It’s has been running for seventeen years now but this was my first time attending Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival (HAF) and I would like to share some of my highlights.
Five days, long hours, lots of regular seasonal pours, limited edition tappings, tons of people, yards of tent, challenging navigation, big ABV beer, generous pours and a really, really big Christmas tree set the stage for an eventful fest.
I was only able to attend Wednesday and Thursday so I made sure I got there early to ascertain my plan of attack. Armed with my guide and a liberal amount if highlighter I set about knocking beers off my list.
The set-up was quite impressive; an entire courtyard centered around a giant Christmas tree and encased in tents to keep the rain off your head and keep you warm. The lay out was divided into three serving areas and I was impressed with the amount of seating areas so you could grab a taster and take notes. There were a few food options and on Wednesday at least, Christmas music played over the speakers, which was a festive touch.
Upon entering you are given a mug (way better than a tiny glass) that has a map of the area attached. Right away I encountered a challenge when I noticed there was no link between the guide and the map affixed to my mug. Finding the beer you wanted, especially the limited tappings, was a bit of trial and error.
According to the organizers there was a mobile app to link beer location to guide but alas as a cell-poor Canadian I could not make use of this helpful tool!
One other minor annoyance was the lack of rinsing areas and availability of water. There was a mug wash halfway out the exit but the servers had no water so you could not rinse between tasters. Not a big deal but with hefty, spicy winter beers you get some weird cross-contamination. Also, it would have been nice to have a few random water coolers around so you could grab a glass of water between beers.
Line-ups were quick and easy during the day but got a little muddled in the evening. There are a lot of people in a relatively small space so it takes some jostling to get to where you are going.
Overall the organization seemed pretty good. I found the space seemed small at times as it got later in the day and standing space became pretty sparse. There were many volunteers and security so while it definitely got loud it never got raucous. That being said I am glad I attended early in the week since the waits were manageable and the space still navigable.
But enough on the logistics lets get onto the beer.
As always, I pre-scout the beer list to try and highlight all the beers I want to try. At a winter beer festival this meant 97% of my booklet was covered in highlighting -this makes it easy since I could pretty much get into any line-up and find something I wanted to try.
Some of my festival favourites (in alphabetical order) included:
Cascade Brewing Diesel #2 Chocolate Barrel Aged Imperial Stout – No surprise here since I think Cascade may be incapable of making a bad beer. A smooth, dark and clean stout. You get just the right amount of balance between sweet and roasted flavours.
Firestone Walker/Barrelworks Wild Merkin Barrel Aged Oatmeal Stout and Gueze Blend – Stout and Sour? It is like my two favourite beer styles got married and produced a wunderkind. The result is a light and sharp stout as the gueuze cuts down some of the full bodiedness of the oatmeal stout.
Full Sail Brewing Co. 2011 Black Gold Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout – Deep, dark and heavy stout that is drowning in sweet liqour notes and maltiness. Aged to perfection this one is a true winter warmer.
Gilgamesh Brewing Blitz’N’Prancer Spiced Belgian Strong Ale – The most unusual beer at the festival by far. Tons of spices on the nose and in the flavour. Couple this with lots of carbonation and a light bodied and you get a beer that reminds me of an herbal root beer.
Rusty Truck Brewing Co. Cherry Chocoholic Baltic Porter – A nice light treat that balances real cherry taste with a cocoa flavour. Sweet but not cloyingly so, smooth to drink with just a touch of bitterness at the finish.
Seven Brides Brewing Lil’s Brandy Barrel Pils Pilsner – A nice break from the dark beers, this pils had a big yeasty nose and a slight fruitiness in the flavour. A light and crisp palate refresher.
Stone Brewing Co. Stone Suitable for Cave Aging Imperial Smoked Porter – Again, no surprise that Stone is bringing a great beer. I am not a big fan of smoked beer but this one does a great job of tempering the smokiness with lots of sweet and roasted flavours. Like a wisp of smoke on the finish not like campfire in a bottle.
Widmer Brothers Brewing Brrrbon Vanilla Cask Strength Barrel Aged Imperial Red IPA – A winter red IPA? Another great marriage of styles resulting in a hoppy beer balanced by sweet vanilla, caramel and liqouriness. I liked this one enough to pick up a bottle on the way home!
2008 Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy – Big, heavy and liqoury like a fine aperitif this one is definitely a sipper. Warms well opening up the beer and letting the maltiness and bitterness come through.
2009 Dogfish Head Festina Peche – An unexpected treat amidst a sea of malt and bourbon. Bright, crisp, sweet and tart festina peche stood apart from the crowd though I had never really thought of it as a winter offering. Like a sweet taste of summer fruit in the middle of winter.