Vince Capano is a two time winner of the Quill and Tankard writing award from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Some people spend quite a bit of money and long hours of training to become a brewmaster. Silly. All I had to do was reach for my credit card and one click later I was an official “brewmaster” at the Harbor Island Beer Fest. Now for those who might not appreciate the power and aura that comes with that designation please note that a “brewmaster” level ticket greatly exceeds the perks of the heretofore revered and exalted “VIP” level. And it’s so far above “general admission” that to put both in the same paragraph (God forbid sentence) it is a class one felony in many states.
It all started with an e-mail received by Glenn “Big-G” Deluca, my BeerNexus colleague. It contained the American dream – something for almost nothing. Essentially it was giving Glenn the exclusive along with anyone else in the million or so who received the notice, the singular opportunity to buy tickets in July to a brewfest in October at nearly half price. It was a classic marketing gambit – buy low now, laugh at those who wait and pay full price later. Needless to say the tickets were “non-refundable” so the early purchasers were gambling that they’d be able to go on a single obscure Saturday a long three months away. Two of the more prudent and rational of our group, Livingston and John, asked in tandem, “but what if we got hit by a bus while doing charity work with the poor in the middle of Beverley Hills? What if we’re crushed by a meteoroid falling from the planet of Mongo? What if we’re stomped by Bigfoot during an alien abduction? Could we get my money back?” Glenn pointed to the FAQ section of the festival website: “Well, just what is it don’t you understand about NON-REFUNDABLE?” I sagely nodded in agreement.
The marketing manipulators behind the deal then ratcheted things up a step further. Ticket prices would increase each week until they reached full face value the day before the fest. Even more, that information was followed by the ominous warning “if any are still available. Oh no; there was no way we were going to miss the “over 350 varieties of beers and cider from around the world, artisanal food vendors and great music.” Actually we didn’t care if we missed the music or the vendors selling artisanals. It was all about the beer.
The aforementioned three levels of tickets (general admission, VIP, and Brewmaster) would cost at the gate in October $50, $80, and $160 respectively. Several e-mails to the sponsor asking what the difference was between the levels drew the same response, essentially saying that Brewmasters and VIPs get an extra hour (total of 5) of drinking, ah, I mean tasting, a private tent with complimentary food, and beer not available at the general admission level. It took a couple more e-mails to get an answer to the logical follow up question – what does a Brewmaster get that a VIP doesn’t? The cagey reply: “it’s too early for us to fully know how to answer that.” Good thing it wasn’t too early to sell tickets.
Our hearty group of four took a vote on which tickets we would buy. I’m proud to say we opted in a near unanimous decision ( 2-2 with a coin flip breaker)to spring for the big bucks. We were going all in on Brewmaster. We each printed our ticket which left us with the dilemma of where to put that skimpy piece of paper so it would remain safe for three long months.
John taped his to an autographed Weyerbacher Beer poster hanging in his office. The poster was signed by Dan Weyerbacher himself. At least that’s what we told John when we gave it to him as a gift. Hey, it’s not like we forged a check. Glenn stashed his in a hermitically sealed mayonnaise jar once used on stage by his magical idol, Carnac the Magnificent. Carnac you might remember when asked “what is a cyclone” memorably responded: “the clone of a man named Cy.” Livingston kept his on his person at all times safely tucked in a money belt which was a supremely secure location since none of us have ever seen him open it. I’m not saying Livingston is frugal but one time when a robber said to him “your money or your life!” Livingston asked for time to think about it. As for me, I smartly put my ticket in an envelope marked “BILL- Overdue” and mailed to myself. I knew once it arrived I wouldn’t get around to opening it for about three months.
