In contrast to the Great Canadian Beer Festival held a few weeks later in Victoria, B.C., the Orlando Beer Festival was more like a beer theme park. For $25 at the door attendees got to mingle with other visitors to Universal Studio's CityWalk, where tasting booths were set up among the tourist "venues." Roughly 50 breweries sent two or three beers each, with most being bottled distributor products. More than a dozen Florida micros and brewpubs were set up along the man-made body of water that separates the Hard Rock Cafe from the outdoor stage where Rock bands played continuously. Most local beers were of the "gold" and "amber" variety but brewery reps were very willing to talk about their beers and pours into the plastic, logo-printed glasses were "friendly." Although no "beer police" were visible, uniformed peace officers patrolled constantly and patrons were expected to wear their photo ID around their neck in their ticket holder. You can't have too much security at a beer festival! Fortunately, no major outbreaks of crime were reported and all foreign visitors left safely.
It was very easy to spot the standouts among this crowd. The Big Meadows Pale Ale from Shenandoah Brewing was not afraid to show off the hops. The Irish Nut Brown from Wildcat Brewing began with a raisin-like sweetness before finishing dryly. Big Belly brought their very young Monster Brew that tasted like a Czech pils on steroids. The Black Duke Dark from Brewzzi was light-bodied but offered a rich black malt flavor. Dunedin Brewery held back nothing from their flavor-packed lineup. Their Redhead Red Ale made a good impression as an even-balanced ale, the Pipers Pale Ale let the hops dominate the flavor profile, and the Christmas, at 5%, was a smooth blend of Cardamom and other spices that complemented this malty brew.
The great fall weather brought out the crowds to stroll and taste, and the sessions were long enough during the three days that it was possible to taste everything that you were looking for. The crowds got a bit dense Saturday night as festgoers had to share space with other CityWalk customers. The layout of craftbeers and domestics at ground level and imports on the mezzanine helped spread out the crowd, but forcing festival customers to use the restrooms of the busy nearby shops and restaurants was cumbersome. Beer appreciation is on the raise in Florida and events like the Orlando Beer Festival are a good start to heighten consumer awareness and encourage brewpub patrons and retail shoppers to try something beyond the uninspiring "reds" and "golds." The Florida-based brewpub chain Hops seems to be successfully drawing light beer drinkers away from their favorite mega brands. Maybe we'll soon see corporate brewpubs "develop" their market by promoting beers by style rather than by color. In a mature market we would all benefit from more real choices in beers. The successful invasion from the north by Shipyard has established an influential brewing beachhead at the Orlando Airport, I look forward to seeing what beer styles will be on tap at the 2001 Orlando Beer Festival.Big Belly Brewery
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - November