By Bobby Bush
Hickory Hops, our town's first ever beer festival, takes place on Union Square on Saturday, April 12. Although Asheville and Charlotte have had fests for years, this is a new event for our humble burg. Hickory Hops is being planned and organized by the Hickory Downtown Development Association and hosted by Olde Hickory Brewery.
As a participant at over 50 beer festivals, I'd like to provide festers with insight and recommendations. Whatever you may be thinking, a beer festival is not a chugging marathon. It's not a drunken frat party. It's not an excuse to get smashed and act stupid. The only award given for public drunkenness comes with handcuffs. Please line up a designated driver before the festival or take a taxi home.
Used in moderation, beer, the most commonly consumed of all alcoholic beverages, is a social drink, inspiring conversation and camaraderie. And what better way to enjoy beer than at an outdoor festival with 1,000+ like-minded souls?
A beer festival is a celebration of beer, a gathering of the brewing clans. With brewers on hand to answer questions, it's an opportunity for the beer neophytes and beer curious among us to learn and enjoy. A variety of beer, spanning almost every style, will be available. Don't let the selection overwhelm you. There can be a method to this tasting madness.
Hickory Hops tasting glasses are sized, at 2.5 ounces, to encourage variety. Take advantage of the fest environment to try different beers. Sample as many as you're comfortable with. In order to try more beers, ask for half a glass. You can always get another.
Taste a beer by taking at least two sips. Then decide whether it's a flavor profile that you like. If it doesn't make your taste buds sing, determine what flavor in that beer was objectionable. If you don't feel like drinking more of that beer, empty your glass into the nearest dump bucket. Make note of the distasteful style of beer (usually provided as part of the beer's name, such as Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Stout, etc). When you try another of that same style, look for the same unwelcome tastes. You may just not care for a particular style of beer. That's okay - there are over 56 different styles to choose from.
To increase your stamina, plan to sit and relax without a beer at least 15 minutes of every hour you are at the festival. Water and food, available from several vendors, will dull the alcohol effect, as will time. And the music - Bob Sinclair, Sons of Ralph and Cigar Store Indian - will be worthy of your attention as well.
As for tasting method? I suggest starting light and working toward the darker beers. Generally speaking, light colored beers such as Pilsners, Hefe-weizens (wheat beers), Blondes, fruit beers and anything with the word Light in its name tend to be lower in body, alcohol and flavor. There will be no budmillercoors products at Hickory Hops. Move from table to table sampling Light Beers for a while. Then move to the next shade of beer. Ambers, Reds, Pale Ales, Extra Special Bitters (ESBs) and other similarly copper hued beers comprise that progression. Then look for Brown Ales, Scottish Ale, India Pale Ales (IPAs) in the deep copper and brown color/flavor tones. Last on your tasting chart should be Porters and the Stouts- Oatmeal, Cream, Dry and Russian Imperial.
Even when you cleanse your mouth between beers with water, your taste buds have a memory of the last thing you tasted- kind of like drinking orange juice right after you brush your teeth. If you start with a big bitter IPA and follow it with a light, lilting Blonde Ale, the latter beer will taste like water in comparison.
Allow yourself to really experience the taste. Take a pen and make notes of your favorites. That way you'll have a list of beers to search for at retail stores and to ask for at your neighborhood tavern. Make plans to visit brewpubs to see where your newfound favorites are made.
The Catawba Lager & Ale Sampling Society plans to stage a brewing demonstration. Stop by their booth to learn about the club and how easy homebrewing is.
Enjoy the music. Be responsible. Enjoy the beer.
To purchase advance tickets ($20; $5 more at the door), see www.hickoryhops.com.
Watch www.BeerSouth.com for information about upcoming festivals. In the Spring and Summer months, there's almost one every weekend somewhere in the South.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush