Written by Tom Becham
On September 26, 2009, the city of Ventura (or San Buenaventura, if you want to be snobby) played host to its first ever beer festival, but hopefully not its last.
Even now, after the event, it is difficult to determine how many brewers – and how many beers – were involved. The initial promotions touted “more than 30 different brews”, while the website claimed more than 40 closer to the time of the event, and literature at the gate said 60. The last figure is certainly possible.
Given that this time of year in Southern California is usually still quite warm, the offerings tended to be IPAs, blonde and pale ales, hefeweizens and pale lagers. After some time of sampling, it was tough to tell many of the beers apart. I’ve not made any comments about the more generic beers. My remarks will be reserved for the distinctive ones.
Brewing giants like Bud, Miller, Newcastle and Guinness were represented, as were tiny local brewpubs and craft brewers. Now, to me, the purpose of such beer festivals is to showcase smaller craft brewing companies, brewpubs and the like. Simply put, Sam Adams is not going to even notice whether or not I comment on this blog that their Octoberfest beer is even yummier on tap than from the bottle. Likewise, Sierra Nevada will not prosper or perish based my observation that its Bigfoot Barley Wine is one of the best examples of the style made in North America. On the other hand, good press in any form can literally keep a small craft brewer or gastropub in business. And if such a small concern deserves my praise, then I feel obligated to give it.
In my estimation, the stars of the festival were Fireman’s Brew and Wolf Creek Restaurant and Brewing Company.
Fireman’s Brew is an interesting company. Started by two Los Angeles County firefighters after some days on the fire lines, Fireman’s Brew also sells packaged coffee and soft drinks (it calls these “on duty drinks” on its website, and its beers “off duty drinks”). A portion of the company’s proceeds also go to the National Fallen Fireman’s Fund. Fireman’s Brew only makes three beers: Blonde (a classic pilsner), Brewnette (cute, eh? Don’t be fooled, it’s a massively strong doppelbock), and Redhead (a red ale).
The Redhead is quite nice. Normally, I’m not partial to red ales. Too often, craft brewers make red ales that seem like they just grabbed a home brewer’s pale ale kit and simply added some higher lovibond malt to get an amber color. Fireman’s Brew Redhead is more distinctive than that. It seems almost like a classic Irish Red, with a solid malt backbone. Unlike most Irish Reds, it also has some distinctive hopping that adds dimensions to the aromatics of the beer, and perfect balance to the palate.
The Brewnette is not good; it is fantastic! This beer has the strong caramel malt aroma, and caramel and toffeeish malt taste you would expect from a double bock. It also has some hints of roastiness, but balances things with hops, just before the sweetness reaches a point where it might get cloying. As well, this malt bomb hides well its hefty alcohol content (over 10% ABV), and the first indicator that you are drinking a very strong beer could be when your legs fold and dump you to the floor. I would only ask the good people at Fireman’s Brew if they could maybe work on giving this big beer a bit more body than it has now. It seemed just slightly on the thin side for this style. Still, no serious complaints, and I would gladly stock up on this one for California’s rainy season.
Do yourself a favor and visit Fireman’s Brew’s website at www.FiremansBrew.com . The company is growing, and wants to expand to the reach both coasts, and – I’d imagine – Chicago, as well.
Wolf Creek is also an interesting concern. Located in Valencia, within minutes of Six Flags Magic Mountain, Wolf Creek’s website shows that it serves more bottled craft beers from other breweries than it makes on premises. (Only four Wolf Creek beers are currently listed on the website.) Apparently, Wolf Creek makes more money from its restaurant and catering then it does from its brewing operation. This is curious, since their Howlin’ Hefeweizen is the best hef I’ve tasted that isn’t made in Germany. Truth be told, it’s even better than a number of German hefeweizens. The secret, according to Owner/Brewer Rob McFerren, is the use of genuine German hefeweizen yeast. Now, I could easily guess which brewery’s yeast Mr. McFerren uses, but since I love his hef, I’ll keep his secret. The Howlin’ Hefeweizen has the classic aromas of clove and banana, with strong overtones of apricot. The aromatic elements also carry over into the taste. This isn’t a particularly new approach to hefeweizen, but when executed this flawlessly, does it have to be new? Unfortunately, Wolf Creek doesn’t seem to sell its products off-premises, but I would heartily recommend a visit to anyone who will be in the vicinity of Six Flags Magic Mountain. Visit their website at www.wolfcreekbrewingco.com .
Now, some random comments and observations about other beers and brewers present at the festival:
Sierra Nevada – Bigfoot Barley Wine – VERY nice! Kellerweis – good, solid hef
Leinenekugel – Sunset Wheat – good, but some unsual flavors for a wheat ale
Lagunitas – Imperial Red – Definitely worth a try, especially for the hop heads in the crowd.
Pyramid – Juggernaut Red – WHY?
New Belgium – Nice swag! Oh, and the Skinny Dip wasn’t bad, either.
Deschutes – Mirror Pond Pale and Black Butte Porter – okay, but this company is wayyyyy overrated.
Karl Strauss – for a craft brewer from San Diego that’s been in business for over 20 years, why didn’t I hear about them until 6 months ago? They need to do some marketing, as their products are seriously good. I’m not normally a big fan of lagers, but Strauss could sure change my mind…
Island Brewing (from Carpinteria, locally) – they need to find a distinctive style and market niche. Their products are nice and have potential, but need more oomph.
Telegraph (from Santa Barbara, CA) – Oatmeal stouts should NOT have the same hopping level as an IPA!
I’d like to close with some comments about the festival itself.
With any first-time event, some snags are to be expected. So, I’m not too upset with the snafu at the front gate with admissions and on-site ticket sales (but am grateful I bought mine on-line). I would suggest that if this event happens again in the future (fingers crossed!), that the organizers find a larger venue, extend the festival to cover a whole weekend, and revamp the gate and admissions process to run more smoothly and quickly. In retrospect it seems obvious that event organizers did not expect quite so large a crowd as showed up to the festival, so much can be forgiven as many other things could have gone wrong.
I do have one salient complaint that event organizers – and they will be getting a copy of this article – need to address. Ventura’s Mission Park has its own restrooms, which have about three places each for men and women. Only five porta-johns were brought in for the festival to augment the existing facilities. 3000 was the planned level of admission for the festival, though by the last hour or so, anyone who paid was basically admitted. So, counting staff and brewery personnel, I’d say about 3500 people were present at the California Beer Festival. Now, even Remedial Beer Math skills should demonstrate that 3500+ people divided by 11 available restroom seats = long lines + potentially ugly urine-related incidents. Luckily, the crowd seemed very good-natured and patient.
In all, I’d rate Ventura’s first California Beer Festival a success. The general public got to sample good beer in a nice atmosphere on a great day. I hope the event returns, and will support it wholeheartedly if it does.
All Writers at the Professor’s site are responsible for the accuracy of their comments. Tom Becham is from Southern California. His reviews are oftem for beers tasted at home, from the bottle: brewpubs being few and far between in the area. He has tried over 200 different beers.
2 Replies to “City of Ventura holds first California Beer Festival”
Good review. If the festival continues, it may well be worth making a trip to SoCal. Thanks for the beer reviews…a number of them you mentioned are available at my local beer store.
Very good review on both the event and the beers. The man knows the brews and I appreciate the honest and accurate assessment of our local event. I look forward to the festival’s return.