3 beer festivals in 4 weeks is definitely the right way to close out the summer/festival season with the pedal to the metal. Thankfully, after having driven some longer distances for the last two festivals (3 hours each), this festival was only 40 minutes away. Also unlike the prior two festivals, this festival is not in its first year. The Brew Ha Ha celebrated its 12th year in 2011 so one would think they’ve nearly got this down to a science. While they did think of plenty of the essentials, they also had a few examples which show that even an experienced festival can have a few hiccups.
When the wife and I first arrived, I was a bit concerned that there was going to be another problem with lines. we arrived roughly 30 minutes early and the line was already looming large.
However, since the line hadn’t even started moving yet, I was slow to pass judgement. To Brew Ha Ha’s credit, to speed things up they had a staff member going up and down the lines with helpful tips “Right line is for ticket holders. Left is to purchase,” “Cash only,” etc, etc. In fact, some staff members even started going down the lines person by person to check their IDs ahead of when the festival opened. While that alternative does potentially allow for some mistakes/missed people, as a fest-goer I really appreciated them seeing a problem, addressing it, and then helping remedy it. Once the fest opened and the line began moving, there was hardly any wait at all. I believe I all but walked right in.
Before entering, we were given a tasting glass made out of real glass (even for general admission tickets) and a big ol’ program about the festival. This program had also been an insert into a local paper several weeks prior and also served as its informational guide. Having this big thing (size of a thin magazine) to try and cram into pockets, fold over to take notes on, find the right festival, etc. really made me appreciate the smaller pocket-sized tasting books that most festivals have. They’re infinitely easier to carry and use.
I have seldom been so pleased as when I walk into a beer festival and find a huge tent handing out limitless samples of cheese! This may be the Wisconsinite in me, but that was a nice touch. Cabot’s showed up and they brought a ton of really good cheeses. White cheddar, yellow cheddar, cheddar with horseradish in it (YUM!), habanero cheddar, and so on. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure all they were serving was different varieties of cheddar – not that it’s a bad thing. They were varying degrees of sharpness and I’m pretty sure those ladies were sticking toothpicks into cheese as fast as people were taking them. That’s a lot of hard thankless work, but I’m glad they were there.
The Grounds: The grounds of this festival were gorgeous! It was held in Davenport, Iowa’s LeClaire Park. This is right next to their historic downtown area and it on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The area often hosts a summer concert for the local symphony and is immediately adjacent to the local minor league ball park. Obviously, since this is a park it was almost entirely grass; good for keeping temperatures lower, feet comfier, and providing impromptu seating. The tents were only big enough for the brewers’ tables and not the patrons. Luckily, this was not an issue on a cool, breezy, fall day.
The Facilities: The amount of porta potties that were there seemed ludicrous at first, but then became very useful as the festival went on. There were also two hand washing stations (which eventually ran out of water). Despite their generous number I did hear several fest-goers complaining that they were only located at one end of the festival. I was just happy that there were no lines. They also get extra brownie points for having one that was handicap accessible.
I know I mentioned the cheese tent, but it bears another mention. The horseradish cheddar was so creamy and just the right amount of kick! Good stuff! The habañero cheddar, however, had a heat that lingered a long time and it took 2-3 IPAs before it left my mouth.
The festival had a rinsing station that never ran out of water as long as I was using it. My only gripe was that it was in a single centralized location instead of several locations by the tasting tents. In order to rinse, you had to completely leave the tents, go to the table, and then re-enter the lines. Several rinsing stations closer to the tents would have been nicer, but I’m still more pleased that they had a rinsing station at all and that it didn’t run out of water.
The seating was ample and in several locations. Not only did the park have a few benches along the waterfront, but there were many rows of chairs in front of the stage. And if you weren’t in the mood for rock ‘n roll in your ears while you relaxed, there were tents toward the entrance, away from the stage, with chairs and table and copious “No Smoking” signs.
The Food: No, the cheese table will not be mentioned again. I didn’t get too good a visit to the food tent area since the festival was so short (1:00-5:00). I know that Old Chicago was there selling mini-pizzas, a local hispanic restaurant, and one other. Nothing really to write home about, but at least people had something to put in their stomachs.
Miscellaneous: There were so many cool features about this fest I don’t know where to begin. OK, I do. They were making pretzel necklaces there for you free of charge. That won huge points in my book.
