After returning from my weekend beer sojourn to Phoenix, I struggled to come up with some sort of follow-up post. Some sort of review involving a slew of beers that cannot be acquired in New Mexico seemed pointless, so I almost let the memories of the Arizona Strong Beer Festival fade away. Then it occurred to me, as I described the fest to friends, that there were quite a few lessons about proper festival preparation/execution that I could provide.
Last summer, New Mexico (specifically ABQ) was overwhelmed with festivals. Most of them were, sadly, not up to snuff. We ran a story about festival fatigue and asked for lots of suggestions about how to improve things, and lo and behold we got quite a few. Our neighbors in Arizona have been running the Strong Beer Festival for quite a while now. After talking to the folks behind the booths, I learned that the organizers are still making improvements every year. Here are a few ways that they did a festival right, that hopefully our organizers here, be they the Brewers Guild or other groups, should take notice of and implement for this coming festival season.
1. Getting in quickly and efficiently
When I arrived at Indian School Park in Phoenix, walking over from my hotel, I found myself in a sizable line. A very, very sizable line. When the 1 p.m. general admission time rolled around, however, we moved quickly. In less than 15 minutes, I went from about 1,000 feet away from the entrance to getting my wristband, souvenir cup, and drink tickets. The key was the entrance itself, which had not one entry but a half dozen. It was similar to what we saw at the Mountain West Brew Fest, and while I understand it’s not easy to replicate for some indoor sites (looking at you, Isleta Casino), having multiple entry points makes it so much smoother and easier. Props to the volunteers and security, too, all of whom clearly knew what they were doing.
2. Space, glorious space!
According to the brewers I talked to, last year’s Strong Beer Festival quickly got overcrowded, so this year they expanded even further into the park. Even with thousands of beer lovers present, there was plenty of room to maneuver. Even for the most popular tents (Dogfish Head, Arizona Wilderness, Fate, Mother Road, Dragoon, etc.), the lines never seemed to stretch more than 20-25 people long. There were so many breweries (around 80) that folks never bunched up too much in one area. To best describe the layout, think of three circles piled up from south to north. Each circle had around 25 breweries lining it. You could effectively complete one circle and then move along to the next. It was spread out, but not too spread out. You never felt like it was a hike from one side to the other, as rectangular-shaped events can often create. The layout was brilliant, though again, it might not be something folks could replicate in New Mexico.
3. Hydration stations
The greatest challenge of any outdoor festival is outside the control of the organizers — the weather. This was definitely the hottest SBF, folks told me, with the sun beating down, minimal breeze, and a “game time” temperature of about 85. Throughout the fest were these hydration stations, provided by the biggest local breweries (Four Peaks and SanTan). Other festivals have put out these points to get water to drink (or at least wash out your sample glass), but the nicest thing about these were the fact they included a lot of shade. Shade was a precious, precious thing for all of us (even with the SPF 50, I knew that I could only keep my Irish-Scottish-Polish self out in direct sunlight for so long). There was also this awesome truck trailer that was shooting out these cool jets of air. Lord knows we all stopped by that one a dozen times and stood there for minutes at a time.
4. Beer variety
The number one suggestion from last year’s story about festivals was for breweries to do their best to bring some new and interesting creations. This festival, in particular, was really good about breweries providing beers outside their core menus. As the name of the fest might imply, the majority were 8-percent ABV and up. There were some truly unique and awesome beers, including some classics brought out of the cellar (Mother Road had their epic 3rd Anniversary Russian Imperial Stout, for instance). I know, it can be hard for breweries to always bring new stuff, especially if that stuff is expensive to make and they don’t want to give it away for free. Which leads to …
5. Non-summer festivals rock
The summer is the hardest time of year for breweries. Beer consumption spikes, both for on-premises purchases and package. For the biggest breweries, such as Marble and Santa Fe up here, that means the most popular styles must be brewed as often as possible. Breweries are at their limits when it comes to available fermenter/bright tank space, so to set aside tanks for a unique, specialty offering that you’re gonna give part of away for free just doesn’t make great business sense. The best time of year for beer festivals, then, is not those peak months of production. This festival featured some tremendous variety of styles, in part because we are nearing the end of stout/barleywine/porter season, with the debut of the spring beer season. It made for a wonderful combination of great beer (the darker stuff had aged nicely, the stuff that tastes best fresh was fresh). New Mexico weather is probably too unpredictable for an outdoor fest in February, but it might make more sense for a non-peak season indoor festival around here. It would benefit the breweries and the beer drinkers.
There were other little touches that worked, too, but those were the biggest ones. Oh, and since I’m sure some might be curious, these were the best beers I tried. Most are only available in the breweries in Arizona, but overall, I would recommend those breweries for a visit the next time you’re visiting.
- The Cuatro, Dragoon Brewing (Tucson), an imperial stout
- Morning Sex, The Beer Research Institute (Mesa), a coffee stout
- Dark Side Till I Die, The Beer Research Institute, a barrel-aged imperial stout
- Pecan Pie Stout, Dark Sky Brewing (Flagstaff)
- Texas Tea Double Chocolate Imperial Stout, Scottsdale Beer Co.
- Quadzilla Belgian Strong, Scottsdale Beer Co.
- Sweet Thang, Freak’N Brew (Peoria), a milk stout
- Raven Maniac Stout, Prescott Brewing
From non-Arizona breweries, the best of the bunch:
- Critical Hit, Ninkasi Brewing (Eugene, Ore.), a barleywine
- Java Cask, Victory Brewing (Downington, Pa.), an imperial coffee stout
- The Calling, Boulevard Brewing (Kansas City, Mo.), an IPA
- Baltic Porter, Smuttynose Brewing (Portsmouth, N.H.)
All in all, I highly, HIGHLY recommend this festival for 2017. Put it on your beer bucket list and head on down to Phoenix. Book early if you want VIP tickets, those were sold out almost instantly. And make sure to book a hotel room within walking distance if you don’t have a friend to stay with (and don’t have someone to drive you to and from the fest).
Until the next festival beckons …