Craft Beer. A phrase that has exhausted its usefulness in the commercial lexicon. Unlike, say, bourbon, or Champagne, appellations that carry legal requirements for their application, “craft beer” today signals “a chance to make a buck.” That’s certainly what America On Tap did in Utica, NY, last Saturday night. The company’s tagline is “Authentic Beer Festivals.” Handy for distinguishing theirs from the insincere ones. Or at least festivals that don’t call themselves authentic.
What can I say? $35 seemed like a good idea at the time. (The $10 designated driver ticket, available at the door, is the worst deal ever.) They promised a 5 oz. “souvenir tasting glass” and three hours to sample 100+ beers. I arrived slightly late, 5:10 PM, dropped off at the front entrance of the Utica Memorial Auditorium. Locked. Walked around to the side, there appeared to be a line. Which wrapped all the way around the building. My first thought was that this might significantly decrease my 3-hour window, which it did. My next concern was frostbite. I’d only worn a light jacket, knowing there wouldn’t be anyplace to hang my coat. Many others had the same idea. We shivered together, taking baby steps for 40 minutes to get inside the building. And here’s a rational question: Who wants to drink ice cold beer after standing outside in sub-freezing weather for the better part of an hour? Exactly. The organizers might have offered two entrances, or more ID checkers. At $35 per ticket, yes, they should have.
The Utica Memorial Auditorium is like its name: cavernous, concrete, cold. They’d put a floor down over the ice, and left the hockey glass up. 1800+ friendly beer lovers herded shoulder to shoulder on the rink. We were provided an informational sheet with no useful information; in addition to general vagueness, it completely misrepresented the locations of the entrance, the food, and the restrooms. The overwhelming impression, beyond the crowd, was NOISE. Picture a waterfall, a construction site, Times Square, and a county-fair rock band turned up to 11, in a bathroom the size of a hockey arena; that’s almost how loud it was.
The first attraction I came upon was the silent disco (irony probably lost on the organizers.) A sad, strange little attraction – no explanation, and only one participant. Next I came to a t-shirt vendor, then a booth selling beer-related paraphernalia. “Authentic beer festivals” are apparently indistinguishable from home and garden shows. The evening was shaping up a bust. Then, finally, my first beer. 5:55 PM. They’d placed eight tickets in my glass – with no instruction, I assumed the tickets were to be exchanged for each sample. They weren’t, and I never found out what they were for.
The beer. I began with something by Carton Brewing, which I’d never heard of. I don’t remember what kind of beer it was for reasons that will become clear, but I think I liked it. Next was The Green Onion Pub’s booth, manned by proprietor Colin, who remembers the names of all his customers, including mine. He poured me something called Silk Road Gose. I should have remembered Colin is fond of sour beers – this one puckered my head.
At 6:00, my odyssey began. At some point I sent a text saying the event was either beer lover’s heaven or hell. After the initial wait outdoors and the lackluster vendor booths I encountered, the rest was pretty much all beer, all the time. I made a decision to only drink beer I’d never had, and to stay away from “beer your girlfriend likes to drink,” in the words of one pourer. The packed crowd made it difficult to move rapidly, but I never had to wait for a new sample. The crowd was predominantly young and male, although a cross-section of society had shown up, including a few women who looked like my grandmother’s contemporaries. Beer geeks (exclusively young and male) waved smartphones as they tagged their swallows in Untappd. (The limitations of a large-screened phone were apparent as I tried to make notes one-handed – the other held my glass. Neither thumb on its own is long or limber enough.) Despite the crowd, despite the abundant alcohol, I saw no altercations; when somebody bumped into me they apologized and I never spilled, nor was I spilled upon.
Conditions were not ideal for beer tasting – glasses weren’t rinsed between samples (there were a few water coolers available, but it would have been impractical to get through the crowd every time, and their 10-gallon capacities certainly wouldn’t have lasted.) Also, I came to realize that a few sips aren’t sufficient to really understand, or even enjoy, a given beer. I would just begin to contemplate a sweet stout and then would jam my gears with a hop bomb IPA – the beer was flowing like heaven but the pace and ambiance were like hell. The advertised “great food” turned out to be arena concessions – hot dogs, chicken fingers, bleah; surely a failure of imagination and effort on someone’s part. They could have scattered creative food booths throughout and made an additional fortune. The oversight was additionally disappointing given that Utica is renowned for the variety and quality of its food. After just 90 minutes, claustrophobic and overwhelmed by unceasing noise, not to mention hungry and sloshing with a queasy mix of two dozen beers (I requested half glasses and then quarter glasses as I progressed), I texted for my ride home.
The following is what I tried between 5:55 and 7:20 PM. It is slightly incomplete – I’m pretty sure I drank something from Three Heads Brewing (3HB, Honeoye Falls, NY) but I don’t have a record of it. Overarching themes are Milk Stouts and IPAs – very big right now, and well represented at this event.
1. Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands, NJ) – Carton of Milk, Milk Stout (??) It might have been a milk stout, but maybe not. I took a picture of the tap, which turned out to be a generic Carton handle.
