Days of Drinking Past: A Philly Beer Camp Experience

All You Need to Know (Is It Worth the $65)

Sierra-Nevada-Beer-Camp-Across-AmericaPeople are busy and don’t always have time for the personal ramblings of a beer fanatic. For that reason, let’s start with the wrap up for those who missed out on the biggest roaming beer fest in these United States and want to know if it is worth attending next year (assuming there is one). The Sierra Nevada Beer Camp rolled into Philadelphia as a huge undertaking that came with equally huge expectations. For the most part, those expectations were met and in some ways exceeded. It was a safe, enjoyable beerfest handled well by the staff and the other attendees. It wouldn’t have been half as good if the Beer Campers had acted like drunken idiots instead of the respectful and friendly crowd we all turned out to be. Well done us.

Before I continue the lovefest, I do have to address one significant area of disappointment. If you are not aware, Sierra Nevada created collaboration beers with 12 respected brewers from across the country and released them in a case. The idea is that Sierra Nevada and the brewers would go on a 7 city tour, bringing in any local brewers that wanted to join them for a big celebration of beer. For Philadelphia, only 7 of the 12 Beer Camp collaborators had a presence. The brewer I was most excited to sample, 3 Floyds, was not in attendance, nor was Asheville, New Glarus, Ninkasi, or Cigar City. Basically everyone that doesn’t already distribute in PA (Cigar City does to a small degree) was a no show.

While I can understand that from a business perspective, why spend the money and effort when the festival goers can’t legally drink your brews in their homes (PA has a law that you can’t even bring beer from other states over the state line into PA), I was let down as a beer fan. With so many restrictions, stupid beer laws and lobbyists trying to protect the market share of lackluster brewers, this was a chance to try some beers from heavy hitters we don’t normally get. I have no idea if their absence was due to regulations or brewer’s choice, but it doesn’t diminish my frustration. End rant.

Minor grievances aside, out of the dozen or so beerfests I’ve been to, this is easily one of the best. It sprinkles in major players on the national beer scene with local brewers and gourmet food trucks in a secluded park setting practically at the door step of one of the biggest beer cities on the East Coast. $65 isn’t an outrageous price for 5 hours and 80+ brewers, however taking food money into account brings the actual cost closer to $80.

This might be too much to ask if the food wasn’t as good as it was, or the event wasn’t as well run as it was, or the collaborator and local brewers didn’t bring their A-game like they did. Had big beers like Pliny the Elder, Supplication, and Sucaba not been there, maybe I would need to reevaluate the cost vs reward, but either way the experience was a positive one. For all the ways this could have gone wrong, it just worked, and worked fantastically. Should this become an annual Philly event, I’ll have another yearly, must attend beerfest along with PA Flavor and the Ren Faire BrewFest. Cheers to next year!

For those with some time to kill that want to know what it was like on the ground, read on.


My Personal Experience – Preamble

I’m made aware of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp via twitter, making it the first time in history that twitter’s been useful (#twitterblows). I suppose there’s that whole media black out, grass roots resistance of a despotic Egyptian government over throw stuff, but you can’t drink a revolution (unless you are in Chicago, Anti-Hero is delicious).

I go to the Beer Camp Web site, look over the list of 89 brewers, both national and local, slated for the 5 hour event. Let’s see, Firestone, Russian River, Ballast Point…I give my brain some time off because its services wont be needed here. I purchase tickets for the tidy sum of $67.50 (w/ tax). I rope one friend, Chris, into coming along but can’t rally the other beer faithful (your wife’s due that weekend with your first child? Snoooze…)

The day comes and Chris and I head out early to the SEPTA train stop in Downingtown, directly across from the tinily terrific Station Taproom. Side Note: If you find yourself in Downingtown, possibly visiting the Victory brewery, I recommend stopping off. The Station Taproom may be small, but their beers are big (Hill Farmstead’s Everett on draft over Philly beer week for instance).

We wait on the weed-ridden, cracked asphalt of the train station with the other small bands of bearded and beer-shirted. An antsy energy is in the air as we stare down the tracks at the approaching trai, ready to make the pilgrimage to the festival grounds. We board and  are quickly surrounded by rowdy Beer Campers and tweens headed to a free radio station sponsored Bleachers concert. One of said tweens, an empty 2 liter bottle rattling between his feet, sprints out at Rosemont and waters a patch of wild flowers next to the ticket collector and my window. To his credit, the ticket collector took it in stride and cracked jokes with the kid. I expect this to be the first of many public urinations, but (spoilers) it was not to be.

