I learned on short notice that Pinellas Park's Cajun Café on the Bayou was hosting its first craft-beer festival of the year April 16, so I promptly cleared my calendar. You see, the Café is known for throwing one of the best beer festivals around, and I don't just mean in the bay area — it's well-known in beer circles nationwide, even appearing in a list of the Top 10 beer fests in the U.S., according to the website Road Trips for Beer.
Among beer events, the Cajun Café stands out because of a scenic, casual outdoor setting and the enthusiasm of its owner, Paul Unwin, who stockpiles hard-to-find and unusual beers throughout the year to provide true diehards with something new and unexpected.
I showed up about an hour after the fest kicked off and found the place already quite busy, with small crowds surrounding the myriad booths and tents dotting the courtyard and dockside area. I grabbed my 5-ounce souvenir cup and got to work.
I knew that there would be a wealth of new beers to try, so I vowed to remain selective and only sample beers that I had either not had before, that I wouldn't have a chance to try again soon, or that I've simply enjoyed greatly in the past.
Beer Fest Strategy No. 1: Look for uncommon and rare beers first and ask for half servings (unless the quality of the beer demands a full serving) to preserve your ability to try as many beers as possible without killing yourself.
Local brewers were out in force, including Cigar City and Dunedin Brewery, which had its fantastic Highland Games Smoked Porter on draft. But there was also a strong homebrewing presence, with booths operated by the Pinellas Urban Brewer's Guild and Dunedin Brewer's Guild, as well as the ever-popular Mike's Heavenly Homebrews — the creations of St. Pete homebrewer Mike Gyarmathy, who has been a fixture at the café's fests for years. Even tbt*'s own Tom Scherberger debuted a brew — a very solid and well-crafted IPA.
Palm Harbor's Lagerhaus tried to run the beer gamut with three very different entries — the Fischer Hefeweizen (which was already gone when I made it to the table), the extremely subtle and crisp Royal Bohemian Pilsner, and the notorious 44 Magnum, a 44-proof (22 percent alcohol by volume) monster that is surprisingly smooth despite its imposing strength.
Fans of Belgian ales were in for a treat, as the supremely delicious Rochefort 8 and 10 series — special ales brewed by Trappist monks, highly prized among worldly beer drinkers — were freely flowing, joined by Scaldis Triple and another great Trappist brew, Duvel's Tripel Hop Belgian IPA. At the same table were a few variations of British brewer J.W. Lees' Harvest Ale, including vintages dating back to 2002, as well as batches aged in sherry and Calvados casks. Space restrictions prevent me from going into too much detail about these, but suffice it to say that I feel privileged to have gotten a hold of a few sips.
Plenty of other top-notch brewers were in attendance, with entries ranging from simple but well-executed pale ales to the limited-release Widmer Brothers Reserve beers — Galaxy Hop barleywine and Barrel-Aged Brrrbon winter ale.
Although it was my first stop at the fest, I saved my trip to the Unibroue table for the end, as it was the high-point of the day. The Quebecois brewery is well-known for its Belgian-influenced beers, but there were several rare specimens straight from the vault at this table, and I made my way through them all. The 15th, 16th and 17th anniversary ales side-by-side — the 15 dating back to 2005 — were enough to convince anyone, but when we were offered samples of the original bottling from 1998 of Unibroue's Quelque Chose — an uncarbonated beer made with cherries, similar in character to a mulled wine — I knew that spending my Saturday any other way would have been a grave mistake.
Beer Fest Strategy No. 2: Talk to the person serving you beers, especially if they're with a brewery that you're a big fan of. You never know, they may just have a few rarities that have been cellaring for a half-decade, waiting for someone who will appreciate them.
As usual, I wasn't able to try all the beers that I wanted to, but that's the price one must pay to savor the treasures of a fest like this.
Kudos to the Cajun Café for another wonderful event — well-organized, lively but not too crowded, and absolutely brimming with world-class beers. Take my advice and keep your ear close to the ground — when another fest like this pops up in a few months, you'll want to be there.