The 27th annual California Festival of Beers is one of the largest and oldest beer festivals in California. Dozens of breweries from around the country and the world converge on San Luis Obispo to introduce and pay tribute to beers, ales, lagers and stouts. This event had humble beginnings starting in the back parking lot of a local pub and growing into an institution well-known to the locals as Beerfest, and which garners 3000+ attendees. The California Festival of Beers is put on annually to benefit Hospice SLO, a local, volunteer grief counseling and non-profit association that has been providing compassionate care and helping those dealing with grief since 1977.
This year the Beerfest, and the Connoisseur Tasting event the night prior, took place at the world famous Madonna Inn. The Connoisseur Tasting event entitled “Arts and Drafts” was the jumping-off event for the VIP pass holders and was held in the Alex Madonna Expo Center. The attending craft breweries brought out their specially selected beers to pair with foods from various local restaurants, and special hand-rolled cigars offered by The Boss Cigars. Bill Sysak the Cicerone for Stone Brewing Co. and lovingly known in the inner circle as “Dr. Bill” was our Craft Beer Ambassador for the evening and he created all the pairings. It was poised to be quite a night.
Doug and I met up with Gareth and Amber, two other members of the #ShareSLO street team, and made our way into the evening’s event. The organizers had separated the room into several areas with seating, 3 separate table clusters of beer and food vendors together, and interspersed throughout the middle of the room they had displayed art. Off the side of the room was an outside area where The Boss was rolling cigars and the attendees were smoking them. We started making our way around the room – first we hit TapIt Brewing Company and got a chocolate truffle from the truffle people, then it was ON! We walked over to the Kreuzberg and Heretic Brewing Company table where they had paired the Heretic Evil Twin Blood red Ale and the Kreuzberg German Thuringian Wurst. From there I tried Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA, a reserve black IPA – the dark malts and spicy rye are blended in with the hops, then left unfiltered for a really unique and complex beer. Then Doug came over and told me I had to try Stone Brewing Co.’s 2013 Expresso Imperial Russian Stout, so of course I obliged. That was definitely interesting: it tasted much like a strong, ground up, roasted espresso bean covered in dark chocolate.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Dr. Bill and his lovely significant other Rem. We got to talking about his experience as a Cicerone and the talk he was going to give the following day. We also discussed how incredibly versatile craft beers are when it comes to food pairing and we touched on his personal cellar and beer collection. I mentioned the cigar pairing and he suggested I meet him outside and he would tell me the pairing I might enjoy best. I walked out into the courtyard and proudly proclaimed “This Girl needs a STOGIE!!” and before I knew it, I had a hand-rolled Maduro to go with my beer stuck firmly in my mouth. A most fascinating combination, but since I was done with my beer before the cigar I also got to pair it with a Central Coast Brewing Bourbon Creek Stout, a rich oatmeal stout aged in bourbon barrels. When I was done with that one I ran over to George at Central Coast Brewing and we decided The Fiend would pair nicely – and boy did it!!! Of all the pairings I did with that cigar, The Fiend was my favorite.
After finishing with my stogie I went back in and saw Dallas the chef and owner of the 10th St. Basque Cafe, a wonderful little family style Basque cafe up in San Miguel, making a giant pan of paella. I went with the suggested pairing and got a Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen, a hazy wheat ale with notes of spice and banana – it was a tasty pairing. Though my very favorite pairing of the night was The Bruery Loakal Red, an oak-aged red ale with floral notes from the hops, and light caramel from the malt, paired with the Novo Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. This one sent me to the moon and back. Everything was right with that pairing, I mean everything. It made my taste buds sing and do the happy dance.
The evening ended on a high note and we prepared to come back the following day for the Grand Tasting event.
We arrived the following morning and walked out to the meadow where they had set up the sea of beer vendor stands and the VIP tent near the bandstand for the early access event. We were sent to the front of the line because of our VIP wrist bracelets and it was a good thing too, because it was getting crowded, and we were directed to the VIP tent. Our passes included attending the talk and special tasting with Dr. Bill about craft beers. There we were: 10:30 in the morning drinking some really unique craft beers and eating tacos from Spikes. I started with the Highway 78 Scotch Ale which is a collaboration between 3 breweries – GreenFlash, Stone and Pizza Port Brewing company. This beer screams Scotch and is a malty ale made of 3 malts: crystal malts, chocolate malt, and English pale malt, all providing a rich body. The Scotch Ale yeast added to the distinctive complexity. I started the morning with it and ended the day with it. And it was my favorite of the day. We also got to taste Drakes 2012 Jolly Roger Barley Wine – full-bodied with light caramel and pie spices, and New Belgium’s Heavenly Feijoa Tripel with Feijoa (pineapple-guava) and hibiscus flower making it aromatic and floral. The Hangar 24 Local Fields Series Vinaceous is aged in oak and made with Wilson Creek Mourvedre grapes. It has a rich, almost red color and robust malty aromas. We ended the VIP tasting with the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale, a barley wine style ale that is a bold, intense beer that uses bittersweet malt and Pacific Northwest hops.
The rest of the event was a perfect way to get a lot of people to support a very worthy cause with commercially, widely available beers, and a few gems for the craft beer lover mixed in. Those commercially available, easily consumed in large quantities beers, by young people add to the ambiance of the meadow and the people watching. However my suggestion for the best way to enjoy this event is through the VIP Pass. It gives you access to the Connoisseur Tasting which is worth it and the Grand Tasting VIP area which is a respite from a doozy of a day.
Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.