The first booth we visited was the Harpoon Brewery out of Boston, started in 1986. I had talked with their representative Chirsan via email, and he was more than happy to explain the beers on offer. There were two of their core products, Harpoon IPA and their UFO unfiltered Hefeweizen on offer, but there was also the Belgian Pale Ale, which managed to steal the show. The IPA is an English style and clocks in at around 5.9% alcohol with 42 IBU and it seems like a quality product, but is part of the core lineup and therefore sort of a workhorse for the brewery. The Belgian Pale Ale is slightly less hoppy (33 IBU) but it’s an interesting departure for the company, having been distributed for the first time this year. I don’t claim to know a great deal about the thought process, but it seems to me this is the kind of beer a brewer would roll out in order to be able to start experimenting with higher gravity Belgian styles. I suspect their leviathan series will probably start to include more Belgian influence over the next couple of years.
Since the Ellicottville booth was right next to Harpoon, it was clearly next. It was another of the breweries that I had corresponded with. Dan Minner, their brewer suggested that I try their pale ale. The description from the press release is “Copper in color, mildly malty and packaged with citrusy cascade hop flavor and aroma. 5.5% ABV 51 IBU.” It’s an American Pale Ale, but it reminded me a lot of Ontario IPAs because of the darker colour and hop bitterness and in much the same way as the Ontario IPAs it seems to want to be two different beers. I think it uses some English style malting, but with west coast hopping. I liked it well enough, but it seems a little schizoid if you look at it by itself. On the other hand, it would pair nicely with a number of different foods, so it’s unsurprising that it’s their brewpub’s flagship beer. Incidentally, I dare you to check out their brewpub’s food menu without subconsciously attempting to clear your schedule for a visit.
With the lines expanding, we wandered to the upper level which mostly contained booths from upstate New York and Vermont. If I had felt any dismay at being unable to access the courtyard, I quickly forgot about it because I was pleasantly surprised by just about everything I tried on the second level. Saranac, Lake Placid and Long Trail were right next to each other and had very reasonable lines. I hadn’t received replies from these breweries, so I had no idea what to expect. Being Canadian and generally apologetic, that tended to mean making snap decisions when I got to the front so that the line could keep moving and I somehow ended up with the strongest beers from each booth.
Saranac Imperial Stout: A really roast forward Imperial Stout. They’re claiming that it includes 11 malt varieties, so it’s not unexpected that it should be both high gravity and incredibly dark. It’s 9% alcohol and while it’s very good, a 4oz sample was probably more effective than a pint since it’s very aggressively flavoured with bitterness from coffee, chocolate and hops. Everything you need to know is right there in the first couple of sips.
Lake Placid UBU Ale: I don’t know quite what to make of this. It purports to be an English Strong Ale, and it does that nicely, but it verges on being a winter warmer if only for the finish. It’s very much the kind of thing a forward thinking brewpub would produce since it’s versatile as both a standalone product and would compliment a pub menu nicely. It’s red (I think) and it seems to weigh in around 7% alcohol. I’m sitting here trying to envision whether this should be in a snifter or a pint glass, which gives you some idea of the versatility.
Long Trail Double IPA: I had only had the Long Trail Double Bag prior to this and I hadn’t been particularly impressed by it. The Double IPA completely changed my mind about the brewery, because it’s absolutely fantastic. At 8.6%, they’ve managed to squeeze in over 100 IBUs with just Chinook and Cascade hops with a lot of citrus and fruit. I wish I had managed to find a bottle of it to bring back because it is very comparable to Black Oak Ten Bitter Years. A side by side tasting would be ideal if only to see whether my memory was playing up. Doppelganger style similarity there.
With the crowds getting somewhat unmanageable and with the event coordinators sidling up to suggest that people with press passes shouldn’t actually be drinking (which is a crock, since it’s a beer festival and what are you going to report on, the giant overhanging Labatt signage?) we decided to try a few more booths before calling it a day and going to find some dinner at the Pearl Street Grill.
I couldn’t resist trying out the Blue Point Hoptical Illusion, if only because of the fact that Flying Monkeys also makes a Hoptical Illusion. There’s even a thread on Bar Towel comparing the two of them. They don’t really compare well because the Ontario H.I. is about 5% and really a lightly hopped Pale Ale. The American one is much higher in alcohol and is an IPA. I talked to the Blue Point representative about it and it seems like everyone is aware of the trademark situation and nobody is eager to get all litigious about it. Their representative (for some reason, despite the fact that he’s an awesome sales rep for them, the thick Long Island Moe Syzlak style accent and extensive memory for sales figures made me a little nervous) quickly pointed out that the Toasted Lager is actually their flagship brand. I tried it and I’ve got to say that it’s fantastically drinkable and the caramelization sort of reminded me of toasted puffed rice. Since there aren’t any adjuncts, it’s an interesting flavour in a very pleasant beer that you don’t have to think about much. I could drink a lot of it, if it were available locally.
Finally, I had the Great Lakes Lake Erie Monster, which their representative Ryan had recommended to me. It was definitely a good beer to finish up on, because at this point, there wasn’t going to be much of anything that could actually reach my palate. The Lake Erie Monster weighs in at 9.1% Alcohol and 80 IBUs. I’m sort of shocked to learn that it only includes two hop varieties: Simcoe and Fuggles. It seems to me that they’ve coaxed quite a bit of complexity out of those two ingredients, so I’m even more impressed with it now than I was at the time.
On the whole, I have to say that the Buffalo Brewfest was mostly a successful event, but it seems to me that I would have enjoyed it more if it had been less crowded. Also, I think that 20 sample tickets is probably overkill. Between the number of tickets and the length of the booth lineups it sort of managed to regulate itself, which was a good thing. It’s certainly got me thinking a little bit about the way that American breweries are developing their products and what they’re able to accomplish with fewer government regulations. It also got me a trip to Premiere Gourmet, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.