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Friday, December 2, 2011

Under the Clear Tents: HAF 2011

 After a bit of travail, caused by a power outage that disabled MAX and forced me to ride a bus in the general direction of downtown, I enjoyed several hours at the Holiday Ale Festival Thursday afternoon and evening. Beer fests are always a good time. Why would this one be any different? Hint: It's not.

The Clear Tents
Let me first discuss the venue. Everyone knows Pioneer Courthouse Square is miniature compared to Waterfront Park, which plays host to the gigantic Oregon Brewers Festival. There isn't a lot of space here and organizers have to efficiently use every square inch. They do a good job.

The clear tents lend a spectacular ambiance

Clear vinyl tents are a terrific innovation for his festival. In the old days, it felt a bit claustrophobic under the tents. You couldn't see in or out. Now, we enjoy lots of ambient light (daylight hours) and you can admire the surrounding cityscape, not to mention the nicely lit holiday tree nearby.

The Cost
In my preview post, I discussed the cost of attendance. You pay $25 at the door for a tasting mug and tokens. You also get a program, which is good news. There are some good reasons why the cost is what it is. Winter festivals cost more than summer festivals, for one. Read my prior post here if you want more info.

I honestly believe one of the intended outcomes of charging higher admission is reduced attendance. This has everything to do with the available space. Nothing more. I've seen this place so crowded you couldn't move an inch, to get a beer or otherwise. They'd like to thin it down a bit, I think.

Non-existent lines for most of my stay = treat

The strategy seems to be working. I arrived down there much later than I hoped, around 3 p.m., thanks to the MAX snafu. There were no lines of any kind, for beers or to get in. Even at 5:00 o'clock you could still move around and get a beer with relative ease. When I left around 6:30, it was getting busy. But this was far later than I expected. I'll be interested to see what my fellow bloggers say about the weekend crowds.

The Brews
There are a lot of good beers here. If you're reading this, you'd probably like to know which ones are the best. First, I did not taste every beer. I know because I was able to walk out of the place and onto the MAX. Second, beer opinions are all over the map. I'm already seeing differing opinions on HAF beers from people who know what they're tasting. Opinions will differ. Period.

I tasted around 15 beers and most of them were pretty good...because I chose them from a list before I arrived. Some styles I'm not fond of, and I intentionally kept them off my tasting list. Something like Chocolate Mint Stout isn't going to make my tasting list, although I see it did make Ezra's list over on the New School blog.

The volunteer elves are doing their usual great job

If you're looking for a breakdown of HAF beer types by style, you won't find it here. I tend not be all that interested in stuff like that. However, you can find that list over on the Beervana blog. Jeff produces this list for the most significant Portland beer festivals and his stuff is always top notch. Go there if you want these details, I command you.

Don't Miss
There was a lot of pre-fest buzz over the Firestone Walker Barrel-Aged Velvet Merkin. This is a fantastic beer, loaded with character yet balanced to the hilt. This is a stout and I generally don't care for stouts. But I particularly enjoyed the chocolate and vanilla notes. This beer is just excellent and should not be missed.

I visited Bear Republic Brewing just last week, tasting almost everything they had. But they didn't have Old Saint Chongo, apparently made for this festival. This is described as winter chocolate wheat ale. Sounds funky, huh? I thought it was pretty good. Nicely balanced chocolate character throughout. And mellow.

Good times? You betcha!

Lagunitas Brewing was another target last week. I loved that place and will get around to writing about it in due time. I've always liked Old Gnarly Wine...the version you can get in a 22 oz. bomber. The HAF version is just what I expected...nicely hopped and full of flavor. At 10.6% ABV, you better be careful with this one.

Elysian's Bye Bye Frost is another great one. This is a strong pale ale and the hop character is pretty intense at 80 IBUs, but balanced out via lots malts. It's dry-hopped with Amarillos, which provide an excellent aroma. Oh, another huge beer at 10.6% ABV. Watch it.

Near Hits and Misses
There were several beers that came close to the mark. Deschutes Super Jubel was really good, smoother and better-balanced than the current bottled vintage. Coalition's Lost Glove was right there, very tasty with a nice hop punch. Lompoc's Cherry Christmas is good, but I thought it had a little less punch than when I tasted it several weeks ago at the Sidebar. Perhaps my pallet was overwhelmed by all the megatron beers.

The only beer I thought was seriously bad and poured out was Mjolnir Imperial IPA from Fearless. The program describes this beer as "a constant work in progress." Maybe they're between tweaks. I found it to be void of flavor or body and completely unable to disguise 100 IBUs. I like big IPAs, but not this one. As noted above, opinions may differ on this beer.

As always, thanks to Chris Crabb for her efforts in making this event the success it is...and for helping out all the pretend media folks like me. Big kudos to Preston Weesner, who does such a great job of bringing in rare and unique beers.

Happy Holiday Ale Festival!

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