With two steps forward and one step back, the effort to bring more quality beer to Boston advanced with the staging of the Boston Beer Summit on May 11, 2002. The festival is held in the architecturally distinctive Castle at Park Plaza, a sizable fortress located only a few blocks from Boston Common. Built in 1891 as an armory for the First Corps of Cadets, the National Historic Landmark provided vaulted ceilings and a patchwork of iron balconies hovering above the strong selection of beers available on the convention floor.
Among the providers, brewers and importers from across America gleefully offered their flavorful products to a dedicated, if raucous, crowd of beer lovers. An impressive range of fruit beers was perhaps the festival's most notable trend. Brewers employed watermelons, cherries, blueberries and even Concord grapes in the production of their sampled beers.
Several breweries competed for audience and brewer recognition as the festival's top attraction. A spirited and outspoken representative for Shelton Brothers importers offered tastings of rare Cantillon products mixed with polemics regarding other Belgian brewers. While he poured the Cantillon Fou' Foune, an expensive and rare apricot lambic, the representative told me that rival brewery Lindemans "essentially makes a lager beer and then sweetens it." After further castigation of America's most popular lambic producer, the representative enticed more attendees with the Cantillon Lou Pepe, an unblended cherry lambic beer.
The festival's other top story was the release of a new artisanal line of beers called Rapscallion. Brewed in conjunction with the Concord Brewing Company, the beers are mainly the work of brewer Dann Paquette, formerly of the North East Brewing Company. Paquette offered two style-bending brews heavily influenced by Belgian brewing traditions. The Premier and the Blessing beers played to mixed reviews from attendees, though some who had sampled the products weeks earlier commented on their improved maturity.
Finally, B. United International offered a minicask of JW Lee's Harvest Ale. At 17% abv, the brew exhibited deep oaky hints and an almondy dryness, supported by a strong alcohol base. The cask failed to make it through the night due to the sheer delight of sampling attendees.
Though it boasted an excellent selection of well-crafted beers in an impressive setting, the festival experienced a few planning problems. In a testament to the true demographics of the festival, the first hitch appeared with a long, sprawling line for the men's room.
While a lack of proper restroom facilities hardly qualifies as a new predicament for a beer festival, Beer Summit organizers brought the festival's most notable nuisance upon themselves. While taking in the venue's intriguing architecture, I noted a thick haze covering the skylights. I initially dismissed it as an unfortunate side effect of improperly administered smoking areas.
A few minutes later, while sampling Watch City Brewing Company's excellent imperial stout, I picked up sweet tobacco notes and quickly raised my head to locate the offender. At his sales booth, a portly and otherwise classically stereotypic cigar salesman pulled a stogie out of his mouth while buckled over in laughter. While the policy of allowing merchants to set up booths and hawk their wares to attendees is also commonplace, the otherwise annoyingly commercial relationship becomes indefensible when it detracts from attendees' overall enjoyment of the festival.
Despite some setbacks, the Boston Beer Summit is a festival with a future. Spirits were high among attendees and brewery representatives alike. Rhonda Kallman, now the proprietor of Edison Light Beer, chatted with representatives from her former employer, the Boston Beer Company. At other tables, brewery representatives often poured their own products for consumers, though manning the tables unfortunately was not a required activity.
In only two short years, the festival's organizers have managed to fuse the brewing community's joviality with a diverse lineup of stellar brews. This combination will hopefully serve as another step along the lengthy path of promoting wider appreciation of quality beer in the Boston area.