The day broke hot, over 90 degrees, but my anticipation was still high. The Orange County Brew Ha Ha is, after all, one of my favorite events of the year. Arriving at the gates at the appointed VIP time, I was pleasantly surprised to find a well-organized, highly efficient volunteer staff processing tickets, wristbands, and handing out tasting glasses. We were through the line, long as it was, within minutes. The volunteers were even nice enough to allow one of my drinking partners to use an unused ticket we couldn’t find a taker for, loading his wrist up with thirty tasting tickets. Those tickets, along with mine, and those of one other, meant we were in for a long, hot enjoyable day of beer tasting.
The organizers seemed to have learned a few valuable lessons from the last three years. The first positive change and one that probably pissed off more than a few attendees, was the switch from full pint glasses to four ounce tasting glasses. The pint glasses of the past could be awesome especially if one found a favorite beer and a generous volunteer pouring near full pints. But that same generosity left many attendees piss drunk, near passing out and obnoxious. This year’s event featured a lot fewer walking dead (admittedly taking away from some of the fun of people watching) and a much more convivial atmosphere. The event was also much more spread out this year, using more of the park around Lake Irvine and offering guest more shade trees and space to relax. As result, lines seemed shorter and the festival felt a lot less crowded.
There also seemed to be more and tastier food options this year than last, ranging from awesome tacos and pork belly crostinis to sausages, mac and cheese, BBQ, burgers, pizza and cupcakes. My favorite of the day was Taco Asylum's Ghost Chili pulled pork taco's with house made cayenne and red savina hot sauces. I'm still feeling a bit of the burn from those delicious bites. The tacos were a welcome break from the beer, cleansing the palate, and giving us the strength to forge on.
There were however a few drawbacks. The first and it’s a complaint I’ve had since the inaugural event, is the lack of informed volunteers pouring beer. Don’t get me wrong, the hardworking volunteers (mostly firefighters and those in the first responder community) pouring beer were some of the friendliest people I’ve met at beer festivals, but many knew nothing about the beer they were pouring. This is problematic for several reasons. For me, beer festivals should be about discovery, an opportunity for breweries to introduce the uninitiated to the pleasures of craft beer or offer craft beer enthusiasts something new, interesting or hard to find. In other words, an event that shows off the creativity and imagination of the craft beer industry. Those pouring the beer should at the very least be able to talk about the beer in an informed way (unlike the volunteer whose straight-faced response to my ‘What are you pouring?’ question was ‘beer’ and then offered nothing more).
In fact, the breweries on the top of my list at this year’s festival, Monkish, Refuge, Golden Road, and Valiant all had representatives from the company there to explain their beers, making the experience all the more enjoyable. The breweries who had representatives (and to be fair there were others not mentioned in the list above) were also the ones pouring some of the most interesting beers at the festivals, one’s that benefited from explanation. Booths without a marketing rep, brewer/owner, or someone who could talk about the beer ran the risk of creating the wrong kind of environment, one where the beer doesn’t seem to matter and simply becomes a vehicle to drunkenness. Perhaps, this is a beer geek’s lament, but treating beer this way further inflames the neo-prohibitionist arguments that consistently threaten the industry and will make it all the more difficult for the craft beer industry to break down stereotypes and prejudices that put up barriers to expansion or lead to stupid laws and red tape in many municipalities that prevent neighborhood breweries from opening (see recent article in the Daily News “Craft Brewers Find it Best to do Business Outside of LA”).
In many ways I think that not having an informed representative at each of the booths is also responsible for the boring, or maybe I should say, uncreative choices of beers at this year’s festival. Nearly every breweries’ booth we visited offered only straightforward beer lineups ambers, pale ales, IPAs and stouts dominated. I’m a fan of these beers, but like I said earlier, I attend festivals to discover new and creative beer. Most of the beer on tap this year I can find in any well-stocked bottle shop or pub in Southern California. I understand why breweries chose the beers they did; these beers are easy to explain to volunteers and most drinkers are familiar with them so they don’t need a whole lot of explanation if a volunteer doesn’t quite get it, but that lack of creative choices marred what was overall a fantastic festival experience.
Despite these complaints my companions and I tasted a lot of really good beer, ate some very good food, talked to a lot of wonderful people, and laughed at one or two slightly confused drunks. Looking at my notes from the event we tasted through about 50 beers, responsibly sipping and dumping (sacrilege, I know) some and drinking a bit too much of others. While IPA dominated the offerings there were quite of few hidden gems in that sea of hoppy beer. My absolute favorites came from my favorite brewery of the moment Monkish Brewing Co. Henry and his wife Adriana the brewer/owners were manning their booth offering up their Floraison, a dry, spicy, floral saison with hibiscus and chamomile flower. This beer was perfect for an overly hot summer day. A close second to Foraison was Henry’s Seme Della Vita, a Belgian triple with vanilla bean and pistachios. This beer is a well-balanced triple with a vanilla/nut aroma and a subtle nutty, vanilla flavor on the palate. While both beers seem strange, I’m not alone in my praise the crowd around Monkish’s booth and the positive comments I overheard are testament to the creativity and deliciousness of these two beers.
Other surprises include:
Refuge Brewing Company’s Blood Orange Wit, a wonderfully tart and dry wit with a subtle orange flavor balanced by a nice hop bitterness. Diane, the brewery’s events director, was happy to explain their beers and even offered us seconds without taking one of our drink tickets.
Golden Road’s Cabrillo Kolsch, a clean and smooth beer (almost lager like) with just a touch of noble hop bitterness that makes this a perfectly refreshing summer beer. Laurel, the brewery’s pub manager, was on hand talking about the beers, their cans, artwork and the future plans of the brewery, making the visit to their booth the highlight of the festival.
The Brewery at Abigaile’s Sir Charles Mild. A nice traditional English mild that isn’t short on flavor. English specialty malts dominate this lightly hopped deliciously light (3% abv) beer.
Belching Beaver’s (one of San Diego’s newer breweries) Beaver’s Milk Stout. Despite their comical name, this newer brewery is producing some super clean beer. Beaver’s Milk is a great example of what they are doing. A true-to-style milk stout, with coffee and roasted malt on the front end, diminishing to malty sweetness at the back. Smooth.
And before you hop heads call for mine, we did taste some fantastically good IPAs and DIPAs. My favorites were:
Valiant Brewing Company’s Jericho a full-bodied Imperial IPA that weighs in at nearly 11% abv. This is a well-balanced big beer with both a wonderful hoppy aroma and bitter finish. It’s a dangerously strong beer, so well-balanced you don’t notice the high abv. I also really enjoyed their Octave and Criterion.
Black Market Brewing’s Rye IPA. This has been one of my favorite beers at the OC Brew Ha Ha for the last couple years running. Another well-balanced hoppy, malty IPA with a distinctly spicy rye flavor. Rye makes up 20% of the grain bill and as Aaron told me once it’s “a pain in the ass to brew, but worth it.”
Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA really fantastic full-flavored Pacific Northwest style IPA. Rich and malty balanced with 65 IBUs coming from Summit, Amarillo, and Crystal hops. Delicious and bit more subtle than most IPAs.
Finally, Pizza Port’s Early Rhizer, a fresh-hopped American Pale Ale. There is something about fresh-hopped beer that I really like. Being fresh, the sharpness of the hops is mellowed allowing a bit more of the malt to shine through, but retaining the hoppy characteristics pale ale lovers enjoy.
All in all it was a wonderful day, and everyone involved should be commended for their hard work and dedication to craft beer.