Damn, I like beer! Of beer festivals, beer wenches, and beer farts.

Server at Houston Beer Fest '11As I’ve written before, I am not a wine snob, but I am definitely a beer snob. That being the case, one of my favorite alcohol-related events in Houston is the Brenner’s Beer Festival. Seriously, Brenner’s on the Bayou is a beautiful location, it’s in the Fall so the weather is typically bearable, if not outright spectacular, and there are pretty, young women dressed like beer wenches pouring as much delicious craft beer as any hophead’s sodden heart could desire.  It would take a very concerted effort to screw something like that up, wouldn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, this event was still strong, and I highly recommend it to every beer lover in the area, but it almost seems as if someone is making such an effort.

This is not a rant about the festival, think of it more as part love letter and part cautionary tale.  There is a lot that goes into putting on an event like this one. Decisions have to be made, compromises at times as well. Kind of like beer drinking. Sometimes you might want a delicious Belgian-style ale or a German pilsner, but you’re in a sports bar and like a beacon of hope awash in a sea of mediocrity you see a Shiner Bock handle sticking out of the mass-produced garbage draft pulls. Sure, this isn’t exactly what you were craving, but damn doesn’t it taste delicious? Hell yeah, it does. And you didn’t have to drink something awful like Coors, Budweiser or Pabst.

beer and a pretzel
Don't judge a beer by the ribbon on the glass

Speaking of Pabst Blue Ribbon, drinking it doesn’t make you look like a hipster. It makes you look like a cheese-eating High School boy who just raided his low-rent uncle’s beer fridge. How hip is that? That stuff is the color beer should be when it comes out of the body, not when it is poured in. That’s disgusting, not hip. The following anecdote is also fairly disgusting, so the easily squicked might want to skip the next paragraph or two. Hopefully I will get back on topic by then. Hey, it could happen.

One evening in the early 1980’s I was drinking with my friend Ronnie, and I have absolutely no recollection how or why, but we got on a PBR binge. Whether we liberated it from someone’s unguarded refrigerator, or it was the special at a bar, or if it was just some twisted idea that cracked us up at the time doesn’t really matter, this was about the effects, both desired and otherwise. The Pabst had the desired effect for 2 young men barely out of their teens who wanted to get seriously twisted. The next morning we discovered other effects.

I also don’t remember what I had promised to help Ron with the next day, but I do recall with the utmost clarity the ride back from whatever it was. We were both hungover so badly that if we had been alone we would have been wallowing in misery, but being young, male and possibly even a bit meaner than most, we had a blast laughing at the others misery. Even better was laughing for causing misery in the other.

Gas mask for farts. Did that come out of you?

Beer farts. Those two words strike fear into the heart of every seasoned drinker. They can be so pernicious and foul that they have the ability to even chase the originator (and probably a pack of feral dogs too) from the room. Our mothers hadn’t raised us this way, it is probably some mental defect or character flaw we were born with, so please don’t judge them for the heinous admission I am about to make. Ronnie and I were assaulting each other with noxious fumes of the SBD variety. If memory serves, our entire conversation consisted of, “Oh my God, did you shit yourself?” followed by extremely creative cursing as the current skunk ass denied all knowledge of the emission. We both had tears streaming down our faces from laughing at the other’s gagging and retching as we turned the corner into our neighborhood. This is when Ronnie went nuclear. Try to imagine the worst things you’ve ever smelled; a huge carp rotting in the sun, that homeless guy that sat next to you on a crowded and overheated bus, durian fruit, and you are only scratching the surface of how overpowering and excruciatingly malignant was the thing that escaped my friend’s bowels.

I frantically begged him to pull over so I could get out of the fetid confines of his malodorous van. My head was hanging out of the window into the freezing air, yet I couldn’t escape the fumes. The air was so thick it could have been chewed, a thought that I wish had never occurred to me. We were turning the corner onto his street, so I judged the van to have slowed enough to bail. As I yanked the handle and jumped to freedom and fresh air, I could hear Ronnie cackle satanically, “Power, we’re only half a block from my house, you’ll live!” As I sat on the frozen concrete street assessing the damage it had done to my body, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had done the right thing.

Ask me to name the two worst beers on the face of the planet and without a moment’s hesitation I will name Miller Lite for how it tastes and Pabst Blue Ribbon for what it does, then as an afterthought I’ll probably throw in Lone Star too. All three taste completely nasty, but PBR has that extra je ne sais quoi that puts it in a category all by itself, possibly because I’ve never been able to drink enough Lite or Lone Star to see if they do a body good, or not.

Beer servers
Oh snap! Did you just rip on the event sponsors?

It has taken me twice as long as estimated to get back on topic, but probably half as long as some people (I’m looking at you, Charles!) suspected it would. So, what does PBR have to do with a festival that we raved about last year for having such fantastic beer ranging from Stone to our own beloved Saint Arnold’s? Good question! Other than being the apparent sponsor of this year’s event, I can’t think of any logical connection at all. But there they were as soon as we walked in. A very nice young lady smilingly offered us a glass emblazoned with the highly recognizable eponymous ribbon logo, and also filled with the stuff. Amy politely accepted hers while I tried to get in the zip code of polite as I asked if I could have an empty glass. The young woman’s smile slipped, to her credit almost imperceptibly, and it turns out that I could.

Amy took a sip, her eyes widened and as soon as we turned the corner she spit and dumped the glass. I didn’t marry no dummy! Luckily around that very same corner was No Label Brewing Company’s tent where Amy could cleanse her palate and I could try some delicious brews that I had been hearing a lot about lately. No Label is a local Brewery located just west of Houston in Katy, TX. that produces some outstanding beers. Amy washed her mouth out with a glass of El Hefe, their Hefeweizen while I enjoyed a truly delicious amber ale they dub Ridgeback, named after the breed of dog preferred by the brewer, as well as the one on deck to replace our old smelly wreck of a mutt here at Casa de Wineaux.

Real Ale
Did I mention that I like beer?

Next up was Real Ale Brewing Company. Unless you are from Texas, they are probably unfamiliar to you, and that’s a damn shame. Located in the Hill Country, they produce some excellent beers, including the delicious Firemans #4, which I’ve had before, and Full Moon Pale Rye Ale, which I had never tasted. It was incredible with the lamb sliders being served next to it.

Between the two were a couple of tents that we skipped. One was Shiner, and the only reason we passed them by was that we have tried, and loved their offerings many, many times and prudence dictated that we couldn’t try everything. The other booth featured Pabst, Lone Star and Schlitz, thereby utilizing space that could have featured beer. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to skip any more booths.

North Coast Brewing's PranQster Belgian Style Golden Ale
My favorite

We wandered around the unbelievably beautiful area that is Brenner’s on the Bayou‘s backyard, sampling a lot of very good beer…some better than others, but all quite tasty. There were some standouts, but for my money the best of the bunch was easily PranQster,  a Belgian Style Golden Ale from North Coast Brewing Company, located on the Mendocino Coast in California.

* AWB would like to apologize for the interruption in this attempt at a narrative. We have determined that the author suddenly realized he had a few bottles of PranQster and bolted away from his computer to go pour a glass. We were going to have him taken out back, shot, and fed to the pigs, but he offered to share his beer (and finish this post somehow) so we’ve merely pumped him full of his ADD meds and duct taped him to his chair until he manages to find his way out of this rambling, semi-coherent, long-winded tale. Thank you for your continued patience. *

Brother Thelonious
Was the Monk AWOL?

PranQster is an exceptional beer, with it’s orange-ish slightly hazy color, it has a great balance of tartness, spiciness, hints of apples and pears with some floral notes. The finish is crisp, dry and very clean. I think that a lot of beers are refreshing, but there are few that I consider truly thirst quenching (which could explain why I rarely quit after one beer), but this ale really does the job. This is a very complex beer, but goes down easily. We sampled each of North Coasts offerings and they were all excellent, but we were disappointed that they only had signs for their Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, but none to taste. That seemed strange, but we may have found out why a little bit later.

There was so much good beer and interesting food that it can be hard to balance your desire to taste everything with the need to remain upright and reasonably coherent, but we did our best. We had Sam Adam’s Cherry Wheat with Guiness Ice Cream Pops, an amazing pairing,  and soon after that it became a blurry orgy of hoppy, malty, foamy goodness punctuated by the occasional restroom break. Eventually we reached the very last booth, our beloved local brewery: Saint Arnold’s.

Guiness ice cream pops
Guiness ice cream pops. A whole lot of awesome served on a stick!

Amy likes to tell the story about how she and her best friend had the opportunity to invest in Saint Arnold’s when they were first about to launch. The founder was a classmate of the best friend, but they thought the idea and the name of the brewery were silly and have regretted passing up the opportunity ever since. We noticed that they only had their stock offerings, nothing to turn your nose up to, but were surprised that they didn’t have anything new or special to taste. We half-jokingly inquired as to whether they had any Divine Reserve hiding under the table, only to be told that it was all being served inside to the V.I.P.’s. Ah, perhaps that is also where the heavily advertised yet surprisingly absent Brother Thelonious was also to be found?

Alas, we’ll probably never know due to the fact that we were not invited to cover that part of the beer festival. I’m sure there was nothing there that any of the brewers would have liked to have had anyone write about. We would have asked them to be sure, except that most of them were inside the V.I.P. area as well leaving us to talk to distributors or folks hired for the event who couldn’t answer any of our questions.

It always amuses me that when the Winemakers of Santorini want us to taste and possibly write about their wines they send plane tickets before wining and dining us for a week as we get educated about them, their juice, their spectacular island, their food, etc. The same goes for French winemakers in Languedoc who wanted us to taste their fantastic  organic offerings at Millésime Bio,  or countless California winemakers who have been so incredibly hospitable over the years, or Harrah’s in New Orleans. Yet promoters of so many local events treat bloggers as if they are slightly useful mooches, little more than hangers-on.

This isn’t limited to us, or to event promoters here in Houston. We have blogger friends who tell us that they experience the same thing wherever they live, sometimes even in places that have treated us wonderfully because we were from somewhere else. I guess that perception is that the local guys have so much less to offer than the Pros from Dover. The problem for the promoters who think this way is that they think that they are settling for some local schmuck because they can’t afford the plane ticket from Dover, not realizing that their local schmucks just happen to be considered the pros somewhere else.

Some also don’t seem to realize that when they ask us to cover an event, they aren’t doing us a huge favor. Yes, there is a somewhat symbiotic relationship between them and us, we need something to write about and they have something they want written about. Even when we request credentials to an event, it isn’t us asking them to give us something for free. Seriously, we could pay full price, even cover a V.I.P. portion of an event if we chose, but we’re already giving of our time to attend (some of us even forgoing watching our favorite college team’s football game to do so), take notes and photos, we then spent hours writing, money on hosting our site, not to mention some combination of effort and cash to develop and promote it so that what we write actually gets read. But why should we? And by “we,” I mean all of us who write about our given subjects. If I want to write about beer I can walk into the store, lay out $10 bucks or so, and have myself one hell of a time researching my next post. There is a 6 pack of Brother Thelonious downstairs from where I am typing this that can testify to that. But only because I happen to love both that style of beer and Monk, meaning that I was both curious enough and able to remember that I saw  an offering I wanted to taste but didn’t.

I don’t mean to pick on the promoters of any particular event, especially not this event, which as detailed above is excellent, the PBR and Schlitz were low hanging fruit that I couldn’t resist, and having a V.I.P. area at a beer event is not a mortal sin. It is kind of silly, though. These things were just the jumping off point for this little rant that is the culmination of being treated amazingly well by so many, and then treated like a beggar by a few.

While the beer folks most assuredly did not treat us like beggars, I do wonder how the beer makers that came to town to promote their wares felt about only pouring their best beers for the “special” folks. Beer is a pretty “common” item, in the most literal sense of the word. The price difference between truly excellent beer and the worst mass-produced swill is almost negligible. I drank beer when I was poor, and I continue to do so now that dumb luck has made me a lot better off than I imagined I ever would be. Chances are that the waiter who might bring a chalice of Chimay to Bill Gates or Mark Cuban can easily afford to go home and pour himself the very same magical elixir. I would bet that the people who make all the fine beers featured at beer festivals would want that waiter to taste their best offerings the same as Bill or Mark (if they do actually drink, I pulled their names out of the same place that Ronnie pulled his long ago nuclear trump card). They probably  would also like to have their best stuff written about, and maybe even have a chance to promote it to the media while they are at it.

If democratic ideals were to prevail and the rabble were allowed to drink from the golden cup, the people who pay for V.I.P. tickets would probably do so anyway. Swag bags, elbow room, shorter lines, big tricked out laminates, mugs with Saint Arnold emblazoned on them instead of being identified as part of the unwashed masses by carrying a water glass with a blue ribbon on it, possibly more food choices or a speaker or two will keep those important people paying extra. There is no need to punish both the general public and the guys who take the time to fly in from California, Colorado or even drive over from Austin or Katy to promote the fruits of their labor. After all, without the beer makers and the people who drink the beer you’re left with a bunch of distributors and promoters standing around with empty glasses and tricked-out laminates. How much fun would that be?

And for those people who think that their local writers aren’t as cool as the people they fly in, I fully support your right to think that way. Feel free to not invite me and fly someone in. Hopefully the attitude will spread. I really don’t mind being flown to California, Washington or Colorado. I’ll bet the folks who live there won’t mind one bit taking time off of their regular jobs and flying in to Houston next August to cover some outdoor event. Right guys?

I got a little off-track a few times, but I hope that I did convey the fact that this is one of the best events of its kind I have attended. The location is perfect, the food is delicious and well-considered, and there is plenty of delicious beer of all sorts to be sampled. I highly recommend making plans to attend next year. Here are a few more photos from this year’s event:

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