity for an out of towner like myself to do some exploring.

Volunteers were omnipresent, refilling water stations (which were plentiful enough to not get crowded at all), bringing ice to booths, and just generally overseeing. I chatted with one volunteer who mentioned that most of their collective job was to make sure that pours weren't getting too heavy. Apparently due to either Massachusetts or Boston law, the most beer that is allowed to be given away as a "free" sample is 2 oz. The impression I got was that the ticket price was admission to the event, and all samples aquired therein were for all intents and purposes considered "free." The tasting cups had a mark on them that was supposed to be the max fill line, and once I started noting the fill levels, it did appear that pourers were consistently complying with the rule.

The size of the venue was virtually perfect for the size of the crowd. There was enough room that people could roam and easily get out of the way once they had a sample in hand, but not so cavernous as to make an ardous task of getting from one booth to another. There were (I think) two bathrooms per gender in the main room, both of which had reasonably quick-moving lines, and an additional row of outhouses just outside one of the side entrances that further alleviated the bathroom crowds. Basically, if you didn't want to go out of your way, stand in the nearest bathroom line for a few minutes. If a situation needed to be addressed immediately, you could probably get into an outhouse right away.

Oh, and the actual beer? Yeah, there were a lot of great ones. My personal highlights included:

  • Lawson's Finest/Tree House - YARRRGGGHHH! (or whatever the proper spelling is). Obviously.
  • Night Shift - Ever Weisse and Stop, Collaborate, and Glisten (a collaboration with NoDa brewing).
  • Jack's Abby - Cherry Barrel Aged Berliner Bruin, apparently a berliner weisse aged in oak barrels with cherries. This was maybe my favorite thing I had all night.
  • Maine Brewing - Lunch (most of you probably already know this one, it was my first taste).
  • Enlightenment Ales - In general, they had some very impressive farmhouse-type offerings.

Biggest disappointments were the Victory Saison and that I didn't make it to either the Trillium or NoDa booths.

This has gotten far longer than I thought it would, so I'll wrap it up. Overall, I was quite impressed with this event. It was organized and well run, in a comfortable environment, with a crowd that as far as I could tell was polite and well-behaved, and kept its collective wits about it as much as could be expected (I'm not aware of any fights or medical emergencies or other such bummers.) If I lived within a few hours travel time of Boston, I don't see any reason I wouldn't attend this event annually, and while I admittedly didn't travel halfway across the contry solely for this event, it was certainly a worthwhile addition to my trip.

Did you attend? How was your experience? What were your beer highlights? Let us know in the comments.

Josh Augustine mostly just wastes precious internet space on Twitter, and hopes his mom never sees his untappd.

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