They also had a cigar tent. This isn’t that uncommon to find, but in a unique touch they were also offering some hookah tobacco as well. It’s definitely adds something to the festival and brought quite a bit of attention to their tent. I bought and smoked a Cohiba wannabe (at least by looking at the cigar band) called Cusano Cuban CC. Now it was definitely not a Cuban cigar, but it came to a pleasant tip and was easy to hold in the mouth during the festival. It was an average cigar, but for the price ($5) I could easily be swayed into buying another one.
Yet another cool feature they had was a designated driver tent. They had free snacks and drinks for the DD’s as well as periodic door prizes, grab bags, stickers, and other swag. Very cool to be nice to our DD’s.
At one other table the local casino, Rhythm City, (within throwing distance) was giving away free decks of cards, some pretty nice key chains, and “match play” coupons (you buy $25 worth of chips, they thrown in another $10, or something like that). They didn’t have to do that, but everybody likes SWAG, right?
The band playing, Wicked Liz and the Bellyswirls, has been a local staple for sometime now and they didn’t disappoint. The tunes were good, the volume not crazy, and in between their sets a local comedy troupe, Blacklist Improv, provided some good entertainment for those waiting in the beer lines. No, I do not know what a “Bellyswirl” is.
The last thing they had that I thought was pretty inventive were games. Lots of places have bags, horseshoes, ladder golf, etc. This one had some games like Growler Hold. In divisions for both men & women, you were made to hold out in front of you at arms’ length, two growlers filled with water; one in each hand. You had to see how long you could hold it and eventually a final playoff was held on the music stage for the top two contestants. They had no less than 4 other games (one of which was putt putt golf), they were all free, but unfortunately not much attention was paid to them. Perhaps if they had been closer to the beer tents they could have been more successful, but I definitely understand the liability implications as well.
The Beer: One of the best features about this fest is that there were NO drink tickets. Illinois has to have tickets by law, but Iowa and Wisconsin see no need for such silliness and I liked it. Not only does it give you the mind set of an open bar and “unlimited drinks,” but I didn’t have to worry about losing tickets or having them ready. Plus, it’s just one less thing to have in your pockets when pocket space is at a premium. In no particular order, here are some of the craft beers I drank and their 2-second synopses. Aromas were hard to get with the strong breeze, but I did my best.
1. Abita – Jockamo IPA: Flavors of earthy malt, citrus hops with a light resin and grassy notes. Solid brew.
2. Augustiner-Braü Wagner – Edelstoff: A good German aroma of skunk and citrus. This beer had an insanely high clarity and was ridiculously light in color. I don’t think I’ve ever used those numbers on the SRM scale before. This was a classic German beer flavor with light skunkiness and a slightly bitter finish.
3. Bent River – Jalepeño Pepper Ale: This is the pepper ale against which I measure all other pepper ales. It’s not just a little smokey note here and a slight spice there. There are actual damn peppers used in this! You can taste pepper’s flesh and grainy malt before being gradually introduced to the heat from this bad boy. It’s not an overwhelming heat, but I wouldn’t want it to go down the wrong way either. A nice hop bitter tries to clean up the finish and aftertaste, but the light heat does linger a bit. A definite sipper.
4. Bent River – Amber Ale: Hadn’t had this offering of theirs before and was definitely excited to try it. I was immediately glad I did because this is one heck of an amber ale! My notes read, “A hearty offering. Aroma: Rich, non-sweet malts. Flavor: Tons of earthy grainy malt. Light roast and great balance.” Now doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to try?
5. Backpocket Brewing – Slingshot Dunkel: This is a new brewery that broke ground last week in Coralville, IA. Some locals may know that it was born out of its prior home at Old Man River Brewing Co. in McGregor, IA. In any case, they’ve got a great look, they adhere to Reinheitsgebot, and made some beers that impressed me.
This beer’s aroma was light (again I fear the breeze was at play) and the flavor was musty, roasted, and with a faint smoke note. Light bodied and tasty!
6. Backpocket – Jackknife GPA (German Pale Ale): Poured from one of their growlers. An aroma of unusually sweet malts comprised of brown sugar and vanilla. This beer had a thick body (due to the sugary malts), tasted of roasted German malts, little to no citrus from the hops, but had a nice lingering, moderately strong bitter. I’ll look for this one again.
7. Brau Brothers – Moo Joos: Not a very dark offering for an oatmeal stout. Suitable for newcomers to the style. Plenty of good malt flavor, but the oatmeal didn’t seem to lend its normal creamy calling card.
Brau Brothers is another small brewery that I really appreciate after I was given a bottle of the Ring-Necked Brown as a gift. They’re based in the small town of Lucan,Minnesota which has a population of 220. Not kidding. The brown was a phenomenal brew, that left a lot to live up to.
8. Brau Brothers – Bancreagie Peated Scotch Ale: Aroma of sour peat, a great roast, and scotch smokiness. The flavor followed up with a sweet malt, sour peat, more of the smoke notes, with a peat-based finish and a very lite bitter.
9. Chameleon Brewing – Fire Light: No, not a light beer, though I could see that as a potential marketing SNAFU down the road. Aroma: Part golden ale, part crisp & clean. The flavor was remarkably true to the aroma by tasting like a golden ale, but with sharper malts and less bold flavors. Very refreshing and sating with a clean, crisp finish. Wow! Light, but powerful.
10. Hub City Brewery – Brown Ale: Hard to smell. Flavor was of a sweet malt, lightly roasted. This was very quenching, with light smoke in the finish and a muted bitter aftertaste. Very good brown ale!
11. Irish Dog Bloody Mary – Irish Dog Bloody Beer: Sure it’s not a true “craft beer,” but this bloody beer or red beer really hit the spot. Besides even if it’s not craft beer, it’s certainly fits the “craft” part of the bill. I’ve written about them before, but these folks used to make this stuff in their kitchen and it has taken off locally. They’re enjoying a bit of success right now and it is well deserved. The mix is a damn tasty bloody mary mix that they were pouring into Budweiser (not lite). I probably ended up visiting them about 4-5 times. Like I said… tasty.
12. Great River Brewery – 483 Pale Ale: Aroma: Lightly sweet and grassy. Flavor: Resins, grapefruit, and a very nice bitter. This brewer is literally less than one mile from the festival site. I can’t wait to pick this one up and give it a full review.
13. Millstream Brewery – Iowa Pale Ale: A grainy malt base with light caramel notes. Light and bright with crisp, piney hops. There’s a great balance here with moderate bitter. Simple and true to style.
Millstream is located in Amana, IA home to the Amana Colonies, a German settlement dating back to the 1850’s. Note: Germans know how to make good beer! Ever been to a little place call ‘Wisconsin’?
14. Millstream Brewery – Oktoberfest: Aroma isn’t huge, but the flavor is full of earthy malt, light roast, and a slight malty bite. This is a very good, stripped down version of the style. Great finish with a light bitter.
15. Millstream Brewery – Back Road Stout: I personally thought this was the most impressive of their offerings. Smooth, heavy, full of oatmeal, and dark roast. No gimmicks here. This is just a simple, damn good stout that strips away a lot of the “extras” that brewers try to throw in the mix. Excellent.
16. Tommy Knocker – Maple Nut Brown Ale: Maple syrup in both the aroma and flavor, though it is slight in each, like an afterthought. It is subtle and nice. Very drinkable.
1. This is not so much a suggestion as a non-negotiable. Do NOT run out of beer at a BEER FESTIVAL. I know that the festival is not to be faulted for the lack of preparation of its participants. That said, can there be some sort of minimum requirement of volume to bring? Sure I guess some brewers/distributors running out of beer early can force folks to try some things they might not normally, but if you were a brewer, would you want to be turning folks away and cleaning up your booth when everybody else is still going? Hell no! That’s money in the bank!
2. Program book – Next year, please don’t make fest-goers, tasters lug around this folded up newspaper insert in their pocket the whole time. If we could just get a pocket-sized book for taking notes, that would be swell. They’re easier to carry, easier to write in, and provide empty lines for taking notes. Plus, you can still make money and sell advertising in them. Piece of cake, right?
3. Disperse the rinsing station(s). Nuf said.
4. Bathrooms at more than one spot. Like I said, I couldn’t really complain about the porta potties, but I did hear other fest-goers expressing their wishes to have them in more than one area. Maybe more washing stations, since we did run out of water.
Overall, this was a well-put together festival that offered a lot of niceties for free that other festivals don’t even have at all. It was a great fall day full of friendly faces, small up-and-coming microbreweries, tasty beer, and one very entertaining man that was clearly once a ball-game beer vendor. Good work WQPT! I’ll see you next year!
Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!