As summer beer festivals go, you can usually expect to see the same process repeated all over the country. Participating breweries send kegs of their core offerings and maybe a pony keg of one special brew to satisfy the “been there, done that” segment of the population. While most of these libations are quality products that represent years or even decades of hard work, frequent festival-goers eventually reach the point where the juice isn’t worth the squeeze to see the same five beers at every brewery’s tent. Now in its fifth year, Washington, D.C.’s Snallygaster flips that traditional model on its ear.
With a handpicked lineup of more than 350 different craft beers and ciders, D.C. beer maven Greg Engert has created a festival that plays by his rules. Instead of forcing attendees to ration out pull-tabs from a bracelet, or inspiring ticket holders to drink all they can in an attempt to get a return on the prices of admission, Snallygaster uses the carnival midway method of charging a certain number of $1 tickets for each brew. Prices ran from three tickets for readily-available offerings all of the way up to 12 “Snallybucks” for whale tasters.
If you’re wondering about the name, Snallygaster is a legendary creature that supposedly roams the hills in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs. In that vein, all of the festival’s pouring stations were grouped into giant tents named after other famous monsters like Leviathan, Kraken and even Mothra.
Since Engert cultivated a list of the beers that he’d like to see at his festival, it’s impossible to make a true “best of” list without taking out a second mortgage to have a pour of each one and waking up on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Instead, here are a few of the brews that stood out on that overcast day in our nation’s capital.
The Snallygaster lineup always includes a few whales, and this year’s edition had three or four beers that inspired the early VIP ticket holders to sprint into the festival ground the instant the gates opened. Quantities of these brews are so limited that even if you’re one of the first few people in the festival, you’re probably only going to get one of them, so choose wisely. While many people queued up for pours of big barrel-aged stouts like Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout or Perennial Artisan Ales Barrel-Aged Abraxas, the heat and humidity inspired me to head more in the sour direction for my whale pour.
Every year, a French apricot farmer sends 1200 kilograms of Bergeron apricots to the Lambic masters in Brussels, who stone each one by hand before soaking them in casks of two-year-old Lambic. After a few months of extracting flavor and aroma from the fruit, the beer gets bottled in a limited 3,000 liter run. The resulting beer is tart, but as balanced as everything else Cantillon does. Apricots are the star of the show, and there was some nice effervescence that almost mimicked champagne. Was it worth missing out on CBS and Abraxas? That’s a matter of opinion, but it’s a decision that I’m perfectly okay having made.
Three Notch’d Brewing Company
Still stinging from the Founders booth running out of CBS with literally 10 people between myself and the tent, I went out in search for a substitute barrel-aged stout, and how do you ignore a name like Biggie S’Mores? Charlottesville might be famous for Thomas Jefferson, Dave Matthews Band and khaki-clad college football fans, but this beer should also find its way on that list.
Dessert-inspired beers are usually primed to disappoint, as we all have our ideal flavor profiles stuck in our minds from childhood. When a brewery claims to have a s’mores beer, I expect to taste each of those classic elements of chocolate, graham cracker and TOASTED marshmallow. More often than not, you end up with a decent stout with cocoa flavor, but little else to speak of. Bourbon Biggie S’Mores nails all three flavors perfectly with smoke from the charred Old Forrester barrels bringing a campfire element to the party.
Lost Rhino Brewing Company
Stumbling (almost literally at this point) onto Lost Rhino’s booth at Snallygaster, I was greeted by brews with some interesting names like Bretty McBrettface, but Stublendious grabbed my eye. This sour red ale with cherries, grapes and Brettanomyces spent time aging in bourbon and red wine barrels. While Cantillon’s sours are well-balanced, this was chock-full of heartburn-inducing sour power, but I just couldn’t put it down.
Civil Life Brewing Company
St. Louis, Mo.
I know what you’re thinking. “You were at a festival stocked with barrel-aged stouts, amazing sours and other crazy stuff and you’re heaping praise on a simple brown ale?” The thing is, you should single something out when it’s done well, especially when it’s a basic recipe that doesn’t rely on bold flavors to wow drinkers. Instead of bittering it up with hops or cranking up the malt bill to increase sweetness, Civil Life’s American Brown Ale has the perfect amount of everything that you’d expect out of this underappreciated style.
Ocelot Brewing Company
If I’m drinking an IPA on a hot summer day, I want it to come loaded with juicy citrus flavors, and this limited brew has them in abundance. Ocelot used Nelson Sauvin and Waimea hops to create a delicious blend of pithy citrus and fresh pine aromas and flavors. This was the best IPA that I tried during the entire festival, and it wasn’t even a close competition.
Jailbreak Brewing Company
Locally famous for brews like Welcome to Scoville Jalapeno IPA, Jailbreak Brewing Company is also starting to get a reputation for solid barrel-aged beers. To create this behemoth, eight different barrels of their imperial stout were selected after aging anywhere from six to 18 months in either rum or bourbon casks. The final blend is a 13.8% crowd pleaser with big flavors of chocolate, molasses and figs. While there are certainly flavors from the spirits, there isn’t a hint of burn. You could easily drink too much of this one and not realize it until you’re hugging strangers and getting pepper sprayed.
Heavy Seas Beer
The base beer for this specialty cask wasn’t spectacular in itself -Loose Cannon is a fine IPA—but the real story here is in the barrel that imparted flavors. Recently launched by UnderArmour Founder Kevin Plank, Sagamore Sprit is a distillery that focuses on rye whiskey, a traditional liquor in Pre-Prohibition Maryland and Pennsylvania. While the company currently distills its product at a facility in Indiana, the final cutting and bottling happens locally, and a distillery in Baltimore is close to completion. The whiskey’s fruity spiciness played well with the hop profile of Heavy Seas’ signature IPA.
Oxbow Brewing Company
With the day winding down, a few extra Snallybucks burning a hole in my pocket and an uphill walk to the metro station looming in my future, it would be a good idea to ditch the imperial stouts and move onto something lighter. Enter this funky barrel-aged farmhouse ale made with juice and zest from cara cara oranges. Tart citrus dominated the aroma and flavor, with just enough oak to remind you that it was barrel aged.