Holiday Ale Fest, Full Monty Edition

For the first time in three years, I can say that I enjoyed the experience of the Holiday Ale Fest. Admittedly, it's because I showed up at 10:50 am on Saturday and left by three-thirty, four. But not everything can be chalked up to the early hour. The last few years I showed up early, and the crowds did, too. It was better this year.

Credit the organizers for recognizing that the HAF had just gotten too popular. In past years, it has been shockingly over-crowded and noisy. Pity the party that got separated in the crowd--they're probably still looking for each other. So this year they added days and some space. These changes probably didn't affect the noise and crowds at peak times, but they did create some times when serious beer fans could sample the offerings in relative calm and solitude. Will it last? Hard to say--nature and beer fests hate a vacuum, so we'll have to check back in '09. I suspect that the new area won't remain as undiscovered as it was on Saturday afternoon. But credit where credit is due: my experience this year was almost as pleasant as the beers.

The Attic
I know others have commented on the new area in the fest, but I have to add my two cents. Historically, the HAF lived under a big-top in the lower part of Pioneer Courthouse Square. This year, they added a tent on the upper level up by the statue of the umbrella man (I will henceforth attempt to propogate my nicname by calling this "the attic"). However, rather than run a single set of stairs up to this section, organizers tried to leave an access route between it and the tent, apparently for peds outside the fest. To get people over this easement, they built a set of stairs up, a hamster-like habitrail across, another set of stairs down a ways, another habitrail, and finally, a few more steps up to this tent. Perhaps it was an on-site drunk-o-meter, but it also seemed like a massive lawsuit waiting to happen.

On the other hand, it was a great place to camp out. The main tent features about ten little tables to stand around. These are seized and guarded like the fields in WWI, where inhabitants fend off sorties of the table-less hordes. Eventually, the tables get swamped by the crowd, and in any case, they're smack dab in the loudest part of the tent. The attic had a fair number of tables with chairs, and for most of our time there, had available seating. It was relatively quiet (you could at least carry on a conversation), too. Big improvement.

The Beers
I didn't try anywhere near a reasonable number of the beers available, so this is far from comprehensive. Of the modest number I did try, most were at least good, and a few were fantastic. The big winners were:
  • Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux. My fave of the fest was Dupont's holiday beer, a robust farmhouse ale that has the sweetness of a biere de garde mixed with the hop character and crispness of a saison. It was a perfectly balanced, perfectly luscious big beer.
  • Hair of the Dog Jim. A guy sat down at our table with a pour of Jim, and he just kept shaking his head. Not an experienced beer guy, he couldn't quite make the connection between the liquid in his mug and his conception of "beer." I'm sure he wasn't alone. It is one of the most intense beers I've tasted--regular winter beer condensed down. The flavors form a cacophany of notes, and they come at you like fragments of conversation in a noisy room. It will change month by month, but in this state the bourbon was forward, along with a spicy mid-note. In comments below, Doc Wort called it "sappy," which is exactly right.
  • Widmer Babushka Black Raspberry Stout. I wish this stout were available year-round, just as an example of how to use fruit. In Babushka, the black raspberries offer a flavor note without any sweetness. The beer is muscular and masculine, sporting bitter notes of coffee, leather, and tobacco, maybe even a little cannibis. I was reminded of a Stumptown coffee I've had, Lake Tawar Sumatra. To this, the fruit draws out some of the flavor notes that one perceives as fruity, but adds almost none of the sugar. Fruit doesn't have to overwhelm or make a beer treacly sweet. This is proof.
Other good ones:
  • Allagash Curieux. A lush, complex tripel aged in Jim Beam barrels. The whiskey note is a subtle one.
  • Cascade "Sang Noir." Only sour fans need apply. Whiskey and fruit notes also subdued, and are bent to the dominance of the sourness.
  • Golden Valley Oaken Bomb. Rich and tasty, and not nearly as sweet as last year's iteration. Nice hopping. I would love to try this after it aged another year.
  • Yakima Twin Stag Scottish. I know nothing about this brewery, but I like the introduction. This was a very big Scottish ale, reminding me almost of a doppelbock. Accomplished.
  • Lauganitas White Pepper Stout. Not at all pleasant. Weedy.
  • Stone Vanilla Smoked Porter. Root beer.
Swigs from friends (ie, too little tasting to really know, snap reactions only)
  • North Coast Old Stock. Stanky. Funky. Old Sock.
  • Pyramid Snow Cap('n & Tennille). Terribly embarrassing name. Somewhat sweet but superficial riff on their impressive regular Snow Cap. So perhaps aptly named.
  • Full Sail Dry Hopped Wassail. The dry-hopping seemed more understated than I would have liked, but it was still a fine beer.
  • BridgePort Raven Mad. A friend grabbed this late in our stay, and I'll admit that it didn't wow me. I don't blame the beer but my palate. It's a problem with beer fests--after a few beers, your tongue can lie to you. A word to the wise when you read reviews like this one.
I had a great time--hope you did, too.