The Harbor Island Festival was held at (surprise) Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck, New York. It’s a lovely venue right on the water. Lovely that is if you discount the 36 degree temperature, bone chilling rain, and Siberian worthy howling winds that blasted off the water. Welcome to the festival. The weather didn’t dampen our spirits as we were given purple wrist bands the festival’s equivalent of a Wonka Golden Ticket. VIP’s received yellow ones. Only fair I thought. We joyously gazed at our wristbands knowing they meant that something truly special awaited us. Then again it could also mean they just ran out of yellow ones. Surprisingly our IDs were checked (was there an upper age limit?) as we entered the grounds proper. Next, we were directed to two adjacent tents as a fest representative kept shouting “VIP on the right; Brewmaster on the left.” A bulky guard stood outside each tent checking wristbands. Wrong wristband, no entry; correct wristband, please go in. To their credit the guards only occasionally were fooled by a wristwatch. The purple band we were told gave us access not only to the brewmaster area but to every tent and all, yes all port-a-johns. The port-a-johns did not have a guard.
As we stood between the tents it was easy to see that one bustled with energy while the other was graveyard like quiet. Sadly, the tent of solicitude was the Brewmaster’s. Undaunted, our foursome proudly brandished our purple wristbands and strolled inside. Every pouring station was empty save for a few workers beginning to set up jockey boxes and opening cases. We refuse to let their tardiness cut into our drinking time so we were off to the VIP area. Our first thought when we entered was that the tents were mixed up – this one actually had people, food, and beer. Being semi-professional drinkers kept our dignity despite being displaced Brewmasters. And more, we followed the fine print on our ticket which asked us to not only to indulge ourselves without regard to moderation but to display a haughty attitude of superiority worthy of purple wristband wearers.
We dutifully made the rounds of each pouring station, glass in one hand, food in the other. The few lines we encountered were short so we refrained from using our Brewmasters line cutting privilege. Besides we didn’t want to get thrown out. Eventually Livingston, the sage vizier of our group, headed us back to the Brewmaster’s tent. Things had changed. One step inside and we knew that we were about to experience the power of the purple. About 35 or so of the most semi-serious beer people (they probably were fully serious before visiting the VIP area) you’ll ever want to meet were wandering around drinking some amazing beer. Seeing Heady Topper being offered on a table next to Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout which was next to Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest Liquids brought John to tears. He claimed some dirt got into his eye but we knew better. I stumbled (not literally, that happened after the festival) onto a table serving Rochefort 10 and Hill Farmstead Citra. Glenn kept taking pictures of bottles, tap handles, and his glass with overflowing with more amazing beers as he mumbled “heaven should be this good”. It was a true cornucopia of world class brews.
Eventually we decided to venture to the main tents to join the 5,000 or so of our beer brethren. On the way out Glenn noticed a sign saying that for the last two hours of the festival a new special beer will be opened every half hour in the Brewmaster’s tent only. Livingston immediately called for a synchronization of watches. We would return. With that we walked to the “40,000 square feet of tents” that housed the overwhelming bulk of the festival. The energy there was palatable. Entering, we were greeted by a low, deep, wall of happy noise generated by the multitude of craft beer lovers doing what they do best – drinking. It was a great sound.
We each individually wandered around sampling, sampling, and sampling while always being cognizant of two things – the half hour pouring schedule and the ever moving clock that brought us closer to the end of the day. For the record, I discovered that many of the beers in the main tents were outstanding with more than a few worthy of a place in either the VIP or Brewmaster tents. The general admission folks were getting they money’s worth too.
Being a representative of BeerNexus I felt obligated to write some tasting notes on each beer figuring it might be enough documentation to enable me to write off the ticket price as a business expense. As I juggled, pen, pad, and beer glass a woman approached me and said in a tone that was both solicitous and condescending, “you know they have apps for that.” I replied, “yes but when your battery dies my pen will still work.” Inexplicitly she walked away.
With a few minutes left in the festival we converged once again in the Brewmaster’s tent for a final toast to a wondrous day. Glenn asked if anyone listened to the bands. We said no, he said he didn’t either. John asked if anyone went to the seminar on brewing techniques. We said no; he said he didn’t either. Livingston asked if anyone went to the marketplace area. We said no, he said he didn’t either.
I asked if anyone would come back next year. We all said yes.