With beer geekery on full display, the Humboldt Homebrew Festival might be the North Coast's most interesting beer party.
A showcase for a large and dedicated amateur brewing community in Humboldt County and beyond, the festival sees inventive and off-the-wall notions come to life, as well as solid examples of traditional beer and cider styles.
Even with a commercial craft brewing industry that's given every gas station a great beer selection, the festival — featuring 69 homebrewers and more than 100 different beers, ciders and kombuchas flowing from bottles, kegs and barrels — gives thirsty folks a glimpse at what's trending in barns and kitchens around Humboldt and beyond.
Some of those follow wider trends. The big "new" style at this year's festival was East Coast IPA, a juicy, unfiltered brew that has taken the craft brew market by storm in the last year or so. There were a couple of good examples, even though haziness, until a few years ago, indicated a mistake in the brewing process. Like Silly Putty, I guess you never know what happy accidents will become a fad.
I appreciated a few throwbacks to the trends of yesteryear: There were a few tasty black IPAs, a couple of common beers and, of course, plenty of hop-heavy IPAs.
Fruit had a big showing. I'm a fan of fruit-aged sour beers, less so of fruit in other beer styles. Kevin Naset's table — always a stop recommended by the other homebrewers — offered a deliciously tart elderberry brew. But despite the increased popularity of sour styles, not many were at the festival this year.
Ciders had a moment, though, and I counted only one apple among them. There were mango, peach and blueberry varieties, and two standouts made from kiwi and pineapple.
"The Elvis," a peanut butter banana porter, couldn't quite get the moves right but the banana definitely came through. A barrel-aged maple stout was downright syrupy — it felt like drinking a port — and went well with the bacon bits the brewers were handing out.
The inevitable Big Lebowski reference — a Kahlua-infused milk stout after The Dude's affinity for white Russians — missed its mark but I commend the effort.
Milk stouts — brewed with lactose for a smooth, creamy finish — were having a bit of a moment, too. One hazy version featured mangoes, vanilla and strawberries in a nod to milkshakes.
Chili pepper-infused beers made a bit of comeback, as well. One highlight was Kara Bennett's jalapeño saison, which had a light, crisp flavor and just enough heat to make it pop. Already having cooked my palate, I skipped her accompanying garlic and herb saison, and now I'm having remorse.
My favorite strange and ambitious beer that totally worked was Michael Kraft's Mexican coffee cream ale — a perfectly balanced and unusual American cream ale with cold brew coffee, chili, cinnamon and cocoa nibs. The heat was much subtler than other chili brews, complementing the rich smoothness.
Other standouts were bottle competition winner Kenneth Berry's Belgian dark strong ale, one of the bigger beers of the day at 10.35 percent. A good example of a classic, Berry's beer may have stood out because it went with a traditional style that was not well represented at the festival.
His brewing partner, Caitlin Hoy, also made a showing with her hoppppy IPA, based off of Booth Brewing's Kukmin IPA. Using a Lost Coast experimental hop and ingredients from other local breweries, it was a tasty mashup of our commercial big shots.
If there were an award for pageantry, it would've gone to the team of Girl Scout-themed brewers at "Camp Wanna'beer," who named and brewed their beers after Girl Scout cookie varieties. I started with the one simply labeled "drank," which was Kool-aid-y, for lack of a better term. I didn't try the s'more beer, though, because while this festival is an opportunity to try outrageous beers, I have to draw the line at those that taste like things I don't like in their original corporeal form.
For the creative anachronism set, Doug Hickey's sour "flip" was a hot, mulled, mixed fermentation sour beer that was surprisingly welcome. Based on the historical pub tradition of sticking a hot poker in a mug of beer to heat it up, the flat, spiced beer was tea-like, herby and barely sweet. This would not fly in July, but it felt like a suitable drink for our wintery spring. When I'm getting in the mood for holiday drinks in the fall, I'll be Googling around for flips and other warm ales.
The beauty of putting a bunch of excited homebrewers in a room together is that no one's trying to sell anything. All that's on the line is a good time and the (hopefully good) reactions of your friends and neighbors. And if it makes homebrewing seem easy — that's because it is. With more brewers every year, and increasing diversity in brewers and attendees, we should all hope this inspires more and more DIY brewing. Cheers!
Your homebrew hangover should wear off by May 5, when the 12th annual Brew at the Zoo returns to the Sequoia Park Zoo. Featuring more than 20 local and regional breweries, live music and kettle corn, this is your chance to find out what beers pair best with making kissy faces at red pandas. Visit www.sequoiaparkzoo.net to find tickets and more information.
The Booth Brewing recently signed with Humboldt Beer Distributors, meaning you should be seeing its seriously fun can art in local stores. Booth is putting out very good hazy IPAs in its EurekaSeoul series, so get searching.