Teeming masses of increasingly inebriated folks who don’t know or care what’s being poured. 45-minute lines. Tired, stressed brewery staff dealing with falling-down drunks getting belligerent about “short” pours and closing times.
All reasons I don’t love beer festivals.
Which is why I was blown away while hanging out at the Custom Brewcrafters table on Saturday at Tap New York 2012; people were returning and bringing friends, even towards the very end of the day, because they remembered the beer. They asked for their favorites by name (Krysztoff was on offer, as well as the beloved Caged Alpha Monkey IPA).
And they said “thank you.”
Tap door prices are $68 on Saturday and $58 on Sunday. There’s still a hefty attendance (organizers estimated 3,200 on Saturday and 1,600 on Sunday), and there is some amount of waiting, but not nearly at the level of other beer festivals I’ve attended. And people are, for the most part, appreciative of the opportunity to taste the best beers in the state. I counted one visibly drunk person in two days. That’s ludicrously respectable by alcohol festival standards, in my experience.
I found Tap to be a chance to experience amazing beer, chat with the brewers, learn, network, and enjoy the gorgeous setting on Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. I had heard that this was one of only two really highly regarded beer festivals in the state (the other being Belgium Comes to Cooperstown, held in August) and I think the relatively high price, justified by the high quality and great selection of beers and the abundance of free food, keeps crowds low and imposes a dose of reverence that’s sorely missing from the rest of the beer festival circuit.
If you had any doubt that New York breweries are making some outstanding, off-the-hook, ridiculously delicious beer, Tap will change your mind in minutes. From Captain Lawrence to Ommegang to Horseheads, from tiny Peekskill (currently on a 3.5-bbl system) to Southern Tier (available in the Netherlands), great breweries and exceptionally talented brewers abound. I was looking forward to taste the beers of Peekskill, where brewer Jeff “Chief” O’Neil (formerly of Ithaca Beer Co.) has recently taken the reigns, and their flowery, citrusy, mouthwatering Double Standard IPA was a highlight of the weekend. This is a brewery to watch, especially once they move into their new, larger (15-bbl) brewhouse this summer.
I did get a chance to try the beers of Spider Bite, winner of the F.X. Matt Memorial Cup for Best Brewery in the State, and loved the beers, especially Boris the Spider Russian Imperial Stout, a rich and intense stout with a beautiful coffee aroma and tight reigns on the sweetness and boozy notes. I wasn’t surprised to see Chatham take Best Brewery in the Hudson Valley despite stiff competition; their beers, particularly the porter, are consistently excellent and garner widespread local support.
Southern Tier’s been aging some of its Back Burner barleywine in Buffalo Trace barrels. If you think that sounds like a great idea, you’re correct; the bourbon flavor is a beautiful accompaniment with the dried fruit and mellowed malts. I would love to try this after a few years of cellaring. On the other end of the “extreme beer” spectrum, Bronx Brewery impressed me with its sole offering: a crisp, pleasantly hopped unfiltered pale ale. Like many Tap beers, this is something I’d never normally get to try, living on the other end of the state; the fact that the smaller downstate breweries were so well represented makes this festival extremely worthwhile for an upstater willing to make the trip.
Along with Captain Lawrence, Port Jeff Brewing is now high on my list of reasons to travel downstate whenever possible. Their “Ryes ‘n bock” in particular was a seriously impressive interplay of sweet malts and creamy rye; I could have literally stayed by the table all day sipping it while people-watching. Greenport, too, was pouring a very nice maibock––a style I look forward to all year. And Kelso’s IPA and Saison were fantastic. During one moment of particularly festive spirits I purchased a strip of chocolate-covered bacon and proceeded to dip it in a blend of Kelso IPA and Custom Brewcrafters Krysztoff. I regret nothing.
But the absolute best part of Tap? The Villa Vosilla, where most of the industry folks stayed for the weekend. Between the 1970s decor, out-of-control plant life, and Austin Powers–style dance lounge and the shuffleboard and PacMan opportunities in the gaming room, the Villa Vosilla is a form of entertainment in itself and a beloved part of Tap New York. I hope to return to it every year, for this extremely satisfying and beer-supportive festival.