While many of you were likely enjoying the offerings of our great Washington breweries at the Winter Beer Fest in Seattle, I took a long weekend trip down to Portland this past weekend to check out the Holiday Ale Festival for the first time, as well as to explore some new (to me) places and visit some old favorites. It was a pretty fantastic weekend, as trips to Portland usually are.
The focus of our trip was definitely to hit the popular Holiday Ale Festival (HAF) for the first time ever. Since the WA Winter Beer Fest (WBF) is typically the same weekend as the Portland fest, I’ve never previously made it down. I’ve heard from many people that this beer geek’s festival is one of their favorites, so I figured it was time. The HAF is conveniently located in downtown Portland at the Pioneer Courthouse Square, and I have to say I loved the setup of huge, heated event tents with clear tops. It’s a great setting for a winter beer festival, giving you the best of being “outside” while keeping you warm and covered from the elements (there were none this weekend though!). But, how practical is it for large crowds?
Since we were on vacation and not stuck working like many people in PDX, we were free to attend the fest at less busy times on both Thursday and Friday early in the afternoon. On Thursday, the crowds were minimal and pleasant and caused no headaches. On Friday, at just 2pm, it was already starting to get pretty crowded and it was evident that we wanted to be nowhere near this place during the prime times on Friday and Saturday night. A couple of our friends went to the fest on Saturday mid-afternoon and were fairly horrified with what they experienced in terms of crowds and trying to get to beer stands (especially the “upstairs” area, which had a single, very long line for several beer stations). In general, this news is nothing new: festivals are busier at certain times. But, the restricted space and layout of the fest didn’t really help things. Long tables in the middle of the downstairs area make it difficult to get from one side of the tent to the other when it is busy.
Enough about the crowds and layout, etc… how was the beer?
In general, most of the beers I tasted were just fine. Not great and not bad. There were some that were well above average, and there were also some that were pretty awful. I was a bit let down by the overall quality, but I think my expectations were a bit out of proportion. The festival works with the breweries to make sure the beer they are pouring is either made solely for the festival or is a rare/vintage beer. While that is a great idea and very enticing to beer geeks, I came to realize that does not ensure that all the beers are going to be mind-blowing.
My favorite of the festival was easily the Firestone Walker 100% Bourbon Barrel Aged Velvet Merkin. I’m a big fan of the regular Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout, but this BA version was truly decadent. The bourbon flavor was prominent, but I didn’t think it was overwhelming at all and the beer was creamy, balanced and flavorful. This beer was head and shoulders above the others in my opinion, and the only beer that really beckoned for me to come back for more.
Other beers at the fest I enjoyed included Hair of the Dog Jim 2008, Anchor Old Foghorn 2006, Oakshire Nutcracker, Columbia River Drunken Elf Stout and The Commons Little Brother. While we tasted several disappointing beers, none made me sadder than the Fort George Kentucky Girl. I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve tasted from the Astoria brewery, and I love bourbon and coffee stouts. But, this concoction went bad somewhere along the way and the end result had some unpleasant sourness. I’d love to try a clean version of this beer someday…
Also, while I didn’t get around to sampling it at the fest, people seemed to love the one Seattle beer at the festival: Elysian Bye Bye Frost. Elysian’s had this one before, so hopefully I’ll get another chance to try it soon.
There were other beers I would have liked to try on Friday or Saturday, but we really didn’t feel like coming back to fight the crowds. So, maybe I missed out on some great beers.
Overall, I’m happy that I went to the fest, but in large part because of when we went. If I was limited to attending during the busy hours and encountered the same selection of beers, I wouldn’t have been a happy camper. I am impressed with the effort that the organizers put in to getting special beers for the fest. While they might not all be home runs, it’s fun to try beers you likely won’t find anywhere else. It is definitely worth taking a trip down to check it out at least once, but I’m not sure I’ll miss the WBF at Hale’s again for it myself. Maybe I’ll head down to PDX for the HAF on Wednesday and Thursday next year, and then head back to Seattle for the WBF on Friday and Saturday. That could be a solid plan. But, there is so much else to do in PDX when you’re down there that I’d want to just stay the whole weekend again…maybe I’ll just go to PDX another weekend.
Speaking of which, check back later this week to read about the rest of my trip. The HAF was just the beginning.