The rain started to fall at about 12:30 as brewers and vendors were putting the final touches on their booths. Not a heavy rain, just a light but continuous drizzle. Enough to be annoying, but not enough to really get you wet. It was still raining as the bagpipes signaled that the start of the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest with the admission of the VIP early-entry ticket holders. Those folks got wet. Fortunately a good number of brewer-booths were under the canopy of the International Bazaar at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. By 2:00 when the doors opened for general admission, the drizzle had largely stopped, leaving the rest of the fest with perhaps the best kind of beer-fest weather, overcast with temperatures around 80. No unwanted sunburn this year.
Once again Juno Choi and Mark Opdahl of Chop Liver LLC, along with an army of volunteers, put on a great fest. As in the past two years it was very well organized. From my own experience, very little was lacking. Although there were several water stations, drinking/rinse water coolers seemed in short supply or hard to find, at least in the “south forty” outside the confines of the actual Bazaar where I spent a good deal of my festival time. People kept asking after water. Next to the education tent were coolers full of water in which various hops and malt had been steeped. I got a kick out of watching the expressions on faces as people filled their glasses expecting straight water and got a mouthful of Saaz hop instead.
The change in venue was a good one. The International Bazaar seemed perfect for the event. Each booth was like a little chicken cage with chain link on which brewers could hang their banners. The canopy was nice during the early-hours drizzle. Behind the actual Bazaar was an overflow area where several brewers’ booths were located along with the education tent, the charity dunking booth, and the VIP hang-out tent. It looked to me like the location outside the main event did little to stop people from visiting those booths. The fact that Surly was out back probably didn’t hurt.
I’m not sure how many brewers were actually in attendance, but I’ll call it “a bunch.” In the program I count 80-ish. There didn’t seem to be any big new-comers this year aside from the new entries into the Minnesota market; Alaskan, Olvalde, Brooklyn et al.
No one brought any really exciting beers this year. The selection was mostly culled from the normal offerings of each brewery. That said, Rock Bottom was pouring from bottles of their barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned series and had a couple of beers from the new Brewmaster Bob McKenzie. I was also happy to see a Genesee Cream Ale booth (really). I have been thinking about that beer for a little while and it was good to have the opportunity to enjoy a sample at the fest.
Overall, the beer selection was disappointing to me. Was I in a bad mood? Definitely not. Have I grown hyper-critical from my beer-travels through the Midwest? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve just become jaded. Or was my palate off for some reason? All I can say for sure is that very little stood out to me as special. Granted, I didn’t try nearly all of them and most of the breweries’ regular offerings are tasty. There just wasn’t anything that made me say “wow.” Several beers even stood out as less than adequate. It was a bad day for saisons in particular. I tried many and didn’t care for any.
The one beer that was memorable to me was apparently also memorable to others, as it took the People’s Choice Award. That one was Engine 20, a smoked pale ale from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co. It was unique without being extreme. It had a very drinkable malt/hop balance and just enough smoke to make it interesting. Great Lakes won the best-of-fest last year with Nosferatu Imperial Red ale. They must be doing something right in Cleveland.