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It’s been a busy week for craft beer lovers in Western/Northern/Upstate New York. This year’s Rochester Real Beer Week is still going strong with, according to the events calendar, around fifteen related shindigs in or near the city today, and plenty more to follow over the weekend. This region is quite fond of its festivals, and with craft beer being something of an exploding market in New York, it can be tough to know what libation-related festivities deserve your time (and money). For me, the Real Beer Expo last Saturday was a winner.
The expo’s Web page explained that, “Too often we have found ourselves at beer festivals that simply offer all the same beers commonly available at any event…When you go to a tasting event you should hope and expect to have your eyes opened to new experiences.”†
Indeed, the sameness of offerings at local beer festivals does tend to become apparent after two or three such events, and I was dearly hoping the Real Beer Festival would live up to its promise of being different and better. I’d have to say that the organizers succeeded admirably. Several blocks of Gregory Street were partitioned off for the event, which was organized by the Business Association of the South Wedge Area (BASWA).†
Parking might have been an issue for some, but I have no idea, because Ben and I parked in a garage downtown, about twenty minutes’ walk from our destination. Of course, folks lined up ahead of time, and there was some shuffling and a few mutters as five o’clock came and went. Revelers who spent the few extra bucks for a VIP ticket were supposed to gain entry at five, while general admission ticket holders had to wait until six. We decided to shell out for the more expensive tickets, and were let in just a few minutes past five. Security personnel had been thorough about checking IDs beforehand, so the line moved quickly once the gates were opened.
True, a few of the rarer beers had run out by six, and it was nice to get some nosh from Le Petit Poutine food truck before they had much of a line. But I don’t think the VIP and GA experiences differed significantly. Firestone Walker, for instance, had a long line before I even made it into the gate, and continued to have one for the duration. Twice, I got in their line and then got out again, in favor of another brewery with next to no line. Missing out on the Firestone Walker Sacuba and Parabola are my one great regret of the evening.
Ah yes, but I was talking about why the Real Beer Expo is worth going to. The exhaustive tap list, that’s why. Whether you’re a local who’s thoroughly familiar with the Rochester beer scene, and maybe knows nearly everyone in it, or an out-of-towner looking for something tasty to drink, this is one beer festival that doesn’t disappoint. This year’s iteration featured 56 breweries under five tents—almost all of whom brought at least two, and most several beers to share—making the evening an exercise in selection.
Following the advice of a friend and fellow UNYHA member, I skipped most of the beers I’d already tasted, and tried to come up with something of a theme for my sampling. The theme idea sort of went out the window shortly after I got in the gate, but I did make sure to try almost everything that was rare and/or I hadn’t had yet.
Even so, the list is far too long for a comprehensive body of tasting notes. Since I’ve enjoyed offerings from most of the breweries in and right around Rochester, I focused mainly on stuff that’s hard to get here, or was completely new to me, such as:
- Sierra Nevada Coffee Stout
A roasty, malty stout with enough body to make me happy, and not so much coffee that it was too peppery or astringent
- Oskar Blues Death by Coconut
This English-style porter kind of tastes, in the words of a fellow attendee, “like drinking an Almond Joy, without the almonds.” I expected it to be unbearably sweet, and it is a bit sweeter than I’d usually go for. But I did enjoy it, all the same.
- Beau’s La Coeure Noire
Joe Bean coffee roasters were set up next to Beaus, serving shots of espresso to mix with the beer. Mixing the Black IPA with coffee added an extra dimension of roast an nutty flavors that I quite liked.
- Mikkeler It’s Alive
I was quite excited to see Mikkeler there, and couldn’t wait to try the It’s Alive when they mentioned that it’s their take on Orval. But while it was tasty, nutty and malty, I didn’t get much of the expected funk, and didn’t see any resemblance to Orval. I may have to give this one another try, since Belgian-style beers tend to be better from the bottle than the keg.
- Bruery Cuivre Anniversary
Barrel-aged, though I wasn’t sure of the actual style until I looked it up. It tastes a bit like a well-done barrel-aged barleywine, but the flavor is a bit lighter. This is because it’s “loosely brewed in the English-style old ale tradition”‡ with Belgian yeast, and then blended for a smooth, complex flavor. This was one of favorites; I’ll have to get hold of a bottle.
- Prison City Raspberry Blackberry Brett Ale
This is one of the local breweries I haven’t made it to yet, but based on their offerings at the Real Beer Expo, I’ll want to rectify that soon. Tart, funky, and delicious, this was another favorite taste of the evening. Their Blueberry Berlinerweisse was tasty, too.
This is only a smattering of the huge variety of beers available. I drank far more than listed here, and have probably forgotten a few that I drank. I do wish Rogue had been represented, though. That would have been awesome. Regardless, I had fun, and everyone else I saw seemed to be enjoying themselves too.
There was one other quite interesting thing at the beer expo; the Santiago Cigar Factory booth in front of Tap & Mallet. I’d met the guys, including the Dominican cigar roller last year at the Buffalo Beer Fest, and was happy to see them at the beer expo. This time, I chose not to indulge in a cigar, but once trade got going, the sweet smell of Connecticut and Dominican tobaccos filled the air on that corner, and wafted into all the nearby space. This was an unusual experience for me, used as I am to states with stricter smoking laws, but since it was real leaf tobacco, I found it a pleasant addition to the overall atmosphere. And thanks both to the free water provided by Tap & Mallet, and the realness of the beers, my head was only slightly irritated with me the next day. A fair trade I’d say, for such a fun beer festival.
‡ “Our Beers: Cuivre.” The Bruery. Accessed June 18, 2015.
†”Rochester Real Beer Expo.” Rochester Real Beer | South Wedge. Accessed June 18, 2015.
“Rochester Real Beer Week.” Rochester Real Beer | South Wedge. Accessed June 18, 2015.
All photos courtesy of Benjamin Wilson