A Lesson From A Beer Festival

Eno Sarris, February 17, 2014

Clandestine Brewing is a small nano-brewer out of San Jose that's planning to open their doors to the public sometime this year. For their first public beer service, they served at the Meet the Brewers beer tasting session at Hermitage Brewing in San Jose this past Saturday, and for most of the day their stand was hopping.

Full disclosure: I know the brewers at Clandestine. I attended some meetings at their homebrew club -- Worts of Wisdom -- and they've taught me the little I know about beer making. I've made the Pliny the Younger pilgrimmage with them. I feel I can comment on their stand being popular because it was very crowded all day long. I also feel I can laud them on a strategy they implemented that was a factor in their popularity, without being biased.

Though Clandestine had many good beers, one of the reasons they did so well was because they brought the most beers. 21 breweries attended the event and 69 beers were listed. Clandestine listed ten beers -- four more than second-most (the host, Hermitage) -- and had four more unlisted offerings that they tapped later on.

The benefits of the strategy range from obvious to surprising. Obviously, having the most beers gives you the benefit of the odds. If there was a Best in Show, Clandestine had almost a one in five shot of having brewed that beer. A side effect of this is that they brought the most styles. If you didn't like sours, you probably weren't going to fall in love with The Rare Barrel's two (excellent) offerings, but they didn't give you a chance beyond anyway. Almanac has some great beers, but they only brought their Extra Pale Ale and Golden Gate Gose. Clandestine brought a koelsch, an altbier, a hefeweizen, two stouts, three different kinds of IPA, two kinds of brown, a rye wine, a tripel, and a gluten-free rasberry. A smorgasbord, and if you were a hefe fan, this was the only place to get one.

Another benefit rubs up a bit on Miles Liebtag's excellent think piece about alcoholism in the craft beer industry, but it should be mentioned, in any case. Bringing the most beer means you won't run out at the end of the festival. To those that have fallen into the "At some point I stopped tasting and just started drinking" moment of the festival, there was one booth that was sure to be serving as the event was winding down.

But I prefer to think that Clandestine was more concerned with offering a wide look at their offerings in their first public event.

Brewer Rob Conticello put things into focus for me. "I would say it was homebrew style," Conticello admitted of their strategy going into the festival. We laughed about the Golden Urinal, which is the local award given to the homebrewer that brings the most beer to a homebrew festival. That urinal can be "an honor, but we've only ever tried to bring worthy beers that the majority enjoyed," Conticello said.

And that's how simple it was. This group of newly professional brewers have a wide variety of homebrewing experience among them, and they brought the best of their arsenal to a local festival. These nano-brewers tasted each other's beers and had a simple "no crap on tap" up or down vote with a few mentors, and they brought a large assortment of good beers to the Meet the Brewers festival. Because that's what they've done in the past, and because they were happy to serve the beers they had brewed.

So, if you enjoyed a Clandestine beer over the weekend, the numbers said that was likely. But the nano still had to bring their Milky Way Stout (an oak-aged milk stout restrained in both sweetness and oak, brewed with a process that included caramelizing the wort before the boil), their Murph's Shenanigans (a brown brewered with coffee, vanilla and cocoa), their FSIPA (an amarillo and simcoe bomb that was both fruity and bitter and fresh), and their Triple Agent (a big beer at 9.7% ABV inspired by absinthe, made with star anise, which featured a heavy liquorice nose).

Clandestine still had to bring it, even if they brought a lot.