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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holiday Ale Festival: A Cure for the Wintertime Blues

In my mind, the summertime blues don't need a cure. Summer takes care of that on its own. Wintertime is different. It demands a cure. And the Holiday Ale Festival might just be it.

I stopped by Pioneer Courthouse Square Wednesday for a tasting excursion. The beers are unique, most brewed specifically for this event. You can't possibly taste them all, so you seek out what you think might be the best of the best. Obviously, a hard afternoon's work.

I did not create a hit list of beers this year. Instead, I planned to use the guide Jeff Alworth posted on the Beervana blog the other day. That plan dissolved quickly when I realized what I really needed was a beer map of the venue. Only then could I target specific beers. So I walked around and created a makeshift map.

When you enter the festival, you'll quickly discover that the bulk of the beers are located in the Main Bar. The Side Bar (lower Southwest corner) and the Sky Bar (upper Southwest corner) have fewer beers, but you do not want to overlook those areas. There are gems everywhere.

The Wednesday crowd was a sleepy one. There were a large number of beer geek types milling around and collecting notes about the beers. It seems we (yes, I include myself in that group) like the idea of sampling beers when we know the crowds will be mostly nonexistent. There are advantages.

The most common question circulating among the crowd was an obvious one: "What is your favorite beer?" Thoughts varied. My choice for best of show was/is the Lagunitas High West Whiskey Stout. Some of my swill-guzzling friends concurred. However, none of us tasted all the beers. I probably tasted 30 beers...15 or so full tastes and just as many sips from other mugs.

Other beers I liked included Hopworks Kronan the Barbarian (heavy on the bourbon barrel, but still amazing), Stickmen The Twerking Elf (a sour with notes of cherry and dry fruit), Dick's Winter Ale (recommended for hopheads), Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin (a hoppy oatmeal stout that works) and Cascade Cherry Diesel (typically great).

I made a point to track down Lompoc's Revelry Red Ale to compare it with what I tasted a few weeks ago at their winter beer media tasting. The version at the HAF is a lighter version of the original, the result (I assume) of blending that had to be done to come up with the requisite number of kegs. I thought it was okay, but I did hear some disparaging comments. Whatever.

The festival runs through Sunday. Take public transit if you can. Get down there as early as you can to avoid lines. Beware that designated drivers will be charged $5 to enter the venue and consume root beer. Also keep in mind that food options are minimal here and water, which should be readily available given the strength of these beers, is stashed at the Northeast corner near the exit.

Final thoughts? Just one: Give your beer a chance to warm up a bit before you sample it. It's frigid outside and the beers are coming out of the taps too cold to provide an instant bead on their true character. These big beers change dramatically as they warm up. I observed opinions changing by the minute as beers warmed up. So let 'em warm up! It's a simple thing.

Happy tasting!

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