Brewgrass ’09

Mrs. Perm and I traveled to Asheville for the second year in a row on Saturday, the 19th of September for the 13th Annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival. Unfortunately for the blog and for posterity, the day had promised to be icky, rainy, and wet, so the camera got left at home.  As it turned out, it was a beautiful day in Asheville, perfect for a Beer-and-Bluegrass festival.

The festival was a wonderful event, well worth the anticipation that inevitably comes from buying tickets at the beginning of March. (Note to any interested 2010 attendees: tickets sell out FAST!)  As I mentioned last year, (and allow me to quote myself extensively):

I can, however, unequivocally state that the Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival blows the Durham World Beer Festivalout of the water.  Yes, it’s quite smaller.  Yes, there are significantly fewer breweries — and significantly fewer brews — representing a smaller geographic spread than at the WBF.  Be as that may, Brewgrass for me has successfully captured the certain je ne sais quoi of Atmosphere that a ‘Beer Festival’ should represent.  I firmly believe in the quality over quantity focus, and believe that BG has nailed that one on the head.”

Amen all over again for 2010.

And, as in last year’s post, I can point to Where Brewgrass gets it right:

* Limiting the number of attendees.  Yes, it was crowded.  Certainly, it could easily have been much more crowded than it was.  The size of the crowd was manageable and reasonable.  I hope they continue this practice.  To me it seemed slightly more crowded than in ’08; I’ve heard from others who thought it was less crowded. No matter how you slice it, it’s something critically less than sardines. And that’s good.
* The Venue.  MLK Park is perfect for this thing.
* Having one 7-hour session rather than two shorter sessions. One could take a sample brew, return to one’s chair, take some notes, relish in the beer, savor it, and return at one’s leisure to the next brewery tent.  Or take a nap.  Or get some yummy local food.  It’s also a great example also of how fewer breweries to choose from works in your favor.
* Having the space, ability, space, permission, expectation, and, yes, space to bring a chair and use it.  And sit down. There were even people stretched out on blankets on the ground.
* Being generally Chill about everything.  Laid-back, relaxed, happy.  Not that those things don’t happen at Other Beer Festivals I’ve attended.  But Brewgrass really does capture that ambience beautifully.
* Very nice souvenir tasting glasses.
Now, in comparison to last year: I thought the bands were slightly better in ’08, although my favorite of the day, Dehlia Low, was absolutely wonderful. But, overall, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: just because you have a banjo in your band doesn’t make you old-time, bluegrass, or even “newgrass.”

So, what about the brews?

There were 42 breweries present, all of which were from the US; 32 from either North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, or Tennessee; and a total of 12 from Asheville or Western NC.  Mrs. Perm has her own statistics, but I made it to a total 28 of 42 breweries, and sampled 52 different beers.

I won’t be so tedious as to list all 52 beers I sampled. I will, though list some highlights:

Brewery Discovery of the Day:

Got to be either Heinzelmännchen (Sylva, NC) or Lonerider (Raleigh, NC). Everything they had was superb.

Best Beers of the Day:

1. Anything that was in a cask. Green Man Porter, Natty Greene’s Cask-Conditioned Southern Pale Ale

2. Foothills Oak-Aged Sexual Chocolate. The name says it all; that mess was off the chain.

3. Duck-Rabbit Rabid Duck Russian Imperial Stout

4. French Broad Zepptemberfest

5. Natty Greene’s Oak-Aged (2-yr) Sour Flanders Ale. An amazing sour red ale from a NC brewery. Bravo.

6. Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale. Heaven in a glass.

7. Pisgah Red Devil.

8. Ham’s Brewhaus Tiki’s California Gold Ale.

9. Depot Street Freight-Hopper IPA.

10. Outer Banks Mack Daddy Chocolate Stout

Worst Beers of the Day:

1. Atlanta Brewing Red Brick Blonde

2. Carolina Beer Cottonwood Pumpkin Ale. Pumpkin beers are fiendishly difficult to make well. This one was not made well.

3. Two from Coast Brewing (SC): the Kölsch-style (bad, just bad. I’m tired of breweries whipping up a light, nondescript, lager-type ale and calling it “Kölsch.” It’s an insult to true Kölsch. This one tasted like ocean water), and the Scotch Ale (it was like severely burnt butterscotch in a glass).

4. Catawba Valley King Don Pumpkin Ale. All allspice, all the time.

5. Olde Hickory Barleywine (perhaps if it were aged for a couple of years first…).

A Trio of Reviews:

I. Natty Greene’s Cask-Conditioned Southern Pale Ale

I rarely do formal reviews of beers I have at festivals, on principle. I do, though make a few exceptions:
1) The first beer of the day at a festival
2) Brews that so completely blow me out of the water that I simply must stop, find some blank pages, and wax eloquent.
Natty Greene’s Southern Pale Ale, served in its cask-conditioned state, is one such.
I tend to have a crush on cask beers in general, but this one is an all-out infatuation. Bursting at the seams with that dry-hop aroma, and juicily rich as it coats my tongue, lingering on the palate like a sacramental memory, I’m kicking myself for not simply camping out by the Natty Greene tent for the rest of the day and drinking the cask dry.
It just might be time for a road trip to Greensboro.

Appearance: 5/5  Aroma: 5/5  Taste: 5/5  Palate: 5/5  Overall: 5/5

II. Sierra Nevada 2009 Anniversary Ale

In the beginning, there was Sierra Nevada.
Not really, but it sounds good. SNPA *was* one of my first collegiate beer joys, though, and the first truly outstanding American Pale Ale I can remember by name, date, and label design. A proto-benchmark for me on my beer journeys.
Fast-forward to the Great Smokies Brewgrass Festival, 2009. Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale lures me in, and knocks me on my arse.
Mary Poppins was “practically perfect in every way.” Unlike Mary Poppins, this beer is “Completely perfect in every way.” Jeezus.
To simply call it the IPA rendition of the flagship Pale Ale is to not do it full justice: I think I’ve just found another benchmark, once again courtesy of our good friends at Sierra Nevada.

Appearance: 5/5  Aroma: 5/5  Taste: 5/5  Palate: 5/5  Overall: 5/5

III. Foothills Barrel-Aged Sexual Chocolate Russian Imperial Stout

Early on, the brewery representatives at this tent let it be known that the Sexual Chocolate would be revealed at 5:00.  By 4:45, there was already a long line queued up for it, and when the keg was tapped, a cheer went out. Naturally, I was skeptical of the hype.  I shouldn’t have been.  Fill my glass, carefully return to my chair, take out my beer journal, and discriminatingly review. There is no other way to treat this beer.
Appearance: Perfectly opaque black with a brown-tan-caramel head.
Aroma: Roasted German Chocolate Cake, of the most nostalgic-family-reunion variety.
Taste: Bitter, dark chocolate. It tastes like liquid rum cake in my glass. Warming, yet smooth, and it *keeps on going.* Holy moly, I think I need to change my pants.
Palate: Ever-so-slightly hot (keeping it from that elusive 5.0), but mostly smooth. The finish is incredibly complex, like having walnuts in that rum cake.
Overall: Yes, please! Again and again and again, all night long. It’s a Rated-R dessert in a glass.

Appearance: 5/5  Aroma: 5/5  Taste: 5/5  Palate: 5/5  Overall: 5/5

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