Monday, March 12, 2007

Foam by the Sea

When Atlantic City parties, you can bet there’s going to be some spectacle. It is, after all, the playground by the sea that once brought you midget wrestling, boxing kangaroos and, of course, diving horses.

Then perhaps that’s why the Atlantic City Beer Festival is really as much about the sideshow as it is the beer. It’s a raucous two-day party where you can lose yourself in the moment with silly hats, shirts, beer goggles, cheesecake (the leggy kind) and scooters made from coolers.

And it doesn’t hurt that the second annual Celebration of the Suds (held Saturday and Sunday at the Convention Center) had a wide selection of brews to sate every taste.

Details make the story, so here they are …

By the numbers

Beers: 200-plus that generously spanned the globe. The mix included a lot of familiar faces (almost too many; great festivals offer a chance to discover), such as domestic mainstays Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams; regional craft brewers Brooklyn Brewery and Dogfish Head (Delaware); and imports Guinness, Harp, Duvel, and Young’s. (Alas, we didn’t see Fuller’s in the mix, a UK favorite that’s always in our fridge.) Toss in Singha from Thailand and Asahi from Japan, and you get the picture.

Full house: 2,000 or so beerheads (our estimate) at the first Saturday session (noon to 4:30 p.m.) that we attended (admission was $25 in advance, $30 day of). We suspect the remaining two sessions (6 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday) had similar turnouts.

Jersey Guild brewers: One, the Tun Tavern. The Tun is the home team, located across the street from the Convention Center. We had several samples of the Tun’s quite able ESB. And for the second year in a row, the Tun served as our post-fest place to unwind and grab a bite to eat (try their One Tun Burger with a pint of the Irish Red). Some day we’d like to see the Suds fest attract more Jersey craft brewers and neighboring state brewpubs (like Iron Hill or Nodding Head), for that matter.

Serving size: 2 ounces. It’s what the New Jersey beer police say is the hard limit for serving patrons. For the hale and hearty, it’s a swallow; for the more relaxed, it’s a couple of sips.

Floor plan: 80,000 square feet of elbow-bending room. That’s a step up. (See below).

Details et cetera

Beers of note: Brooklyn Brewery’s Local One, a tasty bottle-conditioned golden ale that was really smooth for clocking in at 9% ABV; a creamy organic oatmeal stout from Wolaver/Otter Creek (Vermont), no harshness from the roasted barley, despite being poured under CO2 (and not nitrogen); Double White Ale from Southampton Ales & Lagers (Long Island, NY), a nice blend of oranges and coriander; and a dark lager from Podkovan (Czech Republic), rich but not cloying.

Obligatory beer: Guinness. This is after all March, and the color of the day was shamrock green. We love a Guinness any time of year, but seeing it poured in 2-ounce shots just kills the whole ritual surrounding it. Maybe we’ll pass on this next year.

Sweet memory: Tröeg’s Troegenator Double Bock tasted a little sweeter than we remembered from the Philly Craft Beer Festival (March 3). No matter, it’s a great beer.

Missed opportunity:
Baltika … Russian beers. For a while, their station always had a crowd queuing up for a pour, which kept us moving. We never made it back before last call (4 p.m.). Hopefully, another time.

Music: Neo-Celtic band Birnam Wood -- kilts, bagpipes, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and a redheaded lass. They headlined the entertainment at last year’s Celebration of the Suds, and again this year, sharing the stage with Beatlemania Now, which we saw standing there. Speaking words of wisdom, let ’em be. We love the Beatles, and we were curious about Beatlemania Now’s run at Harrah’s casino this month. But there’s a difference between tribute bands and impersonations, and oh darling, please believe us, this was just kind of silly.

Food: Gotta work on this one. There was a concession station shoehorned into a corner. It just looked so unappetizing. There’s quite a lot of talk and copy written about pairing food with beers, and cooking with beer, for that matter. Hence, the need to step up on this one. We understand trying to balance what’s realistic for a festival, but at the same time, food is really worth the extra effort. One bright spot here: Samples of a killer crab bisque from High Point Pub. High Point’s a bar (not brewpub) in Absecon (outside Atlantic City); they hit the festival to drum up some business with this awesome soup that’s worth a trip through their doors.

Disappointment: This year’s taster glass went plastic. Last year it was the real deal -- glass. We’ve cried in our beer over plastic vs. glass before, but when the topic came up while in line for the men’s room, well, we felt validated. True, plastic is safer and cheaper, and honestly the change wasn’t unexpected. But the taster is a keepsake, and it would have been great if they kept it glass.

“Is this the line?” Speaking of the bathroom, there was just one location each for men and women (but additional facilities just outside the festival hall). So relieving yourself meant sacrificing drinking time in painfully long lines.

Smokin’ in the boys’ room: Yeah, you know it’s against the rules. But unlike last year, there was no re-entry to the festival hall upon leaving. Which made for that bitch of a line to the john, and turned the can into Marlboro Country when the nicotine crowd wasn't willing to wait.

Logistics, Take One: A bigger hall and rectangular layout of sample stations made for easy movement. Last year’s festival had a linear set-up, a stretched oval, with two main aisles that made for horrid bottlenecks in almost parallel locations. The improvement was welcomed. But …

Logistics, Take Two: Speaking of long lines … they snaked around the Convention Center from the ticket windows and from the turnstiles. There was also too much showing of IDs. Next time, please separate the will call window from the day-of ticket sales. Also, we understand the need to prove drinking age when buying or picking up tickets and for entering the hall. But patrons were carded yet again after receiving a wristband they could only get after showing their IDs. Overkill.

The wind-up: Yes, this is the same festival for which we held low expectations just a few weeks ago, based on our experience from the inaugural gathering last year, and perhaps a snobby comparison to the Philly fest and Suds 2.0’s shortage of Garden State brewers. We, uh, forecast AC to be a yawner and a frat party. Yawner? No, there was plenty to enjoy. Frat party, well it came close. We did see more folks who got drunk on the 2-ounce installment plan than compared to Philadelphia.

But this is Atlantic City, and the sideshow must go on.

FOOTNOTE: Look for a photo gallery, plus interviews with Beer Radio's Gary Monterosso and Tun Tavern Brewmaster Ted Briggs later this week.

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