Editor’s Note: Last year we attended Winter Brew Fest. It’s coming up again in a few weeks so we are reposting our recap from last year. If you’re thinking about going you can learn about what you’re getting into below! Cheers.
Another weekend, another beer festival in San Diego County! Winter Brew Fest (WBF) separates itself from other beer tasting fests by being a two-day event, and it mixes a few different breweries each day. Held on Friday, February 20th & Saturday the 21st, each day was host to 43 breweries and different live music each day.
We attended the Friday night VIP session. The fest was 7-10PM both days but for an extra $10 you were granted early entry at 6pm. WBF was held at the infinitely cool Hall of Champions sports museum in Balboa Park. We got in the door a little early (they wouldn’t pour till 6pm), and it was a little surreal. Brewers were having meetings and setting up. There weren’t any drinkers yet so it was just a lot of open space. The museum is pretty big and the fest was spread over all three floors. So even though there were 43 brewers represented there was only about 15 per floor. I felt kind of nervous walking around before the official beer drinking time. It was like I was a kid in a candy shoppe who wants everything but was told not to touch or I wouldn’t get anything!
In addition to beer this fest was in support of Outdoor Outreach and San Diego Mountain Bike Association (SDMBA). Outdoor Outreach is a cool program that aims to connect at-risk and under-priviledged youth with the outdoors. SDMBA is an all volunteer non-profit group that advocates for mountain bike access, and being smart about our use of the environment in relation to mountain biking. Both cool orgs and it is always great to be able to cheers a beer in support of good charities. You feel good about drinking beer! It’s a win-win. The RightOn Productions group that put on the fest is based out of Colorado. They host two fests there, this one in San Diego and another in Raleigh, NC. They started the fest program after attending one themselves.
After a few last minute brewer announcements the official start time rolled around, and we could fill up our taster cups. We decided to start upstairs assuming the main level would fill up first. My first beer was North Coast’s Brother Thelonious Belgian-style Abbey Ale. It was fucking delicious and one of the best beers I’d end up having all night. And if my notes are accurate that is impressive because I tried 25 beers total. I asked the beer pourer about the beer style. That is when I found out a lot of the beer pourers were volunteers, and not actually affiliated with the brewery. They didn’t know the answer or really anything else about the beer. Over the course of the night we’d find that only about half the breweries had representatives at their stand.
One of the great things about beer fests is being able to meet the people responsible for creating or working with the beers that we love or discover. That access to the process is part of what makes the beer drinking community so engaged & knowledgable. I appreciated the brands like Oceanside Ale Works, Ninkasi, Jamul and St. Archer who sent actual reps to the event. I realize there are so many beer fests these days it’s hard to get someone to all of them, but it definitely enhances the experience when breweries can make the event.
One thing that was great about WBF was the eclectic mix of breweries involved. There were some surprises like In-Bev’s Shocktop & Goose Island booth’s, but there were also some small breweries that sometimes get crowded out of local festivals like Jamul, Quantum, Hillcrest and Prohibition Brewing Companies. It’s always nice to find new small brewers who are making beer in different styles. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the SoCal Beer scene. And it is growing so quickly it is hard to keep track of it all. Brew fests like this one are a good way to get caught up on the scene.
Each floor of the festival felt pretty segregated. It was like being at three different festivals in one. The top floor had the brewers in a side room, but then you could look down on the main floor and the live band from the balcony. The main floor had the most breweries in the square around the main stage and dance floor. It felt cozy and once Euphoria Brass Band got going around 7pm had the most energy. The downstairs was a bit darker, lit with spotlights in weird spots and had it’s own vibe going with a local radio DJ playing pop and hip-hop jams.
The Hall of Champions is one of the most interesting places I’ve been to a beer event in. Besides the beer and music, you were able to explore the museum seeing the history of San Diego sports, watch a documentary movie, or throw an imaginary punch at the Greatest of All-Time. Pretty cool. Because it is such a big space that first hour VIP hour felt deceptively empty of people. At first we thought maybe it was because of the time on a Friday night that there were less people but ultimately, I think it was just the size and layout of the space. The VIP is definitely worth the extra bucks just for the ease of getting around, no lines for beer, and not to mention all the freebie stickers you’ll get. Who doesn’t love brewery stickers?
We continued to drink beers. I had a run of beer that didn’t quite do it for me, but I definitely got to try beer from breweries I probably wouldn’t have bought a six-pack of just to try or hadn’t even heard of. Some stand outs included Prohibition Brewing Co’s Dunkelweizen which was very traditional and well done, and Fat Cat’s Chocolate Stout which was just a solid beer. At one point I made sure to head to the St. Archer table for an IPA. Sometimes it is nice to have a beer you know you’ll love while talking beer with your friends. And at their core, beer festivals, are about beer and community.
Besides beer, there was a lot of San Diego Chargers talk going on. In the bathroom there was a spirited debate about the stadium building issue. “Fuck you Dean Spanos!” And, “I just sent in my season ticket renewal. Fuck me!” being highlight quotes. But neither topped one gentleman telling everyone and anyone, “I love beer! And beer loves me!” And that seemed like a good time to head home. Until the next brew fest…Cheers!