Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fear & Loathing at Beer Fest 2009

Beer Fest - Dragonmead Ale

It's not hard to see why an idea like Beer Fest would be so popular. Take 8,000 drunks, seclude them in a riverside park, isolate them on all sides, and turn them loose with thousands of kegs of beer.

If that's not an American ideal, I don't know what is.

Thanks to the Michigan Brewers Guild, Beer Fest takes place every summer in Ypsilanti, sandwiched between Independence Day and the end of summer, a vortex of barley and oats and vomit and shouting. There are few who can handle the mad rush of brew-crazy revelers who have been out in the sun and now, for the love of God, just need a beer.

You only live twice, and so Jessie and I headed down into the Huron River Valley to see what the fuss was about.

Beer Fest - Food

The weather was a strange mix of on-again, off-again sprinkles and this year's modest July sun beating down on the party-goers. We saw Meagan early on, her face and arms red despite the SPF 50, and she gave us an early tip that would turn the tide of this whole ordeal.

"Don't offer your wooden nickle immediately," she said. "Wait until the breweries ask for it."

This was sage wisdom given by someone who had obviously ridden this rodeo before. By holding back, we could earn more booze. It was a genius plan.

The trouble was the timing. We arrived at Riverside Park at 4:30, and the event was only scheduled until 6:00. There was a time crunch, so we had little opportunity to learn the lay of the land, or even pick out our favorite breweries in the crowd. We needed a strategy.

(As a side note, the entire event's timing boggled my mind. On Friday night it only last until 9 p.m., and on Saturday it ran from 1-6 p.m. These are not drinker's hours. Ask anyone who imbibes a 12-pack a day when they drink, and the answer is usually the same: at night.)

Beer Fest - Columbia Central gang

From what we did learn, Beer Fest is organized in four or five different tents, each one featuring a gathering of local breweries who would, for a wooden nickel, give you a taste of their wares. For the price of admission, you get 12 nickles and a plastic cup, along with a listing of the breweries. Our small 8 oz. cup would be filled about three-quarters of the way, we were told, just for "a sample," at each stop.

This was true in the beginning. Maybe it was our bad luck, but the first few breweries took our nickles and gave us a "sample" of their beer. Simple enough. But soon we realized that by simply handing over our cup and asking for our chosen brew, the brewmaster would be happy to give back a full glass for no cost.

For Jessie, it was as simple as a smile. Pretty girls have that affect on half-drunk brewmasters world wide. For me, negotiations were far more complicated.

Beer Fest - B is for Brewski

We wondered how on Earth the breweries made any money from this shindig, and the best we could figure is that they got a certain amount of money for each nickle collected. Since we were getting so many free samples, and had plenty of wooden nickles to share, we eventually started to donate our nickles to the breweries. Why not? Someone has to take something worthwhile from this whole mess.

There were plenty of people taking, no doubt. Some of the people stumbling around, their blank eyes searching for a point of focus in the bedlam, had obviously been here since opening - if not the night before, sleeping next to the river or in the bushes leading up the embankment. Their cups were crusted over with gallons and gallons of gulped-down beer, and it was only a matter of time before the event organizers turned them loose on Depot Town in Ypsi.

The kicker is that the event sells more wooden nickles. If you run out, you can buy more, and the brew will keep flowing. The brain recoils in horror at the thought of an all-day drunkfest that sits so close to civilized society.

Beer Fest - the Pissing Wall

Perhaps it's all in the philosophy of the thing. Beer Fest offers an escape from the ordinary. For the office worker who is one nervous twitch away from punching his boss, for the petite hippie who has taken one too many bites of the apple, for the burly, bearded brew snob searching for love in fantasy baseball forums - for all of them, Beer Fest exists. It serves some grand purpose that we dare not question, let alone think about.

Ah, but the quality of the beer made it all worth the effort. Arbor Brewing, Olde Peninsula, Old Hat, Dragonmead, Mt. Pleasant Brewery - these great places where I've tasted Michigan's finest brews were all there. Some had souvinirs, some had giant Elvis taps, the beer flowing from his extended right arm, and some were simple affairs that let the drinks explain themselves. I dig that.

Just as important as the beer was the experience, and chalk Beer Fest up there with one of the best. Seeing thousands of drinkers milling around and organizing shouting contests in the tent, all the while consuming enough calories to skip a meal, was outstanding.

Beer Fest - gurney

Near the end, however, things got ugly. The event security shut the taps of promptly at 6 p.m., but for one poor bastard it wasn't soon enough. Jessie and I both noticed a sickly gray-looking man, middle-aged and seated, being attended to by EMS responders. He swayed in his chair, zombie-like, until a John Deere Gator and, much later, a gurney arrived to take him away. Then he was up on his feet like nothing had happened, the deathly palor not yet gone from his cheeks. He stumbled like a pro.

It was a testament to the constitution of the professional drinker, and in our hearts we both applauded and feared the man. Why waste this moment, I thought, with those fool medical professionals?

There was still drinking to be had. After all, we're finishing up the first recession our generation remembers, and nothing eases the pain and suffering of lost jobs, wages, and dignity like throwing back a few pale ales.

Recognizing that, Beer Fest served its purpose.

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