You know about the Slow Food movement, right? Though its actual tenants are not exactly crystal-clear, even to its adherents, they tend to revolve around sustainable agriculture & food production, locally-grown ingredients, organic farming, and a strong commitment to food that tastes fantastic, without all those corporate additives and preservatives & such. Me, I love good food as well, though I’m hardly a “foodie”. A great salty-chicken burrito at Chipotle fills me with almost the same level of gastronomic satisfaction as does a five-course meal at Chez Panisse. Imagine my delight, however, when I learned that, among the many “Taste Pavilions” at San Francisco’s inaugural Slow Food Nation festival/convention this past weekend, there would be a “beer tent”. Not just any beer tent, mind you, but one with at least 40 different US brewers, many of whom don’t even sell their wares in Northern California. I was already ready to scrape together my quarters & dimes so my wife and I could sample all the high-end chocolate, cheese & charcutrie we could handle – not to mention a wine pavilion that was pouring as many full glasses of the country’s finest wines as any attendee could ingest – but the beer tent pushed me deep into my mattress, where I found enough coin for two $65 tickets. I cleared from my stomach any contaminants that might mar my drinking pleasure in the days prior to the festival, and promptly lost four pounds. I was ready for action, and upon entry, I pounced.
All right, it wasn’t that dramatic. No, even the beer tent itself wasn’t this massive beer-fest thing, just a simple canopy draped over three trailers that housed, respectively, “draft beer”, “cask beer” and “bottled beer”. At any given time, there were no more than 40-50 people milling around the area sampling the ales. In fact, the Slow Food Nation organizers did a fantastic job keeping this wildly popular event from feeling like a feeding frenzy. They sold out 4 four-hour “tasting pavilion” sessions to 2,000 people each, and there’s no doubt they could have sardined in 4,000 people if they wanted to without breaking any fire codes. But they didn’t – and thus, we had a great time and never waiting in a line longer than five minutes. As far as the seven different beers I sampled, there was only one true standout, though I had a blast trying them all. I’ll list them in order of the libational pleasure each provided me with:
1. GOOSE ISLAND MATILDA – Outstanding. Smooth and mildly sweet, this is a still, unclouded Belgian-style ale without all the intensity that implies. I have no idea what style category to throw it into, and I’m not connected to the internet as I type this on an airplane, so let’s just call it the show’s winner, and a fantastic beer that is available in bottles wherever these guys distribute (unfortunately not where I live). 8.5/10.
2. FIRESTONE WALKER LITTLE OPAL – I understand this beer is < 4% alcohol, and yet tastes like something at least twice that potent. Incredible work wringing out all the taste possible from such a “mild” beer. It was a very yeasty hybrid of a witbier and a tripel, with strong taste of lemon and cloves. My notes say, “like a lesser-ABV La Fin Du Monde”, so obviously I suspected something. Really good beer that I hope they bottle sometime soon. 7.5/10.
3. 21ST AMENDMENT TRANSCONTINENTAL IPA – Had this one on cask, and thought it was great. A delicious, well-balanced IPA that’s apparently only at the brewpub, which happens to be in San Francisco, which happens to be where I live. 7.5/10.
4. CORONADO BREWING “SAISON BY THE SEA” – Easy drinking, much more simple an smooth than I expected, with none of the earthiness I expect out of a saison. I’m getting the feeling that “saison” is more of a marketing term for this one, and others in that style I’ve encountered recently. No matter, this one was quite good. 7/10.
5. GREEN FLASH “LE FREAK” – For beer dorks only. Totally a beer that would scare off most people; I actually talked to a few people who tried it because of the name and immediately set it down for the garbage collector to dump out. Hops, hops and more hops. A very cloudy orange; bitter and yeasty. Sort of an “everything but the kitchen sink” taste to it. Strange, but strange enough to be kinda cool. It caught me in a good enough mood to give it a 6.5/10.
6. LOST ABBEY WITCH'S WIT – It hurts me to rate a Lost Abbey beer this low. This witbier, however, tasted like a pilsner, smooth and unexciting and lacking any sort of spicing to give it character. It was a bit unusual for its form, and I drank it very quickly and with some amount of relish. Would probably not buy it again, though. 6/10.
7. SAN DIEGO BREWING DUBBEL FANTASY – I’ll give ‘em an “E” for effort, but this very strong Belgian dubbel was way too sweet and candied for my liking. Thin-bodied and pretty much what a first-time foray into Belgian brewing might taste like (“hey guys, let’s try and make a dubbel!”). 5.5/10.
Truth be told, I have no idea how the brewers were selected, and whether or not their respective approaches have anything to do with the “Slow Food principles”. That said, as a beer festival and as a food festival, this was an unqualified success, and if the folks behind it promise to run the next one the way they did this one, count me in for 2009.