A couple weeks ago, on a hot Central Texas day, with rain threatening but never quite arriving, Sierra Nevada, the craft brewery out of California, took over a grassy field in east Austin for the ultimate in traveling beer festivals. The Sierra Nevada “Beer Camp on Tour” brought together craft brewers from all of the world to sample their brews, including some beers only available at the festival. It was divine.
Because it doesn’t make sense to drive yourself to a beer festival, I took a Lyft from my home in the hills of west Austin all the way across town to Carson Creek Ranch, a large open range not far from the airport and a very large compost yard owned by the city. When the driver picked me up in a black Lincoln Town Car with blacked-out window, wearing a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, I realized I was going to be riding in style.
After the 30-minute trip, we turned into a dirt parking lot, and pulled up to the entrance. A small group of people was standing by the gate and paused to look at who was getting out of the fancy Town Car. In a city like this it could be Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, or even Michael Dell. Instead, to their undoubted disappointment, it was just a no-name, slightly husky beer writer with a smile a Texas mile wide.
Ready to Rumble
Stepping out of the car, I could smell excitement in the air. Stretched out across the well-trampled lawn were rows of tents. Broken down in alphabetical order were nearly 100 breweries from across the country and around the globe offering hundreds of beers. Also present was the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp tent where very nice folks were pouring beers almost exclusively available at the festival. These were collaborations between Sierra Nevada and other breweries.
On opposite ends of the field were food trucks ready to serve the hungry attendees, and along one border of the festival was a stage with great live music. This is Austin, after all. There was also a special section where three different breweries shared “rare beer,” like hoppy quads, grad crus, and even an historical IPA each hour. These limited pours garnered long lines, but boy were they worth it.
Each festival attendee was issued a small, branded, tulip-shaped beer glass and tickets for 12 three-ounce pours. I started at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp tent where the collaboration beers were. Lined along two sides of the tent was tap upon tap of these special beers. Flanking each side of the tent were large posters that described each of the 12 beers available.
Now for the Collaboration Beers
First I tried the Dry-Hopped Belgian Golden Ale done with Duvel Moortgat in Belgium, which has a yeasty, hoppy flavor with a noticeable touch of lemon. It was impossible to pass this one up since it was one of the collaboration beers done with a foreign brewery, and I was not disappointed.
Then I tried a beer born out of a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and a brewery I don’t generally drink from, Saint Arnold from Houston. They made a surprisingly tasty Dry-Hopped Berliner-Style Weisse. Their description mentions it almost has a “dry, white wine flavor,” and they’re right, as odd as that sounds. It has a definite fruity flavor, but with a tart and citrus kick.
The yeast Sierra Nevada used for the beer passes on a touch of banana and cloves. As strange as this whole combination may be, and believe me it is, the resulting concoction ends up being a very refreshing, crisp, easy-drinking beer perfect for the hot summer evening.
I tried two IPAs: the East Meets West IPA done with Tree House Brewing Company from Massachusetts, and the West Coast DIPA, which was made in conjunction with Boneyard Beer out of Oregon. Both were great, hoppy IPAs. The West Coast one in particular was like a hop rocket shot right at your taste buds. It features Centennial, Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe hops in, as they say, “ridiculous amounts.” It was damn good. The East Meets West was an interesting beer that blended a serious hoppy flavor with a just a slight bitterness. It was a really nice and refreshing IPA.
The final collaboration beer I tried was one done with Mikkeller Brewery from Denmark. This one was fascinating. Sierra Nevada and Mikkeller produced a Thai-Style Iced Tea beer. I know that sounds really weird, and it was. I honestly didn’t know what to think about this beer. The two-ounce pour just didn’t give me enough to really decide if I liked it. I’ll need to see if I can track down a full bottle or draft, but it was truly a fascinating beer to drink. The amber ale base is spiced with star anise, orange peel, tamarind, black tea, and an addition of lactose. This gives it a creamy mouth-feel with a whole host of flavor dancing on your tastebuds.
I also worked my way around the tents trying beers from Hawaii, small Texas breweries that were in attendance, and a special Hoppy Quad beer from Victory Brewing that was hops meets Belgian Quad. That one was great.
To Self-Distribute Or Not to Self-Distribute
I also got to visit with some small brewers. My friend from Austin Beerworks was there and introduced me to the folks from Eureka Heights Brew Company in Houston. Their brewery sits on the dividing line with a small dry patch of the city, so they have an interesting challenge getting beer to their customers in an odd part of the city hostile to beer. What was most interesting in my conversations with the different breweries, though, was the debate about distribution.
If you’re a big brewery, you sign up with one of the large distribution companies to deliver your beer to bars and restaurants throughout the country. The problem for small craft breweries is once you’ve begun delivering your beer to a wider audience throughout a big city or very large state like Texas, it becomes a challenge not to sign up with one of these distributors. You think you need their resources to get your beer from point A to points B – Z and beyond.
However, going with one of these distributors gives up a lot of freedom, and a chunk of your profit. To a big liquor distributor, you’re nothing more than another beer on the shelf, but if you do your own deliveries, then your drivers become real advocates for your beer, because they’re true fans of what comes out of that brewery. They’re your employees, and want to share that beer with the world. They want to get your beer good shelf placement or on tap at a cool bar.
So with many of the breweries at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp, the discussions are deep: to self-distribute or not? The team at Austin Beerworks are big advocates for doing it yourself, and insist that in the end it’s not an unbearable cost to employ those drivers, buy those vans, and pay to have them out on the road.
The benefit that comes from doing it yourself is at the heart of every craft brewer. They got into the business to brew their own beer, share their vision with people who love beer as much as they do, and with the many amazing beers I tasted at the festival, it’s a testament to the success of America’s craft beer movement.
By the time I left the festival it was getting dark, and I was full of tasty food, amazing beer, and the appreciation that America’s entrepreneurial spirt can inspire in those who want to ensure that when you sit down to have a beer it’s a drink you can savor, a beer that isn’t just made millions at a time in a giant big beer facility, but made by people who care and just want to make good beer.