2. Saranac/Matt Brewing Company (Utica, NY) – Silk Road Gose, Sour (?) A pilot, part of their “Inner Circle Series.” Not listed on the Saranac web site. Especially sour, like bile, which might only confirm that I’d just had a sweet milk stout.
3. Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, ME) – Allagash Black, Belgian Style Stout. Excellent – chocolate and coffee, thick on the palate.
4. Wachusett Brewing Company (Westminster, MA) – Milk Stout. Creamy and sweet, delicious. This is fun!
5. Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, MD) – Raging Bitch, Belgian Style IPA. Seemed balanced, especially when poured over the dregs of milk stout. An IPA I should return to someday.
6. Rogue Farms (Newport, OR) – 7 Hop IPA. A dry, spicy IPA. I think.
7. Ballast Point Brewing (San Diego, CA) – Sculpin IPA. West Coast style IPA, floral notes, citrus. How much was it dried out by the Rogue 7 Hop? I don’t know.
8. Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, UK) – The Famous Taddy Porter. Poured from a bottle. An English porter, meaning it’s drier and less carbonated than U.S. versions. An outlier in present company, would have been more enjoyable bookended by English pub beers.
9. Left Hand Brewing (Longmont, CO) – Milk Stout. Incredibly sweet after the Taddy Porter. Starting to feel full.
10. Boulder Beer Company (Boulder, CO) – Shake Chocolate Porter. The name says it: like a malty milkshake, sweet and chocolatey. (“It’s a dessert beer!” Or beer for dessert.) My favorite of the night, and maybe the last one I had a good handle on. After this I started asking for short pours (2 or 3 ounces).
11. Heavy Seas Beer (Baltimore, MD) – Loose Cannon American IPA. They say this one has a lot of hops; that seems right.
12. Brooklyn Brewery (Brooklyn, NY) – Dry Irish Stout. Dear God, why did I think three words that were separately unappetizing would taste great together?
13. Butternuts Beer & Ale (Garrattsville, NY) – Moo Thunder Stout. Another milk stout. Another time and place, I think I’d enjoy this one. Time for a ten-minute text break. Balancing glass on the hockey wall. Head starting to pound from the incessant noise and crazy mix of esters I’ve imbibed.
14. Boulder Beer Company (Boulder, CO) – Mojo India Pale Ale. I loved their Shake Porter, so had to try the IPA. No memory of how it tasted.
15. Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. (Greenport, NY) – Otherside IPA. Getting my $35 worth, damn it. I’m a marathon runner – I can tough it out and try a few more. This was an IPA. I can’t definitively assert anything else about it.
16. Schmaltz Brewing Company (Clifton Park, NY) – He’brew Messiah Nut Brown Ale. Ah, brown ale, my comfort beer. Rarely challenging, unless you’ve had fifteen others in the past hour. Great names – the company and its creations. Their web site is a kick. (Speaking of web sites, why do beer sites ask visitors to assert their age?)
17. Founders Brewing Company (Grand Rapids, MI) – Imperial Stout. One of my favorite breweries, a beer I hadn’t tried before. By now my taste notes veer wildly from the Beer Advocate community (“…the best Imperial Stout (non-barrel aged)…bouquet of coffee and vanilla…thick, creamy, and silky…well balanced.” Compared to mine: “Drops heavy on the stomach. Thick and hard to swallow. Oops, sorry to step on your foot, ma’am.”)
18. Keegan Ales (Kingston, NY) – Joe Mama’s Milk, Milk Stout with Coffee. My Lord. Must. Make. Note. Get this again sometime and don’t refer to this record. Definitely coffee in there. Where’s the restroom?
19. Keegan Ales (Kingston, NY) – Mother’s Milk, Milk Stout. Because I liked the previous one so much in theory.
20. Pacific Galaxy Double IPA. That’s the name on the tap handle in the picture I took. I can’t find a Pacific on the event’s non-informational sheet, and no Pacific brewery or Pacific Galaxy Double IPA online matches my picture. A mystery, but not unfortunate because I don’t remember how it tasted. Marathon runners talk about hitting The Wall, usually mile 20. Beer 20 feels similar to that.
21. Rogue Farms (Newport, OR) – Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Flavored Brown Ale. I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea.
22. Green Flash Brewing Company (San Diego, CA) – Hop Head Red Ale. C’mon, Chris. A red ale this late in the game? Not a style I like to begin with. Questioning my judgment. BUT, Green Flash makes very good IPAs – I know from when I used to enjoy drinking beer.
23. Oskar Blues Brewery (Lyons, CO) – Dale’s Pale Ale. Poor Dale. Probably a very nice ale, but he knocked me out, 85 minutes into the match.
As I said, I think I missed something from 3HB, which would make an even 24, shy of 26.2, but I threw in the towel and called it a night. Would I attend another of these events? Hopefully not. The good: beer baggers got to make a lot of check marks in their apps, the crowd and the pourers were happy, there was a lot of high quality beer available. But the organization, layout, and aesthetic factors weren’t conducive to enjoying any of it. People, heed my words. Beer milers (it’s a thing: http://www.beermile.com) use Budweiser for a reason. The Utica Aud was overflowing with great beer last Saturday, which is not good for a marathon. Not good at all. I’ll say this for sure: authentic beer festival or not, I did have an authentic beer hangover on Sunday.