Last Saturday I attended The Festival in Portland, Maine, and had one hell of a time. For those unaware, The Festival is hosted by the Shelton Brothers and 12% Imports, two major importers of fine beers from around the world, including Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, de Struise, etc… The Festival showcases beers, ciders, and meads from small artisanal makers around the world, many of which are hard to find and very lauded for their craft. On top of that, what makes the Festival different and awesome is that you literally get to meet the brewers of the breweries during this festival and not just a representative of the brewery. From Jean Van Roy of Cantillon fame, to Sean Hill of Hill Farmstead and everyone in between, the rock stars of the beer world are all there and hanging out drinking beer.
The Festival took place in a beautiful old warehouse, complete with old, peeling paint, and tremendous overhanging dormers jutting out from the building’s upper stories. It was actually quite beautiful for a beer festival local, and was located in a nice little industrial zone in Portland, close to the water. The building had a lovely wide open space with brewer’s lined up on either side, forming a gauntlet for attendees to run through. The food (which was quite delicious, and I am kicking myself for not taking pictures of) was located in another wide open space just past the beer, and the alleyways to the sides of the building were nicely provided for air, smoking, eating, pissing, etc…
My lovely girlfriend and I arrived at the Festival a full 2 hours early, prepared for Boston-like lines and rowdy crowds, as we had grown to expect with Beer Advocate’s festivals… We were pretty much the first people there. In fact, we ended up waiting about an hour before forming up a line, and in the meantime we talked to a couple folk who were running the Festival and were happy to let us know that we were in the right place, and that we were just early. Our earliness ended up being fine, as my girlfriend and I relaxed in the shade on a beautiful afternoon in Maine, and we were both happy to see that the line really only got long about twenty to thirty minutes before the Festival. By then, we were, of course, right at its head of the line and making friends with those around us.
Waiting in line, my biggest complaint for the Festival was the fact that they didn’t give us a beer list. I’m one of those people that loves to try and plan out their festival itinerary before it happens, and not even being able to know what beers are available, even during the festival itself, was a little irritating. The best we were given was a nice map that laid out where each brewer was located, but I had no idea what the brewers were offering.
My other fear for this festival was Maine’s law regarding how much beer could be poured. Maine law dictates that only a total of 48 oz. can be poured to any individual at a festival, which I was worried would not quite be enough for my money’s worth. Luckily, this proved to not be a problem when my girlfriend and I got inside the Festival.
Right out of the gates when the Festival began, we took off for the Cantillon stand at the far back of the building. It was actually hard to find, with just some simple boxes depicting the drunken man to guide us to their sweet libations, but we hopped in line (a line that would continue to grow until they ran out of beer approximately and hour before the festival closed) and ordered up our beers. My girlfriend got the 100% Kriek, a deliciously ripe cherry beer with proper Cantillon funk. Meanwhile, I opted for one of the holy grails of the Festival, Cantillon’s ‘new for the Festival beer,’ Lambic D’Haute Densité, a 9% ABV, experimental lambic that was likened to a lambic barleywine. The beer was funky and lightly caramel-like on the tongue, with just a hint of weight and no signs at all that the beer was 9%. It was quite delicious and well worth the hype.
Next, I continued my quest for the grails of the Festival by sampling some Westvleteren 12. It was here that I noticed the couple that was standing behind us in line as we entered the Festival had been following us to each beer we had sampled so far. We all had a good laugh and congratulated each other on our good taste before sampling the rare libation, a drink that was beautifully chocolaty with thick raisin and fig notes that touch upon the tongue beautifully. This beer was also worth the hype.
Finishing off my grail quest I headed over to the already mammoth line for Drie Fonteinen and sampled their vintage gueuze from 1998, a beer that was exquisitely funky on the tastebuds, moving from tastes of barnyard, to hay, to grass, and back again in a matter of seconds. The beer was phenomenal and had me three for three on the Festival’s grails.
