California Festival of Beers
By Bobby Bush
If memory serves me well, the California Festival of Beers was the very first beer festival
that I attended. Way back in 1991, to this fledgling beer hound, the entire concept of a
festival designed specifically to promote good beer was eye opening. Not knowing what
to expect, we drove up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. Then in
its fifth year, this annual festival was held on the hot, asphalt parking lot of The Graduate,
a barn of a bar. Fifty or so breweries, many of whom I knew absolutely nothing about
(imagine that?), served a mind-boggling selection of beer in small, tasting-size portions. I
faithfully attended the festival, which relocated in 1993, until fate relocated me back to NC
in late 1994.
At the same site for the past nine years, this fun fest is one of the most picturesque
anywhere. Held on the golf course fairways of Avila Beach Resort on May 26, the 15th
annual California Festival of Beers overlooked a small inlet and a sandy beach. With a
westward view of the Pacific and an eastward sight of the festival tents, traffic slowed on a
coastal bridge as drivers and passengers stared at the beer-fueled spectacle below.
Golfers, just off their truncated course (less two fest occupied holes), practiced putting,
separated from the beery masses by only a temporary plastic fence.
This was a family crowd, probably 2,000+ strong. Wagons and kids. Beach
towels and sun bathers. Live music from the stage. Anchored sailboats in the bay.
Wooded hillsides, palm trees included. Incoming tide. Grateful Dead covers from local
band Alter Ego. Our group set up camp not far from the big beer tent, under which
resided 81 beers of 37 different breweries. Twenty came from California to this friendly
community about half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Local breweries
were well represented. From nearby San Luis Obispo were SLO Brewery, a brewpub
with a micro in Paso Robles, and Central Coast Brewing. Bonnema Brewing from
Atascadero and Morro Bay Brewing didn’t have much further to drive. Santa Barbara
Brewing and Firestone Walker Brewery, the latter owned by a wine-making central
California family, hailed from just a bit more south. Anchor Brewing and Speakeasy
Brewery were San Francisco’s only inclusions, though the Gordon Biersch micro from
San Jose and Los Gatos’ eponymous brewery was there as well. Regional micro Sierra
Nevada from Chico, Coast Range from garlic drenched Gilroy and Visalia’s
BrewBaker’s made the long journey. Quite a haul, Northern California brought Lost
Coast all the way from Eureka, Blue Lake’s Mad River and Mendocino Brewing with
Red Tail Ale and potent Eye of the Hawk. From the L.A. area came Angel City and
Bayhawk (from Irvine). All in all, the Golden Bear State was respectably represented
Shiner Bock and Rolling Rock stood in for the big boys, while imports, nine in
total, were plentiful, including Dos Equis, Kirin, Heinekin, Pilsner Urquell and Scottish
New Castle. Regionals included Boston Beer, Pete’s, Spanish Peak (Bozeman,
Montana) and Red Hook. Wyder’s had three ciders. A strange malt beverage product
called Hopper was also served. So, as you can see, there was enough to drink and a nice
array of food - not too outrageously priced - to boot.
Fest attendees were invited to vote on their three favorite brews. We never
learned the outcome of this popularity contest. Really didn’t care. With so many to
choose from, singling out a few for a dubious “People’s Choice” Award seemed
superfluous. The most enjoyable beers that I tasted that breezy, sunny, pleasant day were
BrewBaker’s dopplebock ‘00 Bock, Anchor’s 2000 vintage Old Foghorn Barleywine
(served only to those who asked), SLO’s cask conditioned Sap Head Imperial Stout,
Central Coast’s Morning Brew Stout, Speakeasy’s Big Daddy IPA and Sierra Nevada’s
seasonal Harvest Ale. There were a lot of good beers and an ample number of great ones.
After all, California isn’t one of the birthplaces of the microbrewery movement for naught.
Held Memorial Weekend Saturday every year, the California Festival of Beers
should be on every beer fiends to-do list. Only one complaint, the fest lasted but four
hours. Not nearly enough time to take in all that California has to offer.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush