As the popularity of craft beer rises, so does the attendance at beer festivals across the country. We're quite fortunate in Tampa Bay to have several quality beer events, such as Cajun Café on the Bayou's outstanding annual festival, as well as the Craft Beer Expo in downtown St. Pete.
Last year, Busch Gardens entered the arena with their Bands, Brew & BBQ festival.
Beer sampling was a longstanding tradition at Busch Gardens until 2009, when InBev bought out Anheuser Busch and closed the popular Hospitality House, where patrons could sample a variety of beers for free. I'll admit I was disappointed that one of my favorite attractions at Busch Gardens was axed, and I was interested to learn about this new festival, which not only had a strong emphasis on beer but boasted what seemed to be a pretty sturdy selection of brews to choose from.
The Bands, Brew & BBQ series — running Sundays in February and the first week of March — is pretty simple, with the name of the event summing it up pretty nicely. Beer flows freely from more than a dozen beer tents, food vendors serve up a variety of barbecued items, and live music from well-known musical acts is featured each weekend. I couldn't see a downside to a beer festival at an amusement park, so I headed out the first week.
It works like this: Regular park admission is required at entry, at which point you'll notice a bunch of tents and people amassed in the Gwazi Pavilion. Performers on stilts and roller coasters along the skyline add to the festival vibe, which is what really sets this apart from other beer fests I've been to. There are 14 beer tents, offering a total of 52 different beers, all available for sampling via a 5-ounce souvenir Pilsner glass. Well, it's actually made of plastic, but I digress. A $25 wristband gets you unlimited access to all of the beer tents, and that's when the fun begins.
One difference with this beer fest is the presence of many major labels, such as the entries from Anheuser Busch and InBev. However, even these are weighted more toward varieties that the average park patron may not be familiar with, such as Michelob Porter, a full-bodied and competent version of the classic style, and Boddingtons, a traditional English pale ale served with nitrogen-infused carbonation, giving it a rich and creamy body.
Plenty of micros were on site, such as Starr Hill, Blue Point, Victory, Kona, Widmer, Magic Hat, Gordon Biersch, and Southern Tier. Since this beer fest is clearly intended more for the entry-level beer drinker than the world-weary beer connoisseur, I thought it was nice to see so many people appreciating fine quaffs like Southern Tier's Iniquity Black Ale, Magic Hat's Howl schwarzbier, and Victory's Hop Wallop double IPA. I was even introduced to Florida Avenue, a brewery out of Tampa that I was not yet aware of; they offered a fine wheat ale, IPA and blueberry ale.
The event starts at noon and the beer tents shut down around 5 p.m., at which point the headlining band starts on the nearby stage. On the week I went, country artists Montgomery Gentry were performing; upcoming artists include Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (Sunday), the Commodores and Pointer Sisters (Feb. 27) and Travis Tritt and Charlie Daniels (March 6).
I might not go out of my way to pay park admission and get a wristband for the beer fest alone, but as part of the whole package, I think it's a great value. There is a wealth of beers worth trying, and the setting is about as fun as it gets. A beer fest inside a theme park? It's hard to beat, especially with the great weather we're having lately.
If a trip to Busch Gardens is on your calendar this month, a Sunday visit is well-advised. Just be careful about riding the Phoenix afterward, because once your beer glass falls in the cracks beneath the ride, it's gone forever.