I make a concerted effort to attend as many beer festivals in Tampa Bay as possible, but I don't mind saying that the Cajun Cafe on the Bayou festivals consistently top my priority list. Fresh, heat-thwarting beers at the Spring Festival; sour ales and Lambics in the summer; and, of course, big, flavorful brews at the Fall Festival — all in a quaint, waterfront setting with a tasting selection that is simply unrivaled in the area.
When Cajun Cafe owner Paul Unwin approached me about volunteering to help pour beers at last weekend's Sixth Annual Fall Craft Beer Festival, he was in effect making me an offer that I couldn't refuse. First, he knew that I would be there anyway, and second, I'm just a really nice and helpful guy. Hey, it sounds good, so let's stick with it.
Festivals at the Cajun Cafe are always well attended, but one actually sold out, meaning I would have to do some real work. I arrived shortly before the doors opened to find a line already formed out front. I was shuttled to a table featuring beers distributed by Oldsmar-based Micro Man Distributors, along with a few brews that I suspect came from Mr. Unwin's private collection — in other words, beers that are either not available in Florida or that are very, very scarce.
Among the beers I was charged with pouring were the phenomenal (and rare) Scaldis Prestige de Nuits, Harviestoun's barrel-aged Ola Dubh Old Ale, Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia, 2002 and 2008 reserve Barleywines from J.W. Lee, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, and — joy of joys — North Coast Old Stock 2009 Cellar Reserve. This was a selection I could work with.
The pouring space behind the tables was crowded, so I volunteered to take the second leg, relieving the starting lineup about 40 minutes into the festival. During that time (and on later breaks), I tried to get my hands on as much new local stuff as possible. Tampa homebrew club Special Hoperations had an outstanding Peppermint Stout on tap; Cigar City had some 2011 Hunahpu's Imperial Stout alongside its Good Gourd Pumpkin Ale infused with rum-soaked oak chips; Rapp Brewing cracked open a bottle of its ever-popular (and strong) OMG; and Bob Bridges of the Pinellas Brewers Guild poured his similarly-potent and excellent Dobel Dobel van Dobelganger Barleywine.
But I was there to work, and work I did. The pouring pace was surprising and sometimes frenetic, with empty bottles flying into the trash can as quickly as new ones were getting uncapped — corks shooting through the air, empty sampling cups coming in from all angles, and questions galore. All the while, a few compatriots were kind enough to bring me newly tapped samples from elsewhere at the festival, so I could appropriately drink on the job.
So what did I learn from being the pourer rather than the pouree?
Well, I learned that a heck of a lot of people are every bit as excited about good beer as I am. There were many new faces for a community in which I'm fairly well-traveled. I was also reminded that true appreciation of craft beer doesn't mean you have to be familiar with obscure brands and the hype surrounding them — for every fellow beer nerd ogling the bottles of Schneider Weisse Tap X Mein Nelson Sauvin, there were at least three people dragging their friends over to make them try Delirium Noel or St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, two fantastic beers in their own right that can be easily found at your local beer store. These people really loved those beers and were overjoyed to sample them, completely unfazed by the $40 bottles of Old Stock and Prestige de Nuits sitting inches away. I think that's the right spirit to have.
Volunteering also gave me the opportunity to discuss fine beer with other people. Unsolicited advice at beer bars is one thing, but turning someone on to a great beer while simultaneously boring them with details about said beer is another thing altogether. Who knows — when next year's Spring Beer Festival rolls around, you may see me behind the tables. If you do, make sure to say hello; I may just have a good recommendation.