National Beer Expo – the Toyota Corolla of Festivals

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If the inaugural “National Beer Expo” last weekend was a state, it would be Missouri. If it was a planet, it would be Neptune. If it was a car, it would be a Toyota Corolla. If it was in a band, it would play the bass.

See, there’s nothing wrong with any of these. They’re just not the kind of things dreams are made of.

Question: Who plays the bass in a rock band? Answer: The guy who is second best at lead guitar. Noel Redding was a great guitar player. But he played bass in the Jimi Hendrix Experience because, well, the other guitar player (that would be Jimi) was just a tad better. And there’s nothing wrong with a Corolla. It’s just not the car every girl hopes is in her driveway on the morning of her 16th birthday. Missouri is a fine state. But it’s probably not the dream vacation destination you are hoping for on your honeymoon. And Neptune? Need I say more.

So the Capital Ale House National Beer Expo in Richmond, Va., was all of these combined. Yes, it was the Missouri-Neptune-Corolla-bass playing of beer festivals. There was nothing particularly wrong with it. It just didn’t make any distinguishing mark on the craft beer world … yet.

The creators of the Expo seem to have an idea of developing a four-day event that celebrates the best in craft beer and the food that goes with it. That’s why, on every day of the Expo, various restaurants served special Expo-themed meals to pair with specially chosen craft beer.

A sign outside On the Rox in Shockoe Bottom just east of Downtown Richmond.
A sign outside On the Rox in Shockoe Bottom just east of Downtown Richmond.

For example, on Saturday, the third day, we started off by enjoying a delicious brunch at On the Rox in the Shockoe Bottom section of town. We had our choices of eggs, pancakes, sausage, and other usual breakfast fare, but all the food was chosen to go with the flight of beers from local Hardywood Park Craft Brewing. We were able to sample:

  1. Hardywood Singel – I’m not a particularly big fan of Belgian ales, but this Belgian Abby-style blonde was quite mellow and easy to drink. It almost tasted like a lager (also not one of my favorite brews) but with more panache, like most blondes, I suppose.
  2. Hardywood Virginia Blackberry – Despite its name, this tasty beverage was not too fruity. The Belgian-style white ale actually drank more like a clean wheat beer, not too thick, with just a subtle hint of the blackberry used in its making. The only real giveaway of the berry-infusion was the cloudy, light purple color of the beer.
  3. Hardywood Sidamo Coffee Stout – What could be better with brunch than a coffee stout? Apparently anything, according to my traveling companion. I, however, found this Russian Imperial stout to be the ideal drink while nibbling on my beer-infused sausage and my jalapeno-stuffed omelet.
  4. Hardywood RVA IPA – One taste of this highly hopped IPA and I was more than willing to make a trade for my partner’s abandoned stout. Not that the IPA tasted bad. At 62 IBUs, it wasn’t so earthy that I couldn’t drink it. But why waste an IPA on me when we could easily cut a deal and get what we like best. Teamwork.

After brunch, we headed off to the Walk-Around Grand Tasting at the Richmond Convention Center. At it, a little less than 50 different brewers offered samples of their craft beers. Our strategy was to try beers from brewers that we’d never had before.

That was the easy party. Finding beers that we’d want to drink on a regular basis turned out to be a much bigger challenge. Many of the highly-hopped beers that my drinking buddy prefers were, uh, not really drinkable. And because it was summer, the number of malty beers that I prefer was somewhat hard to come by. There were some unique efforts by some brewers, like the habanero-infused pale ale and the peppermint flavored nitro stout. But most were rather unremarkable.

My favorites were the Mean Ole Tom American stout from Maine Beer Company and the Sweet Josie Brown from Lonerider Brewing. Both were wonderfully malty, with the offering from Lonerider the only brown ale in my book able to challenge Elle’s Brown Ale from Avery for overall brown ale excellence.

On the other end of the beer continuum, my IPA-swilling friend preferred the SweetWater IPA from SweetWater Brewing Company and the Detour Double IPA from Uinta Brewing. Each provided hoppyness in a glass.

Several craft brewers were on tap that we’d tried before, with the efforts from Blue Mountain Brewery the only one to hit both of our sweet spots with their Full Nelson Pale Ale and the Dark Hollow Artisanal Ale, an imperial stout, making it difficult for us to wander too far from their tasting booth by the end of the day.

Unfortunately, the end of the day did come, and it was off to Capital Ale House, the sponsor for the whole shebang, for the after party. The highlight for me at the pub was the James Brown cover band known as The Big Payback (check out a sample of one of their songs on YouTube here).

My traveling companion was fairly happy with the beef, lamb and veal sliders that were complimentary to all post-tasting attendees, though the passed hors d’oeuvres didn’t really constitute much of a meal for me.

In the program introduction, the event organizers said their vision for the National Beer Expo is to create a signature, national event for craft beer and food that makes everyone in the craft beer industry proud. To be fair, we did not attend most of the options made available over the four days, such as the multiple brewery tours, the numerous restaurant special meals, nor the seminars on everything from how to pair craft beer with goat cheese to how different hops affect the flavor of the IPA. So there may be much more for us to explore, and partake in, at next year’s event.

And even though this particular festival was more like a drive through Kansas City in a Corolla than a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mustang convertible, it was a decent effort. Here’s hoping the organizers learned a great deal that will allow them to trade in their Toyota for an Audi.

— Eric Van Steenburg

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