The last full weekend in March saw great weather, great beers, and great crowds at the Eighth Annual Great Arizona Beer Festival. Sunshine and temperatures in the mid-eighties rewarded those who ventured to the downtown Phoenix Arizona Center to sample 250 craft beers from the more than 100 breweries in attendance. Organization was top notch, with ticket sales and ID checks very timely. Booth layout spread across two large grassy areas, each with its own stage featuring live musical acts. The left side had most of the Southwest brewers, the food booths, and the shade, while the right offered the national and import brands along with unobstructed sunshine. A main rinse sink was provided but only some booths had water or rinse buckets. The crowds never got so dense that they obstructed dedicated patrons in search of a new beer experience. Two groups of a dozen each port-a-poties saw very steady use throughout the event, with lines often daunting. Some cigar stench was evident. Although a few uniformed Phoenix PD officers wandered throughout the crowd, the overall mood was festive and very peaceful, with the bands' high-energy music keeping the crowd going from 2 to 6 p.m. each day.
This festival is considered more fun than work for Arizona brewers and they respond by personally staffing their booths and explaining their beers. Arizona lacks significant competition at the distributor level but many new regional and imported beers were featured. Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale brought their golden colored Heather Ale with its incredible floral aromatics and nice dry character. They also made the first public showing of their cask-conditioned Amber. Light and dry for the Arizona market, it marks a good start to further pushes of the envelop. Another cask-conditioned treat was the pioneering 8th Street Ale from Four Peaks in Tempe. Its smooth mouthfeel combines with a light malt character that lets the hops dominate the flavors. Their aptly named Blind Date uses Medjool dates from Yuma that enter in the boil kettle and get 100% fermented out. Their Raj IPA sees a hop back for added hops fortitude, with the CIA reportedly adding it to pizza dough. Hops! Bistro and Brewery showed off their Vanilla Coffee Porter with its not-so-secret beans added directly to the serving tank. The Blue Spruce Ale from Prescott featured a berry not usually found in even fruit beers. Nimbus Brewing of Tucson reported installation of a new 30-barrel system, with expanded distribution via Costco and new labels to follow. The private label Jamestown Special Ale, served at the nearby Hooters is a clear dark amber with a dry, non-malt character and an early, slight hop bitterness followed by a very dry finish. Making the land journey from Las Cruces, New Mexico was High Desert Brewing, pouring their hoppy IPA, big Imperial Stout, intense Peach Wheat, evenly-balanced Amber Lager, 11.5% Barley Wine, and creamy Porter. The San Diego contingent combined forces to present an impressive wealth of brews at their large booth, pouring styles from Pizza Port, Stone, Alesmith, and Stuft Pizza. New Belgium of Ft. Collins, Colorado sampled bottles of their new Biere de Mars, with its full mouthfeel and very dry, complex flavors that barely hint of a yeast-inspired sourness. Thailand's largest selling beer, Chang, debuted in Arizona as a "malt liquor" but this 4.5% brew was crisp and dry, with its pronounced hop bitterness well matched with the medium body. One surprise newcomer now in limited U.S. distribution was the light lager from TINKOV. With the family recipe and possibly the beer itself emanating from St. Petersburg, Russia this straw-colored brew offered an early hop bitterness followed by a delicate hop flavor and crisp hop finish. Standing out for their packaging in a can, the Asahi Dry reveals on its label that it is now brewed and canned in Canada. Some non-traditional beverages on display were the 6.9% British Kcider in twist-off bottles, the orange-flavored Brain Broo containing Ginko, and the 5% lemon-lime DNA alcoholic spring water from Utica, NY in clear bottles. A.J.'s Fine Foods also offered 16 non-alcoholic beverages.
One thing even the best festival organizers can't plan for is employee sabotage. Attendees received their 4-ounce mini-mugs "sans logo" due to a disgruntled former print shop employee destroying the files necessary to silkscreen the festival glasses. Some pint glasses and T-shirts were available for sale at the Brewer's Connection booth. Mutual support between professionals and amateurs was apparent as customers visiting the booths of Gunnbrew Supply and Papago Brewing Company, and the Arizona Society of Homebrewers learned about the ingredients and processes involving in beer brewing. The Arizona craftbrew scene remains volatile, with some sad losses (Arizona Roadhouse) but some future gains (Oak Creek #2). Expect Leinenkugel's (now Hi-Tops) future loss (of customers) to be Tommyknocker's gain. Arizona allows manufacturers (breweries) to self-distribute as well as have a taproom (retail) at the brewery, so craftbrewers can assume some degree of control of their own destiny, unlike other states' business environments. Now in its third year, Rio Salido is taking advantage of this arrangement with their 12-ounce bottle-conditioned beers throughout Phoenix and Tucson. All the stakeholders for this quality event should be proud, and once again the Sun Sounds Radio Reading Service will benefit greatly from event proceeds. Look for other quality craft beer events benefiting Sun Sounds to take place in Tucson and Flagstaff throughout the year.
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri -