Beer festivals have a lot going for them, what with brewski and festivity right there in the very name. What’s better than brushing your teeth (please?), strapping on your second-cleanest jeans, and stepping out to try dozens of new beers with hundreds of likeminded humans? Hell, a lot of beer fests even have taco trucks and grilled-cheese huts right there in the convention center these days. And do you think some of those find a way to incorporate bacon? They do! There’s nothing like a good beer fest.
They’re even better if you have your own act together. You have no control over how well-planned and -executed the event itself is, and little more influence over the sloppy, sweaty behavior of your fellow attendees, but you still hold most of the cards when it comes to determining your own enjoyment, because beer fests are free-range affairs that give the drinker plenty of agency.
Thoughtful preparation and a sound game plan can go a long way toward neutralizing the obvious risks baked into the concept of several hundred (or more!) strangers all getting drunk together two ounces at a time. Here are 14 tips to help you have fun no matter what kind of barbarity is swirling around you.
1. Attend the right session. A lot of beer fests are one-timers, but another lot give you the option to choose between, say, the Friday-evening, Saturday-afternoon, and Saturday-evening sessions. Your personal schedule is going to be the most important determinant, sure, but if you’ve got the freedom to choose, know this: Friday night draws the most serious beer geeks, and Saturday night the most couples on dates and other happy dilettantes. Saturday afternoon is the sweet spot between the two, culturally, with the drawback (or benefit?) that it compels you to be wasted before sunset on the most important day of the week.
2. As for springing for the VIP ticket. A lot of festivals will dangle the chance to pay a 50-percent surcharge to get in an hour early, before the even-less-washed masses arrive. Then you can zip around and try some special beers, or shoot the shit with the brewers, and maybe eat pulled pork off a Styrofoam plate, something like that. I’m honestly not certain, because my kind don’t fly first class, but my hunch is that it’s not worth it unless you are assured of trying a certain beer you’ve been chasing. And come on, hoss, don’t be chasing certain beers!
3. Head in stone-cold sober. I know this is tough, especially on Saturday night, but you really should resist the temptation to prime the pump. Even starting at zero, you’re going to get to 60 way before you realize it, I promise. You paid like $50 for this ticket, man! Don’t make it $57 by tacking on a superfluous pint at the bar across the street beforehand. Not only is that cost-ineffective, it cheats you out of eight samples’ worth of liver space at the main event.
4. Don’t bring a coat, no matter how cold it is. If there’s a coat check, it will be half-assed and chaotic, because none of the volunteers will have ever run one before. Haha, you think in your haughty ignorance, how hard can it be to run a coat-check station? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve seen a lot of beer-fest lackeys try and fail. And in the more likely event that they don’t even offer to stash your coat, you don’t want to be all parka’d up for the night in an overcrowded, under-ventilated room full of dirty drunks like yourself.
5. Go ahead, wear your fanciest beer shirt. You’re among your people, so let your signifiers fly. Be positive about it, though. Don’t tell us what you hate, or what life’s too short for. You like Allagash, though, right? Who doesn’t like Allagash? Wear your Allagash shirt!
6. Eat something (but not everything!) beforehand. If the fest starts 90 minutes after your normal meal time, you’re all set. Otherwise, eat about half a weekday lunch’s worth of decent calories before you head out, like one of those yogurt-covered weightlifter candy bars or a hot dog or something. Most of the fests I’ve been to lately have featured some sort of food component, but you might as well control what you can up front. Don’t be gross, though, for the obvious reasons.
7. Bring ID, no matter how decrepit you are. Beer fests are usually working on temporary licenses, some of which stipulate the hiring of actual police to mill about looking bored and thirsty. That means the ticket-takers—who are not likely bartenders, bouncers, or RMV workers in civilian life—only know one thing about valid, government-issued proof of identity and age: Everyone sure as hell better have it.
8. Start slow. Take a lap around the perimeter, get the lay of the land, figure out where the bathroom is. Breathe a little. Reflect on your previous victories; banish all thought of defeat. Now go get yourself a li’l cup of beer. Then another, etc. The consensus battle plan calls for working from light beers to dark, weaker to stronger. There’s tons of variation and overlap, of course, because plenty of pale ales pack double the punch of plenty of stouts, but as a baseline principle, this approach makes sense. You don’t want to burn your taste buds out too early on super-roasty porters or high-proof quintuple IPAs. But at the same time, if you’re just not into cream ales and pilsners, then might as well head right to your own personal top shelf, bearing in mind that if your top shelf is where the strong beers are kept, you need to monitor your pace. I repeat: You will get drunk by last call, unless you explicitly try not to. I know you might want to fire down a dozen quick shots of imperial stout to get your bearings, but it’s best to ease into things, lest you turn into a bloated, soaked load before halftime.
9. Get in with the right crowd. Whenever possible, situate yourself in the sample line behind a well-scrubbed, dad-looking dude in loose pants and tight sneakers. You want to follow the middle-of-the-road folks, appearance-wise. The better-looking people could be cultural tourists who will ask the server a lot of questions, which is perfectly reasonable, but not something you want to wait in line behind; the slobbier ones are almost certainly hardcore beer geeks, many of whom roll out of their futons each morning looking to pontificate about hop acidity and fermentation temperature with whoever has no choice but to listen.
10. Give your phone a rest. It’s rude and reckless to wander around glued to a screen all night, so resist the urge to set a personal record for beer-app check-in badges. The samples came at you so fast—and your palate gets so worked over so early in the night—that your star-slinging is likely to be flawed anyway. Big and brutal IPAs, imperial stouts, and sours hog the ranking spotlight for the good reason that they’re great beer styles, but also for the bad reason that they make a strong first impression. Excellent beers brewed in quieter styles that don’t scream for attention among the 75 things you guzzle at a beer fest deserve better than to be marked down just because they’re not rigged to win the Pepsi Challenge.
11. Learn something. Even though we established that the most important tasting strategy is to focus on the styles and breweries you know you like, once the ticket’s paid for and you’re in the room anyway, you have a perfect opportunity to try some strange stuff at no additional charge. Look for a familiar beer tarted up with a new hop, or whatever’s been aged in a brandy barrel or run through an infuser full of gooseberries and tarragon. I like to stage little clandestine taste-tests by having three or four beers of the same style in quick succession. Beer fests are a normal person’s best opportunity to do some comparing and contrasting.
12. Dump the bad stuff, discretely. I know it’s only an ounce or two of harmless little suds, but the alcohol does add up. And even more than that, you want to avoid confusing your poor tongue any more than necessary. Don’t make it form extensive opinions about something that clearly wasn’t your thing from the first whiff.
13. Be patient with your fellow degenerates. Even though I maintain that beer fests are generally worth the ticket price, they’re not exactly the cheapest way to get twisted, so the crowd’s not just going to be indiscriminate drunks. No, instead, they’ll be highly discriminating drunks. That means you’re going to get a drop or two spilled on an appendage or three throughout the course of the evening. What are you gonna do? It’s a beer festival. It’s not like a baseball game, where in an alternate universe it’d be reasonable to expect a semi-sober crowd. Nah, beer fests are for heavy-duty beerbags—like you! So relax.
And be cool to the staff, too. Most of them are day-jobbing friends of the brewers and organizers who are just in it for the free beer. They’re almost always doing their damndest and smiling their widest, so don’t get pissy if they don’t happen to know if Jeff’s here yet or where your particular bank’s closest ATM is located.
14. Don’t drive, ever. Some festivals offer reduced-price designated-driver tickets that entitle the bearer to unlimited seltzer and pretzels or some damn horror, but I don’t know if a single one’s ever been sold. Chances are the whole crowd paid several dozen dollars to drink beer all night! Not everyone ends up drool-y, but no one is in any shape to drive. I trust you’ve got a sensible transportation routine worked out for your day-to-day drinking life, but beer fests can be tricky for first-timers because a lot of people underestimate the impact of long-haul beer-sipping. All those two-ounce baby steps tend to take a body pretty far down Shitfaced Road, and hurray for that. So just don’t drive.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.