Never mind the caveats. Never mind the $30 cost of entry or the fact that you have to leave your wristband on if you want to come back in the next day. Never mind the claustrophobic closeness of a crowd of drinkers in a tent. Never mind the odd insistence on a wintry pin-up girl cartoon mascot, Angel, who has a name and a signature and (just) a short fur coat and tall red boots.
The fact remains that The Holiday Ale Festival is one of the best of the year. OBF may bring in the interstate beer travelers, PIB may offer rarer imports, Occidental's competing Humbug! Lager Fest may be cheaper, but The Holiday Ale Fest is the one I look forward to all year.
Yes, it's thirty dollars. But it's a tented, heated beer festival in downtown Portland. Yes, that tent over Pioneer Square traps noise and those waves of hollering and glass-raising seem louder in there. Again, would you rather be outside in sub-freezing temperatures with snow falling in your beer?
I don't really have a response for the pin-up girl. That's hard to justify. I mean, she signs her name with a halo over the A, and she's not even a real person.
But obviously, the cost of entry and the slightly crowded nature of the place and even Angle can only be justified by the beer. And oh my, does the beer deliver. The best thing about the Holiday Ale Fest is that it pulls in rare, intense, huge beers from brewers throughout the western states. Even the big names in craft beer bring unique beers you won't get anywhere else. Here are a few favorites, in no particular order:
Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin: You know the Velvet Merlin. It's a creamy, soft oatmeal stout. For the festival, Firestone hopped it up with some Citra, Centennial, and Simcoe hops. It's got a bit more sting to it this way, and while it's not as well-rounded as regular Merlin, it's become something new. And at 5.5% ABV, it's almost as sessionable as beer gets at this festival, so it's a good starting point.
Stone Brewing Spiced Unicorn Milk: The beer names at this festival, my god. The Twerking Elf, Santa's Lost Wallet, The Scut Farkus Affair, Oud Freakcake, Erotic Cake, and my personal favorite, Spiced Unicorn Milk. It almost doesn't matter what the beer is. But it's a chai milk stout, a welcome winter warmer with plenty of spice and sweetness that doesn't let the chai overpower the stout.
Crux Oud Freakcake: Of the beers that are available all festival-long, this is a standout. A not-too-sour entry in the Flemish oud bruin style, with body and structure (barrel aging combined with an array of fruitcake fruits) it's a killer alternative to the heavy, dark offerings that surround it. Deschutes brings a similar beer with their spiced brown aged in barrels with brettanomyces, Yule Goat.
Hometown heroes Cascade Brewing unsurprisingly bring a masterfully aged Cherry Diesel, which clearly spent a good amount of time in bourbon barrels with cherries and vanilla beans. Giving it a run for its money is Bear Republic's Santa's Lost Wallet, an expert blend of barrel-aged Belgian brown ale and two kinds of stout. It's complex and intense without being mean about it.
In the not-beer category, your offerings are slim, but worthwhile. 2 Towns brings a bourbon barrel-aged Nice & Naughty, their spiced cider. The spice warms and there's a nice tannic structure to it, but I couldn't help but wish it was served hot.
In the maybe-beer category, we find Eugene purveyors of malt-hop-honey fermented beverages (it's beer, come on), Viking Braggot Company's Winter Squash Braggot. The honey here is turnip, and the winter squash is roasted and complimented by a deep, complex herbal spice addition. It's one of the most unique beers at the festival, with woodsy, mossy aromas of savory soy and a flavor profile more fit for a holiday dinner table.
Of course, the best beers are the daily offerings of rare, vintaged Limited Release beer. When I attended on Thursday, the beer standing head and shoulders above the rest was a 2008 vintage of Oskar Blues' imperial stout Ten Fiddy. Never have I tasted a beer this old that matured this well. Gone is the angry, pushy brashness of fresh Ten Fiddy from a can. In place of those rougher edges are windows into the depth of Oskar Blues' flagship big beer: it's figgy, chocolatey, and boozy, but also delicately floral, like thick, black rose water.
Friday will see too many tappings to list here. Deschutes will likely be the star of the show, though, with a 2007 Abyss(!), 2010 Jubel, and a cherry Russian imperial stout called Virgin Sacrifice. Saturday afternoon is dedicated to Bear Republic, who scoff at tradition and bring three kinds of light, low-ABV sour German style Berliner Weiss to a festival otherwise stocked with stouts and barleywines. That said, Tartare is a standout American Berliner Weiss, and spiced and rouge versions are sure to amaze.
So there's no excuse not to go. $30 is a steal for access to these beers. Did I mention Crooked Stave? Did I mention catering by The Waffle Window and The Hop & Vine? Did I mention it's a beer festival with a mobile website that doesn't suck? Did I mention 2007 Abyss? Brave the snow. No matter how cold it is outside, these beers will warm you up.