Beer Camp (2)

We screech into Reading Terminal, get return tickets, hit the ATM for merch and food money (food is NOT included in the ticket price), and pop-up to Market street. A burley security dude props up a sign for the Beer Camp shuttle. His disinterest is palpable. We stand in line, fielding questions from concerned passersby about just what a Beer Camp entails. I inform them that no, it isn’t a place to learn brewing techniques nor is it a place for wayward and orphaned beers to go for summer fun, just a beer festival. It leads me to think there might be a branding issue, but that’s not for me to decide.

We board a rather plush coach bus and shuttle through town. Near the Beer Camp, the bus is flanked by abandoned waterfront towers of crumbling cement, shattered windows and rusted metal. This is a place for drowning sorrows and unloading dead bodies (I should have thought to bring mine), not toasting the achievements of brew masters.  After a few samples, I suppose it won’t make a difference.

Event staff force the bus down a one way street that’s barely car wide and it nearly dominates the driver’s side of a black Acura. Our driver mutters a prayer and we thankfully make it to the camp grounds without being accessories to a hit-and-run.

 

Sierra Nevada – The Beer Camp

Beer Camp (7)
The mob grows…

We join a semi-organized mass of the beer hungry, milling about in front of the gates. At least this mob of human beer vessels has the cheery glow of brew fanatics about to be unleashed in a 5 hour drinking free-for-all. A volunteer ambles by and pops a pamphlet into my hand that details the beerfest layout. The beer is housed in three central tents. Referring to the map, tents 1 and 2 have the local beers while a smaller tent to the south houses the beers from the collaborators as well as the beer camp collaboration beers on draft. The setup has me worried this could be a disastrous game of sip and wait. I picture a zombie hoard of people crowding the tents, climbing over each other with glasses in outstretched hands, clamoring for just a taste. Sigh…

Map of the Camp
Map of the Camp

Due to staff confusion, we show our licenses to just about everyone within a mile radius wearing a Beer Camp shirt. They scan our tickets and we head through the gates. Friendly staff hand out what is probably, no definitely, the best beerfest sample glass I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. It’s a 3oz snifter with a whimsical wave of red and blue beer camp letters swirling around the bulb. I should also note that for as craptacular as the surrounding backdrop of decaying infrastructure is, the beerfest park is actually a quaint gem of green grass and willow trees tucked against the Delawares (expressway and river). Good start.

The Collaborators

Easy Jack overlooking the Delaware
Easy Jack overlooking the Delaware

We beeline for the Collabo tent, passing by a legion of port-a-potties so vast that it’s in a 1:1 ratio with ticketholders, and right to Firestone Walker. I get some Easy Jack, first time having this great little session beer, and spy a case of Sucaba behind the Firestone reps. Sucaba is Firestone’s Barleywine and a white whale for me. My interest piques and I inquire about the box of bombers. A rep informs me that a special pouring will happen at 2pm. I stare blankly back and pull my phone out without breaking eye contact. “Siri, make a reminder for happiness at 2pm.”

Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder

With time to fill, we check around the Collabo tent to see what our livers will be processing today. We round the corner and notice a line encompassing the tent in a snakey coil. We follow it to the reveal the source: Russian River brought Pliny the Elder and Supplication. I’ve had both beers several times at various events over the years, but there is something special about seeing it at a beerfest.

We formulate a plan to minimize drink-to-wait time and establish a base camp at the back of the line. The path of people practically hugs the tent, making it easy for one of us to hold the place in line while the other grabs a pour from a different Collabo brewer. We switch on and off and in no time we have a belly full of Elder and every beer at the tent. Done with this decadent den of deliciousness, we try our luck, and hopefully not our patience, over at the local offerings.

Collaborator Beers

  • Allagash
    • Curiveux
    • Saison
  • Ballast Point
    • Sculpin
    • Victory at Sea
  • Oskar Blues
    • Dales Pale
    • Old Chub
  • Sierra Nevada
    • Hoptimum
    • Equinox – Single Hopped
  • Firestone Walker
    • Opal
    • Easy Jack
      • Special Bottle Pour – Sucaba 2014
  • Russian River
    • Pliny the Elder
    • Supplication
  • Bells
    • Two-Hearted
    • Oberon

The Local Brewers

photo 12We dart over to the two main tents in a scramble for anything we can get. Well, my previous worries of a zombie-filled post apocalyptic beerfest could not have been more wrong. Sure, plenty of people shuffle around the grounds like diseased flesh eaters, but the space is ample, spacious even, with plenty of room to move. Most people observe proper beerfest etiquette and back away from the pouring areas while trying their samples. This makes it easy to get any pour we want, when we want. Another way to put this: other than a 5 minute wait for Firestone and a 20 minute one for Russian River, we waited in no lines for the rest of the day. You and your wacky centralized tent system win this round Sierra Nevada.