From there we hit up Crooked Stave, an awesome brewery from Colorado that has been specializing in brewing brett beers, and which I have been dying to get my hands on. It was then that I remembered that we were at a weird Maine festival and that I was supposed be giving tickets away to receive a drink, (I think I absentmindedly handed them out at the Cantillon and Wesvleteren tables…). I nervously offered the men behind the table a single ticket, and asked them how much one ticket would get me. They all laughed, and essentially told me that for one ticket, my girlfriend and I could try all their beer, which was partially in jest and partially in truth. It turns out the brewer’s felt similarly about the Maine laws as the attendees did. At Crooked Stave we ended up only sampling one beer each, but their pours were generously large, and everyone around agreed that pouring one ounce of beer (which is what one ticket is supposed to get you) is impossible. Crooked Staves beers’, by the way, were fresh and crisp with some beautiful brett funk flavors working through the beer. I really wish I could get them around here.
After that we sampled from my favorite brewery of the night, Jester King, who offered a wide range of funky sounding beers, and who I have been wanting to try for quite some time. I settled on trying Salt Lick, a pecan wood smoked saison that was beautifully salty with a light saison funk and a nice meatiness to it that made the beer delectable. I want a bottle of this beer, and it was definitely my favorite of the night! Meanwhile, my girlfriend sampled Atrial Rubicite, an ale referemented in oak barrels with raspberries. If possible, this beer was even more freshly tasting of raspberry than Cantillon’s Kriek tasted of cherries. It was raw and juicy and absolutely impressed me. I would love to sample more that Jester King has to offer as the two beers I tried were amazing.
After that point the Festival slowly became a blur of amazing beers, ciders, and meads. The Maine Mead Works stands out in my girlfriend and I’s memory as having terrifically fresh fruited meads, including one that was mixed with lemonade and lavender, and really just tasted like brilliantly made lemonade. Cidre Traditionalle du Perche also had a great sparkling Perry that really dazzled our tastebuds. Black Albert from de Struise lived up to its hype on my palate, as well, and Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project continued to excite my taste buds with their deliciously hoppy, yet also wonderfully malty Macnifico. Peche Mortel from Dieu Du Ciel! was everything I hoped it would be and was served with a delicious little chocolate that only helped to compound the flavors within my mouth. Rising Tide released a wonderful little warehouse saison, Lyra, which demonstrated some great crisp flavors and funky yeast notes, and even Hill Farmstead’s lack of La Vermontoise (one of the few beer’s I knew was going to be at the Festival and was placing on my ‘grail-list’) their beers were still crisp, clean, and delicious as ever.
On top of the great beer at the festival, was some great food from the local Portland crowd, and some great company. For food, I first indulged myself in a delicious pork belly sandwich from the small axe food truck, and I was hugely satisfied with the tender juicy meat and light bread of the sandwich. My girlfriend ordered a slice of pizza from Pizza Pie on the Fly, which was nicely crisp in crust and fresh in the vegetables it provided. At the end of the night I went back for seconds and indulged in a Lithuanian kielbasa from the Thirsty Pig. The kielbasa was tender and delectable with a perfect amount of spicing. The food at this festival was great.
During a break to the outside alley my girlfriend and I also met one of the sons of one of the Shelton Brothers and had a great talk about the beer world and the people we know. It even turned out that my girlfriend’s roommate of two years had gone to school with the son, which was an odd happenstance. Back inside the Festival we found an old friend that we hadn’t seen in years, and we made friends with the couple that had been in line with us at the beginning and in the Westveleteren line.
All in all, we met some great people and had some great beers, and ate some awesome food. Attending The Festival was more than worth the money, and the 48 oz. pour system was not a problem at all. I actually left the Festival giving away quite a few drink tickets to friends, and I saw a lot of people doing similarly. The Festival was a huge success, and easily one of the best beer festivals I’ve been too. I can’t wait till next years!