This summer, craft brew giant Sierra Nevada took its vision of craft brew on tour through America, stopping at seven cities along the way to ply liquid wares to crowds of thirsty beer fans. Billed as “The Largest Craft Beer Celebration in History,” this is no summer camp; everything about it is so big, loud and ambitious that the phrase “Beer Circus” rings true.
Like all the best circuses Beer Camp is not a one-ring affair – it's all about sharing the spotlight and featuring craft beers from across America (Portland Maine’s event featured beers from 120 different New England Regional breweries). In addition to hosting seven local events packed with diverse brews, Sierra Nevada took on the unprecedented effort of brewing 12 collaborative beers with 12 different leading brewers and collecting the collaborative brews in a special, commemorative Beer Camp 12 pack.
On assignment from The Beer Connoisseur, I went to the Portland, Maine Beer Camp to document the experience. During my research, nothing I read or saw prepared me for the scope and ambition of this expertly orchestrated circus of craft brew and craft brew culture.
Beer camp descended upon Portland early with an opening act to warm up the beer community. Hosted by Sebago Brewing Company in Portland’s scenic Old Port, the night was a laid-back preview of the extravaganza to follow. Packed with tourists, beer geeks and brewers alike, Sebago had most of the Beer Camp Collaboration beers on tap. Flush with hometown pride, I rubbed shoulders with Rob Tod, of Allagash Brewing, and sipped the Allagash/Sierra Nevada Myron’s Walk. This Belgian Pale Ale honors a Myron Avery, a pivotal figure in the development of the Appalachian Trail, and features the familiar bright, citrus hops of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale mingled with the estery aromatics of Allagash’s Belgian-esque yeasts. Next up: Bells Imperial Dark Ale, whose treacly sweetness was balanced by a bracingly dry, mineral aftertaste. I rounded out the night with a Ninkasi Brewing Company/Sierra Nevada Double Latte Coffee Milk Stout, a 7.6 percent draught with a punchy coffee aroma.
The next day, I worked up a good thirst by riding my bike to Beer Camp. Happily, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine provided a “bike valet” service. Setting the circus tone for the evening, I was overjoyed to see the coalition’s Board Member Fred Robie providing entertainment in addition to secure bicycle storage.
After stowing my bike, I set out to explore Beer Camp. Located on a narrow spit jutting into the brackish waters where Long Creek meets the ocean, the Thompson’s Point venue had fresh sea breezes and a stupendous view of the setting sun. The regional guest breweries were housed under a steel awning large enough to accommodate an ocean liner, bordered by chugging food trucks serving up a classic mixture of “beer sponge” fare like burgers, fries and sausages, and a lively selection of Thai, vegetarian and other ethnic options. Between the two, a smaller tent hosting Sierra Nevada’s 12 collaboration beers formed the central ring of the beer circus.
A plan of attack is essential for events of this scale, lest I be reduced to a manic, beer-addled wreck, stumbling from porter to pilsner to ESB, and crashing early with the dreaded palate fatigue. First – focus on the Collaboration Tent to sample the collaboration beers in order of flavor impact and ABV, then move on to a tour of my favorite New England regional breweries and a generous sampling of random selections, based on intelligence gathered from fellow-festival goers. My first draft was the Guildy Pleasure, a collaboration between the Maine Brewers Guild and Sierra Nevada. This light, bright IPA featured a funky, herbaceous nose – perfect to show my loyalty to Maine beer and prep my palate for a pounding work-out!
After a brief detour to sample the Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing Company, I completed a brief circuit of the Collaboration tent to taste a 3 Floyds Brewing/Sierra Nevada Chico King before I was stopped short by a line a boisterous beer enthusiasts. This is a sign of something good in store, so I sidled up and was rewarded with a goblet of golden Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point Brewing. Shockingly hoppy, with a firm malt backbone, this beer nearly tempted me to violate my “nothing twice!” rule of beer festival survival.
It took drastic measures to pry me away from Ballast Point, in the form of brewing legend and Beer Camp ring leader Ken Grossman, pouring his Hoptimum Equinox and dispensing sage nods knowing winks, presumably a bit worn after a cross country journey interspersed with five other Beer Camp events. Cradling my precious Hoptimum, I sat at one of the tastefully appointed tables to sip and appreciate the crimson flare of the sunset over the nearby marshland.
As the setting sun set the sky afire, the crowd seemed to take a collective breath, in preparation for the wild times yet to come. As the darkness drew in, a raucous, energetic tipsiness galvanized the crowd. I sipped a short pour of the Liberal Cup’s Sow Your Oats Oatmeal Stout to salute the coming night and then decided to step it up a notch and cleanse my tired tongue something radical: An Intergalactic Acid Berliner Weisse from The Tap Brewing Company. True to German tradition, woodruff and raspberry syrup were available to attenuate its bracing sourness, but after innumerable craft beers, my palate needed to be defibrillated, and I savored the fresh, bracing acidity and complex lactic aroma.
Energized by my acid infusion and buoyed by the crowd, I drifted over to the night’s musical entertainment – MarchFourth Marching Band , an amazing hybrid rock/marching band with a generous helping of acrobatics, neo-burlesque and bobbed in time syncopated horns and booming bass. The crowd, hopped on a mixture of enthusiasm and craft beer, was loving it, hooting hollering, dancing with event security and amply refreshed by the nearby beer pavilion.
“But drinking beer is serious business,” I reminded myself, “I have come to document Beer Camp, not to cavort!” With renewed purpose and dwindling capacity to make accurate notes, I decided on a final lap through the regional brewery pavilion, targeting Long Trail, Marshall Wharf and Magic Hat. The Long Trail Limbo IPA was sublime, the Magic Hat #9 was just as refreshing as I remembered, and the Marshall Wharf Sea Belt Scotch Ale, featuring locally farmed seaweed had a fascinatingly sweet salinity.
Unfortunately, the tragic paradox of beer festivals is that, while they provide access to a wide selection of amazing beers, they seldom provide an environment conducive to detailed tasting. I’d been waiting to try the Marshall Wharf for weeks, and other then the intuition that it was something special, my tongue was too fried to say for sure. I find it hard to distinguish the more nuanced flavors after my 4th DIPA and second tureen of pier fries. As I made my melancholy way home, my lesson began to ferment.
Beer isn’t for controlled circumstances, tasting notes at hand and distilled water to rinse the palate between sips from a beaker. Sometimes beer is best savored as part of the massive circus of life, while as the brass-band blares, and your compatriots stumble around shouting “Goddamn, did you taste that Kolesh? Have sip of mine!” before a long, slightly wobbly bike ride through the sleeping streets of your own city.
The next morning, I decided to test Mario Batali’s maxim that “Wretched excess is barely enough” at SLAB, the trendy home of the famous Sicilian slab-style pizza, host to the Beer Camp’s closing act, “Brewers Brunch.” Though it was early, I recognized some familiar faces from the night before, parked on benches and medicating themselves with a slab of Slab’s “Hangover Pie.” It was too early for a DIPA, so I settled in with a glass of Slab’s House Cider (by Urban Farm and Fermentory), a soothing, hydrating, and positively revitalizing dry cider brewed with fried sage.
After the wonders of the night before, I couldn’t help but enjoy my wistfulness. Sitting in SLAB was like waking up to the wreckage of a really good party, or walking by an empty lot that was filled with the lights, sounds and smells of a bona fide beer circus just hours before. When beer camp returns, I’ll be there for the show. And if it doesn’t return soon, I may just follow up on my childhood threat to pack my suitcase, run away, and join the circus.