Craft beer volunteer

Methinks it possible to incorporate bartending into my travels. Good libations and their purveyors have been kind to me recently. Here’s a sampling…

I had the good fortune of meeting Bill Howell (2010 Beer Drinker of the Year) at Seward Brewing Company. In addition to his “Drinking on the Last Frontier” blog, Bill teaches a class called the Art and History of Brewing, so I was keen to follow his recommendations. Among them was Midnight Sun Brewing Company in Anchorage, where I tasted a fantastic Full Curl (strong Scotch ale) and a hearty Belgian tripel called Panty Peeler.

Back in Florida nary a day, I read a great piece on the state’s burgeoning brew scene by a friend at USF St. Petersburg. Yet another reason to love the eclectic Florida Studies Program! (Maybe a good thesis topic for a suds-savvy grad student, a la Bill’s angle in Alaska?)

Thanks to Sean Nordquist and his Beer for the Daddy blog, I learned about the World Beer Festival in St. Petersburg and volunteer opportunities through Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society. Thus, my friend Jon and I saved some cash and had a great time pouring drinks, people watching and learning about the wide variety of brews on tap at this event.

Smartly, WBF made clear to us that this was a “SAMPLING event and NOT A DRINKING event.” As volunteers, we were encouraged to try the wares so as to answer intelligently (or at least from experience) patrons’ questions about what we poured for them. However, we were under strict orders not to get drunk, nor enable patrons’ inebriation. It seemed to work well with only a few exceptions and it was a much classier experience than the Wazoo festival I attended in August. (To be fair, the latter suffered from bad weather and power outages, which is bound  to bring out the crazy in a large crowd of drinkers.)

I was initially stationed with Sapporo, a good but familiar Japanese beer. Jon scored the Rogue booth to my right, and our neighbor to the left worked for a European beer distributor. His offerings of Banana Bread Beer and Blanche de Bruxelles (aka “Mannekin Piss”) as well as Jon’s Good Chit Pilsner, proved far more interesting to festival goers. I asked the volunteer coordinator if I might rotate to to some other stations – ones that were, you know, “hopping.”

Subsequently, I became a floater. Whenever other volunteers needed a break, I took their place behind the bar, tested the offerings and engaged with clientele. It was a blast! I especially enjoyed double-takes by those who recognized me from previous booths. “Do you have a twin here?” Nope, I just like to get around.

I sought brews that were new to me. As a volunteer, I felt no obligation to sugar-coat my opinions about what I served. Most were good, several were excellent, but some needed substantial improvement. All made for great conversation. (Photos include labels from those which piqued my palate; other notable varieties were IPAs by Intuition and Green Room from Jacksonville, Big Storm’s Wavemaker and a surprisingly light pumpkin porter by Barley Mow.)

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My favorite pouring experience (different criteria from tasting, mind you) was Ace cider. They offered varieties in berry, pear and “The Joker,” which was lemon as far as patrons and I could tell. Perhaps predictably, cider was most popular with the ladies, who generally provided more enjoyable interactions than guys. We even concocted a blend of berry and The Joker — dubbed it “Pam’s L’Acai” (for the woman who suggested the flavor combo) — which tasted better than either one alone.

The best people watching award goes to a fellow who appeared to step out of a 1980s time-warp. Besides the Gene Simmons hair and confused look on his face, he was like a klepto with the swag and maniac with a video camera. My guess: he was gathering artifacts from the future.

A close second was an elderly patron making the rounds in a wheelchair. She looked to be having a blast. Should I live that long, I sure hope someone pushes me around to beer festivals. A distant third, but remarkable nonetheless, was the scene at closing time. Organizers promised and delivered a “hard stop” at 4pm. Drunkards in the crowd freaked out when the bright lights came on and made their best attempts to scavenge the dregs from open containers. One guy almost took a drink from the rinse bucket.

Most of all, it was excellent to see so many local and Florida brewers represented at WBF. I met a number of brewmasters and their passion and humility were just as refreshing as their products. Jon and I have been talking about rounding up a select team of drinkers and hiring a van and driver for a Tampa Bay brewery tour. I do think WBF helped give this scheme critical mass to become reality. Stay tuned for that post-tour journal entry!

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