The sky was cloudy and forecast for rain. It didn't seem to bother anybody, though, as they made their way indoors to the Expo Center of the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach for the inaugural Palm Beach Summer Beer Fest. Being South Florida's only indoor festival was indeed cause of celebration, and the burden of constantly checking weather updates removed from our collective shoulders. This is, especially during the heat of the summer months, the perfect venue for a beer festival.
"Which one would you like?" the enthusiastic beer pourer at the Unibroue booth asked. I pointed to the gold foil-capped bottle with a majestic sailboat on it. Don de Dieu, a golden colored triple wheat ale; yeasty, flowery, and spicy. There was a strong showing of these Quebec beers. Beside me, people clamoring for a sampling of their brew Terrible, a Belgian-style beer that belies its name, and is instead not terrible at all.
The festival was spread out across the massive interior, with a main stage dominating the center, while booths took over the rest of the space in large sections and hallways. As can be problematic at festivals of this size, lines for certain brewers would snake into shapes that, if you weren't looking for them, could stretch and bend at any time. The line to sample some of Funky Buddha's beers, of which they brought coconut-flavored Last Snow, No Crusts PB&J, and Raspberry Floridian, was over four booths long, passing well over 40 people at one time.
In fact, lines for most of the local brewers were long, for both the quality of the beers they were bringing and for South Florida's love of all things local. At 2:30 p.m., for example, Due South tapped a keg of Calling All Cars chocolate doughnut and coffee porter and seven minutes later it had been kicked. With demand that high, let's hope they have a couple in reserve at the tasting room!
Nearby, we met up with Frank Conrad, one of the brewers of the upcoming -- hopefully Boca Raton-based -- brewery Lagerhead Brewing, who told us that everything was on track for their business. "It's a fun challenge," he said, and before long we were sampling some of the beers that he and his team had brought in. Damn Good Cider is exactly what the name implies; it's damn good. With a fresh apple aroma, and a mix of a sweet upfront and a dry finish, it would be an awesome go-to craft drink for cider fans. Those who are friends with them on Facebook would know that there was a secret beer to be had if you provided the proper keywords... and it is well worth it to follow these guys, as the special beer was a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with a cinnamon whiskey treatment. It was surprisingly drinkable. The cinnamon was less on the hot side and more on the mellow side, and added a complexity that made it stand out among normally super roasty Russian Imperials.
Frank and the rest of the Lagerheads, (Tim and Steve Dornblaser, and Dan Paulus) were genuinely excited to come out to the festival, and are people that you should spend some time and talk to when you go to beer fests such as this. "We love being able to come here and talk to people," Frank said. "It's invaluable to judge [people's] feedback."
A few booths down, Widmer Brothers were pouring samples of their gluten-free range, Omission. Both the lager and pale ale varieties were surprisingly clean and refreshing, and the noticeability of the removed gluten was unconsciously low. For those with gluten allergies, there is a beer for you that tastes like beer.
Ommegang from Cooperstown, New York was on hand as well, with an impressive range from Witte to Abbey Ale and everything in between. I couldn't help but reach for a pour of Rare Vos, that fruity but spicy amber ale that's so drinkable and accessible. Sometimes you just need to have something easy with subtle flavors.
Over at the Miami Brewing Company's booth, in front of the branded van, Chris Ball noticed my hesitation when deciding between their blonde ale, Big Rod, and their brown ale Gator Tail. "Try a Dirty Blonde," he said, taking my glass and filling it equally with Big Rod and Gator Tail. The mix was a pairing made under the stars: mellowed dark fruit under a sweet maltier toffee blanket that gives a complexity to both but doesn't diminish either. Great suggestion.
What will Miami Brewing be coming out with next?
"We're going to have an orange Belgian Wit," he said, noting that it would be their take on the popular Blue Moon. "Then, this fall, we'll have some great seasonals like a pumpkin beer and a sweet potato beer." It's getting to be that time again, indeed.
We also stopped by the Holy Mackerel booth, who were stoked to be the official beer for Smashburger in this market. Holy Mackerel and Mack House owner Larry Hatfield said, "[Smashburger] flew the president of the company down to sample the beers and do pairings to make sure it would all work, and it did."
But beer lovers didn't have to go in to a burger joint to try out the Special Golden Ale. "We had a really good response today."
As the festival wound down, and the sheriff's office began to shoo everyone towards the exit, we were struck by how orderly it went down; except, unfortunately, the homebrew competition. The winners of the top prizes, including $750 and bragging rights, were unable to be given out before the end of the festival. Due to wanting to allow the judges to properly get through all 20 entries, festival official Kelly Boudreau told us that winners would be given a phone call when the judging panel was finished. That left a couple of waiting homebrewers a bit dejected.
Beyond a few minor inconveniences, the inaugural Palm Beach Summer Beer Fest could be considered a massive success. The ability to host on the South Florida Fairgrounds is a huge plus, and works highly in its favor. Being indoors is a pretty sweet deal as well.
We hope to see this one stick around for years to come.
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