Sometimes it's hard to be me.
And so, this leads us to the fact that I am somewhat ambivalent about "beer festivals." At its best, a beer festival is a great place to go and try lots of new beers, in particular from breweries that you've never heard of, or ones that you have heard of but whose beers you can't get locally; or to try special beers from breweries you know but that they don't normally bottle or maybe even that they've made just for that festival. If you're lucky, you might even strike up an acquaintance with a fellow festival-goer or brewery employee, swapping brewing secrets, tall tales, favorite beers, or even get an invitation to an after-hours brewery tour or brewers camp (where the brewers serve the stuff they brought to impress their fellow brewers).
At their worst, however, you get big crowds of people who don't know very much about beer, coming to get drunk (which always baffles me, since it's easier, cheaper, and safer to do that at home), which usually includes loud, stupid, rude, and vomitous. Also, you get sponsorship by the big breweries, or craft brewers bringing the beers that you can get in any local store, bad food sold at a high mark-up, and so on.
So, I try to pick my festivals carefully. Generally, the more you have to pay, or if you have to pay by the beer, the less likely you are to get "amateurs." Avoid big brewery (or even big craft brewer) sponsorship, and look for smaller venues. Also, festivals that target particular styles of beer tend to draw a better crowd of people (although if there's ever a "pisswater pilsner" festival, I'd avoid it like flaming, plague-carrying zombie pit-bulls).
One place I consistently like to go for beer festivals is The Bistro in Hayward. It's a great little beer bar about a 5-10 minute walk from the Hayward BART station, with 12 taps plus around 30 bottles, mostly Belgians. They do several festivals every year, and have been doing some of them quite a long time, all of them style-targeted: Double-IPAs in February, IPAs in August, wet-hopped in October, west coast barrel-aged in November. They block off part of the street, so it's outside under awnings, and they typically have 50-75 beers to sample. $30 gets you a commemorative glass and 5 tastings, $40 gets you 10 tastings. Pair up with a friend or two, and you can sample quite a few beers.
This past weekend, they had 61 beers for their 15th annual IPA festival. Most were from Norther California, but there were beers from New Orleans LA, Juno AK, Missoula MT, Boulder CO, Cleveland OH, Reno NV, Brooklyn NY, and San Diego CA. The craft brewers you'd expect were there - Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Deschutes, Stone, Bear Republic - but also a number of start-ups that were little more than ambitious homebrewers.
I try to take notes at these things, but it's hard, since there's not much room on the cheat sheet, and after the first few... well, you know how it goes. I'll just list what I had, and say that my favorites were from a couple of startups - Sant Adairius Rustic Ales in Santa Cruz, and The Dandy from Societe Brewers in San Diego. If you want more detail about a particular beer (ABV, IBU, hops used) just ask!
- 21st Amendment, SF, Batch 800
- Ale Industries, Concord CA, East Bay IPA
- Beach Chalet, SF, Presidio IPA
- Beachwood, Long Beach CA, Laurel IPA and Fahrenheit 342
- Bear Republic, Healdsburg CA, Triskel Rebellion
- Drakes, San Leandro CA, Aroma Prieta IPA
- Golden Road, Los Angeles CA, Point the Way IPA
- Knee Deep, Lincoln CA, Citra IPA
- Marin, Larkspur CA, Three Flowers IPA
- Oakland, TBD, Sticky Zipper
- Russian River, Santa Rosa CA, Hop Father IPA
- Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, Santa Cruz CA
- Sierra Nevada, Chico CA, Floral IPA and Flip Side Double IPA
- Societe Brewers, San Diego CA, The Apprentice and The Dandy