My Citra and Braaains from a random person, together again
My beer and a random person’s, together again

We methodically work over the tents, sniffing out the new and unusual to delight out taste buds and add to our mental highlight reel of  the day’s beer. I talk to some of the reps from Evolution and Dominion, even getting an offer to go on a brewery tour and interview some of the staff, and have a great time. A few people take it upon themselves to join in on my photo documentation and I welcome it.

We break for cooked meat stuffs from the Oink and Moo BBQ truck, I got brisket sliders and puller pork tacos, so delicious, try out the port-a-pots, I’m happy to report they held my waste without incident, and even help some girl ditch a random guy that was following her around.

photo 13
Purveyor of Joy

Amongst all this, 2pm rolls around and I am back in line at Firestone. The Victory Dirt Wolf shirt I’m wearing sparks up a conversation with a group of elders in front of me. They ask for beer recommendations and I offer some, also telling them about the incoming Sucaba. A gentleman from Firestone strolls back the line, pouring the velvety, caramel ale for anyone that wants it. The people in front of me are nice enough to have him pour for me first to make sure I get some. Beer people are good people if you ask me.

Mission fulfilled, Chris and I wade back out into the event, sampling anything that looks interesting. I snag a second pour of Sucaba from a Firestone rep roaming the grounds, dolling out deliciousness like a joyous Ebanezer Scrooge throwing money at orphans from his window. I end up sharing it with a couple that missed out. It is enjoyed by all.

Beer Camp 14
A future where gas is more precious than gold

The day spirals into that beerfest time warp where 4 hours pass like 1. An hour before close, a conga line of performers dressed for Thunderdome, some on stilts and some drumming like the natives offering Naomi Watts up to Kong, parade through the crowd. They weave around to a main stage that went unused the rest of the day. It’s evident this is a distraction to draw people away from the beer tents to sober up before getting the boot. Clever promoters. We’ve had our fill though, and decide to boot ourselves.

Local Beer Highlights

  • Weyerbacher
    • Sunday Morning (Bourbon-Aged Coffee Stout)
  • DC Brau
    • El Hefe
  • Dogfish Head
    • Firefly
  • Dominion
    • Double IPA
  • Evolution
    • Lot 3
  • Sly Fox
    • 360 IPA
  • South County
    • Black Cowgirl
  • Spring House
    • Citra Destroy
    • Braaaiins!
  • Heavy Seas
    • Red Sky at Night
  • Kane Brewing
    • Morning Bell
  • Champion Brewing
    • Missile IPA
  • Blue Jacket
    • Long Weekend (I think)
  • Evil Genius
    • I Love Lamp (pineapple infused and an Anchorman reference?)
  • Vault Brewing
    • Kenyan Coffee Stout (my friend’s favorite local beer of the day)

 

Post Beer Camp Shenanigans

We hop in a shuttle bus right before the concert gets into full swing. On the way back, I overhear a bearded gentleman of a certain age inquiring where to get good craft brews in the area. Another passenger suggests The Bottle Shop in South Philly. Having never been there, I pipe up and ask some probing questions. I get to talking with said bearded gentleman and his girlfriend/wife (unfortunately, they were not named after beers so I have no memory of their names) and we end up sharing a cab to The Bottle Shop.

We arrive and take over a table. The next hour and a half turns into an impromptu bottle share with each of us perusing the coolers and picking a beverage of interest.

Beverages of Interest

Etienne Dupont – Cidre Bouche Brut de Normandie (Cider)
Boneyard/Widmer – Black Light (Black IPA)
Sixpoint – RAD (Radler)
Stone – Quadrotricity

We talk beers, jobs, he works at John Brown Smokehouse on Long Island, and more beers. Nice people and a connection to a smoked meat palace is always a good thing. We part ways as they head into the city to find food and we meander back to the train station.

We kill time waiting for the train at the Field House, a sports pub directly above the Reading Terminal Market train stop. After the events of the day, I somehow summon the courage to have a nondescript beer and to defend myself from a beer glass by knocking it to the ground. Couldn’t be helped. You step to me, you are bound to get gently tipped off a table by the Beer Camp merchandise bag I’m holding.

We board our train and rumble back to where we started. If any pissing occurred this time, it took place on the floor of the train, as god intended. We depart at our stop, face to front door with the Station Taproom. With just a knowing nod to each other, we stop in for a bite and a final beer to cap off a hard fought day of beer-preciation.

Soon to Follow: My Late to the Party Reviews of the 12 Beers of Beer Camp

Beer Camp (5)

Beer Camp (1)

Beer Camp (6)Beer Camp (10)Beer Camp 11photo 15Beer Camp 12

 

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