Monday, December 11, 2017
Bars & Spirits

Spring Hops festival proves there's room for variety in craft beer boom

One of the defining features of craft beer is its proponents' willingness to experiment with extremes, and with that willingness often comes a push back in the other direction: simplicity, minimalism.

During the early days of the current boom, bitter IPAs dominated, spurring an arms race to see who could punish the tongues of beer drinkers most effectively. The next wave of IPAs focused less on bitterness and instead on intense, fruity aromatics. Big stouts and strong ales also ruled over the landscape, eventually leading to a rise in low-alcohol session beers.

And then there are the festivals — one of the most fun and celebrated activities in craft-beer culture. While many beer fests have evolved into spectacles too big to enjoy, some are bucking the trend and shooting for a more modest approach.

Take last weekend's Creative Loafing Spring Hops. Held in the Ybor Square courtyard, it had one of the tightest focuses I've seen at a beer festival. Twelve breweries were in attendance — all local — and the total beer count was a mere 33.

While the number of beers was considerably fewer than at a typical event, the pours were larger. General admission came with 16 beer tickets, with a 3-ounce standard pour available for a single ticket and a 12-ounce full pour available for four tickets.

Fewer beers and larger pours led to an interesting phenomenon — virtually zero lines. Instead, people stood around, chatting and listening to music, including sets by the excellent Woolly Bushmen in the upstairs VIP area. In contrast to some of the bigger events, where people stand in line for 10 minutes to gulp a 1-ounce taster in a single move, this really felt like, well, a festival.

The theme was classic rock 'n' roll: Hot rods parked on the street, rockabilly tunes on the stereo, '50s-style pinup models posing for photo ops in the middle of the courtyard.

Several local restaurants provided food in the courtyard, including the adjoining Spaghetti Warehouse and neighbors New World Brewery. Café Hey was on hand providing vegetarian and vegan options, while Tampa Bay Brewing Company served catered food in the VIP room. Though it was mostly overcast, non-beer options were available for cooling off, courtesy of the Pop Bandits popsicle cart.

If this all sounds pretty low-key, that's because it was. It was a refreshing change of pace that we'll be seeing more of in the future, as the less-is-more maxim spreads to the festival scene, as it did with tongue-crushing IPAs and oil-thick imperial stouts. People still love those beers, but they also enjoy variety. People will still go to the huge festivals, but it's nice to have simpler options sometimes.

While the beer count was relatively diminutive, that doesn't mean the selection was entirely pedestrian. Many familiar flagships were on tap — TBBC Old Elephant Foot, Dunedin Apricot Wheat, Big Storm Wavemaker — but several new releases were featured, too.

Saint Somewhere debuted a new brew called Cheval, which means "horse" in French. Believe it or not, this one includes unmalted grain-based horse feed as part of the grist bill. Dunedin introduced its Bring the Noise saison, while Tampa Bay Brewing Company poured a new APA called Reef Donkey. One of the fest's strangest brews came from Cigar City — a Dogfish Head-esque beer called El-ahrairah, made with ginger, honey and carrot juice. That last one was voted crowd favorite at the end.

My personal favorite? Three Palms' Topless Fling, an open-fermented sessionable saison flavored with pineapple and mango. It was quite funky due to the open fermentation (which introduces brettanomyces and other wild microflora), leading to many contorted faces among casual samplers who didn't know what they were getting into.

Now, I won't say that less is, in fact, always more when it comes to craft beer. But less is definitely different, and variety is what it's all about. There will always be plenty of room for the big events, but I look forward to more of these little ones.

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