Strong Beer Festival Review

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[Note from web producer Dan Gibson: While the Strong Beer Festival in Phoenix isn't exactly a Tucson-related event at first glance, the Tucson brewers were in attendance and it's always good to have a list of new beers worth trying, so here's a report from Range contributor Jordan Green who was there for a day of miserable weather and a lot to drink on Saturday.]

There were about 45 minutes, from the time I entered the gate to the point where 30 mile per hour gusts were threatening to send beer tents flipping through throngs of people, when the 11th Annual Arizona Strong Beer Festival was nearly perfect.

The sky was gray and there was a soft spit of rain, but that’s perfect strong beer weather. Inside the gate, my friends and I scanned the tents and found what we were looking for: Odell’s, two tents set up against a truck with four taps. We made a beeline.

I moved to Phoenix nearly three years ago from Portland, Oregon, and what worried me most about the relocation was the lack of beer. I knew there were a few places with good selections (Sun Devil Liquors, Topps, and of course, BevMo), but nothing was close. AJ’s Fine Foods was fine in a pinch, and Sportsman’s was nearby, but sadly limited.

Since then, I’ve seen Arizona’s interest in craft beer grow rapidly, and much of that had to do with Odell’s, which expanded into the Arizona market 6 months after I arrived. I was at their launch party at Papago Brewing two years ago. I tasted their standard IPA for the first time, and I was hooked. Now, of the nine states they serve, Arizona is the second largest market. I make it a point to get everything they release. The best beer I’ve ever had was their Woodcut No. 2, an oak-aged golden ale I only speak about in hushed tones, and only face-to-face. I’ve come to regard the Fort Collins-based Odell’s as the best brewery in the world. You have no idea how hard that is for an Oregonian to admit.

Their festival offering didn’t disappoint. First, there was Myrcenary, a stunning double IPA that somehow remains refreshing and light despite a 9.3% ABV (alcohol by volume). I’d considering on par with Russian River’s Pliny the Elder or Bell’s Hopslam, but I think I’ll need a side-by-side tasting to know for sure. Sipping on my small sample mug off the side of the tent, I found myself chatting with a gentleman wearing an Odell’s shirt with a neatly trimmed gray goatee. I introduced myself.

“Doug Odell,” he replied, shaking my hand.

Somehow I maintained my composure, since this was the loose equivalent of an 11 year-old aspiring white point guard meeting Steve Nash. For the next 30 minutes, as I sampled the other Odell’s beers, I talked to my brewing hero.

Here’s the story on Myrcenary: after a brief exclusive run at most Old Chicago locations, Myrcenary will be available in 4-packs. I’m not sure I’ll ever buy anything else at that point.

Also on tap was the pleasantly understated 1st Crack Espresso Porter (utilizing roasted beans from Arizona’s Cave Creek Coffee Company), a barrel-aged imperial porter that seemed to have a hint of souring, and a wonderful sour English-style old ale. Some beer obsessives believe sour ales are the next mass movement in craft brewing as the Western obsession with overhopping begins to fade. I, for one, welcome our new fruit and barrel-aged overlords.

Frankly, I would’ve been content at the Odell’s tent all day, but I didn’t want to monopolize Mr. Odell’s time, so we set off.

That’s when things turned. At the Anderson Valley tent, the pourer’s asked me to hold his shelter firmly to the ground as he filled my 4 oz. mug with their imperial IPA (which suffered in comparison to the Myrcenary, but which is still very good). We grabbed a chicken sandwiches at a Chic-Fil-A stand, a surprising appearance considering the company’s strong Southern Baptist roots, but welcome just the same. The wind was howling now, and then it started to rain in earnest.

Within minutes, the shelter tents around the fenced in festival were packed with attendees seeking warmth. Due to very little forethought, we found ourselves under a large tent in the northeast corner, a fair distance away from the beer tents. That’s where we stayed the next few hours, alternately shivering, making beer runs through sloppy mud and chilling downpours, and talking progressively louder as the alcohol set in.

This was my third Strong Beer Festival, and it’s become my favorite event of the year in Arizona. Breweries bring their best offerings, the sun is (usually) shining, and the temperatures are (usually) in the 70s. This year promised to be the best yet, with a splendid beer list and a far superior location. (While the tents are all fenced in, at least the surroundings of Steele Indian School Park are fetching. There’s even a nearby pond!)

So, sadly, the weather had to come in and mess things up. Eventually, though, through shared lack of comfort and flowing taps, the Strong Beer Festival ended the way they always do: with a lot of drunk people staggering about and passing out in painful places.

I had a planned route to cover all the beers that caught my eye on the pre-released list. I especially wanted to sample beers from local brewers (a chocolate stout from Prescott Brewing was a surprise favorite last year), but I’ll admit things fell apart quickly. At some point, we ended up back at Odell’s for another taste of Myrcenary, but here’s a list of what I had before that point.

Rogue Brewing - Old Crustacean Barleywine and Morimoto Imperial Pilsner

At one point, Rogue used to be one of the top three brewers in Oregon. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. These are two of their stronger standards, but stacked up against everything else, they were unimpressive.

Big Sky Brewing - Belgian Strong Golden Cherry Ale

Missoula-based Big Sky is an underrated brewery that makes an one of the best standard IPAs in the country. Their big beers don’t reach Arizona all that often, and I’d been wanting to try this for a while.

I was a little underwhelmed. For 10% ABV, the beer lacked substance, and what should’ve been pleasant cherry notes came off strangely cloying. Warmer weather would’ve helped, I’m sure.

Crispin - Desert Noir

Crispin Hard Cider Company (which is curiously based in Minnesota, but produces in California and England) is doing their damndest to give hard cider legitimacy. Desert Noir and The Jacket (which I had a bottle of recently) are valiant attempts, utilizing barrel-aging, unique yeasts and ingredients like agave syrup to pull cider up from its sorority house reputation. Desert Noir was plenty tasty, and while it didn’t have the layers of a great craft beer, I hope Crispin keeps up their cider revolution.

Deschutes Brewing - The Abyss

In Portland, the release of The Abyss is treated as an unofficial holiday, as beer fanatics snatch up entire boxes at a time for cellar aging. The Abyss is rated 100 by RateBeer.com. It’s arguably the holy grail of imperial stouts, and it’s tremendous. It’s been on tap at the Strong Beer Fest two years running, and its one of the festival’s highlights, especially because most attendees would rather stand in line for the name recognition of Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout (which is bland in comparison).

Dogfish Head - Pangaea

Dogfish founder Sam Calagione has become the face of craft brewing in the US, probably by design. Despite all the flash and gimmickry, Dogfish Head craft some great beers, and Pangaea (which takes ingredients from all 7 continents) is solid. I’m guessing that’s the first time I’ve ever had Antarctic water.

Bridgeport Brewing - Hop Czar

With something like a $7 price point for 6-packs and a 7.5% ABV, Hop Czar might yield a cheap buzz, but it’s also a travesty of overhopping. There’s no balance, and this venerable brewery should be ashamed to send this swill out.

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It may not have been ideal, but this year’s Strong Beer Festival was a memorable beginning to Arizona’s first official beer week. When we finally stumbled out to a waiting cab, we may have been soaked through and with our feet caked in beer-tinged mud, but at least we had the satisfaction of tasting some of the best beers in Arizona.

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