Beer festivals have exploded in the Washington area in the last few years, held throughout the year at locations ranging from Nationals Park to the National Zoo. But fall is prime beer festival season, thanks to crisp weekend afternoons and idealized dreams of Oktoberfest. (Hey, after a beer or three, everyone thinks the Chicken Dance is a great idea.)
Beginning this weekend with Snallygaster, Washington's biggest and best beer festival, there's an event or two almost every week through mid-October. The problem is that the events can become a blur: Don't they all have beers from Devils Backbone and Flying Dog? Which is the one with Bavarian dancers?
To help you make the most of the season, we've broken down six of the best festivals, based on key attributes ranging from the strength of the beer selection to the non-sudsy entertainment. We also have tips from festival veterans to help you navigate the myriad options.
Pro tips: How to make the most of beer festivals
Saturday, Sept. 13
Snallygaster (Web site)
Location: First and N streets SE. (Metro: Navy Yard.)
Ticket price: In advance: $30, which includes 25 drink/food tickets and a souvenir mug. At the door: $10 donation to local food charity Arcadia, including a souvenir mug while supplies last. Tickets are available from www.snallygasterdc.com.
Number of breweries: Snallygaster differs from other local beer festivals in that it's not organized by brewery, with tables dedicated to pouring selections from just one place. Instead, Greg Engert, the brain behind the beer lists at ChurchKey, Rustico and other great local beer bars, handpicks more than 250 ales, lagers and ciders. Last year, you could find "the usual" Flying Dog beers in one area and rare and barrel-aged versions from the Frederick brewery in a different section of the festival.
Breweries to look for: Too many to count. The lineup includes gravity-poured German Kellerbier lagers, English-style cask ales and Bluejacket ales made just for the festival. There will be pumpkin and Oktoberfest beers from across the country, bourbon barrel-aged Stone, Green Flash and Perennial beers, and, for the first time, an "artisanal cider garden."
Hours of drinking: Five (1-6 p.m.) with regular ticket.
Number of samples included: Up to you. Each beer costs a certain number of tickets (usually 3 to 6 for a half-pour or 5-9 for a full-size beer). Twenty-five tickets are included with advance admission. Extra tickets are $1 each.
Is there food? Yes, available for purchase from food trucks and restaurants, including Red Hook Lobster Pound, TaKorean and the Rappahannock Oyster Company.
Beyond drinking: Entertainment includes dance-punk band !!!, local electro-pop group Brett and DJs.
Beer-geek excitement level: Very high. Previous Snallygasters have included some of the best beer lists ever seen in one location in Washington. This year's festival returns to the area near the Navy Yard, home to the 2012 Snallygaster, and an improvement over last year's location in Union Market's parking lot. Snallygaster can be more expensive than comparable festivals, especially if you want to try the rare beers, but the selection is unparalleled for an outdoor event.
The Annapolis Craft Beer and Music Festival (Web site)
Location: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 550 Taylor Ave., Annapolis.
Ticket price: $40. A designated-driver ticket is $20.
Number of breweries: 42, each pouring at least two beers. In all, at least 120 different beers will be offered.
Breweries to look for: The lineup is a mix of solid, well-known names (Ballast Point, Left Hand, Devils Backbone) and some worthwhile Eastern Shore breweries that don't make it to this side of the bridge very often, including Burley Oak and RAR. Stop by the Flying Fish stand to try Forever Unloved Sandy, a wheat/pale ale hybrid that raises money for Hurricane Sandy charities.
Hours of drinking: Six (noon-6 p.m.).
Number of samples included: Unlimited.
Is there food? Bayside Bull of Edgewater will have pit beef, barbecue and vegetarian meals for purchase.
Beyond drinking: There will be classic rock and blues bands, steel drum lessons, craft beer seminars, and sessions on pairing beer and cheese.
Beer-geek excitement level: Medium. This Annapolis festival does a better job than most of balancing locals (Baltimore's Full Tilt, Laurel's Jailbreak) with bigger national names. Beer lovers may roll their eyes at four different Shock Top or Abita offerings, but the lineup has enough breweries you don't see in every local bar - Victory, Weyerbacher, Eastern Shore - to keep things interesting for festival newbies and veterans alike.
Saturday, Sept. 20
Maryland Brewers' Harvest (Web site)
Location: Bond Street Wharf, 1401 Thames St., Baltimore.
Ticket price: $35 in advance, $50 at the gate. A designated-driver ticket is $10. VIP tickets, which allow admission at noon and small-batch beers not offered to the public, are $65 in advance and $85 at the gate.
Number of breweries: 24, from across Maryland, plus two cider-makers.
Breweries to look for: Some of the bigger brewers, such as Flying Dog and Evolution, are bringing their standard beers. You'll have more fun if you try the less-common offerings from the Brewer's Art, Union, Milkhouse and Franklin's.
Hours of drinking included: Four (2-6 p.m.) for general admission tickets; six (noon-6 p.m.) for VIPs.
Number of samples included: 10 four-ounce pours with general admission, and extra tokens are $1 each. VIP tickets allow unlimited beer.
Is there food? A variety of restaurants - including Spike Gjerde's Parts and Labor, Dangerously Delicious Pies and 26, a seafood place in Annapolis - have prepared a small food pairing for each brewery. Additional food is available for purchase, including oysters from the Choptank Oyster Company.
Beyond drinking: Music performances start at 1 p.m., capped by the turbobilly sound of the Glenmont Popes.
Beer-geek excitement level: Medium-high, especially for Marylanders. If you want to experience the Free State's brewing scene without racking up hundreds of miles on your car, this is the place. It covers virtually every major brewery and brewpub in the state, except for Burley Oak and RAR. The VIP tickets, with promises of rare and small-batch beers, sound especially interesting. A Brewers Association of Maryland festival in Frederick this year was packed with one-offs.
Heurich House Oktoberfest (Web site)
Location: Heurich House Museum, 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle).
Ticket price: $60.
Number of breweries: Eight
Breweries to look out for: All eight members of the Washington Brewers Guild – that’s every brewery and brewpub in the city – are bringing Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest-inspired beers, and all are worth sampling.
Hours of drinking included: Three (1-4 p.m.)
Number of samples included: Unlimited.
Is there food? Yes. Admission includes sausages from Cafe Berlin and pretzels from Das Pretzel Haus.
Beyond drinking: The day includes guided tours of the Heurich House Museum, the Victorian home of turn-of-the-century brewing magnate Christian Heurich (until 2 p.m.); a Best Dirndl and Best Lederhosen contest (3 p.m.); and live German music by Die Zwei (1-4 p.m.).
Beer-geek excitement level: High. This is your chance to try DC Brau's first-ever Oktoberfest, traditional lagers from Gordon Biersch and District Chophouse, and a funky festbier from Bluejacket. After guests try small pours of all the beers, they can vote for a favorite. It's a smaller scale than other Oktoberfests, but in terms of local beer pride, it's huge.
DC International Beer Festival (Web site)
Location: Andrew Mellon Auditorium, 1301 Constitution Ave. NW. (Metro: Federal Triangle.)
Ticket price: $50. VIP tickets, which allow early entry to the festival and access to a VIP area with exclusive beers, are $70.
Number of breweries: 60 American beers and 60 international beers are promised.
Breweries to look for: “We’ve focused on finding breweries you may not have tried,” says the festival’s Web site, right above the logos of Guinness, Smithwick’s, Bass and Boddingtons. There’s not a lot here that an even halfway-serious beer drinker hasn’t tried: Dogfish Head, Bell’s, Goose Island. Some interest comes from smaller breweries, such as Bluejacket, Great Divide and Hardywood.
Hours of drinking: Three (12:30-3:30 p.m. or 4:30-7:30 p.m.). VIP tickets allow an extra 30 minutes of drinking at each session.
Number of samples included: Unlimited.
Is there food? Organizers promise “a bunch of food options” but the list of said options hasn’t been released.
Beyond drinking: "tons of games, arts, activities" says the web site, but organizers don't go into details and didn't answer e-mails about specifics.
Beer-geek excitement level: Low. There’s some good beer to be had here, and some smaller breweries to balance the near-ubiquitous Brooklyn and Dogfish Head. But when a festival’s "featured beers" include Modelo Especial, Peroni, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, it’s hard to get worked up about the event, especially when a three-hour session costs $50.
Beer, Bourbon and BBQ (Web site)
Location: Lerner Town Square at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Dr., Tysons. (Metro: Tysons Corner.)
Ticket price: $39 in advance, $45 at the gate. A designated driver ticket is $25. $75 VIP tickets include two extra hours of eating and drinking, restaurant tasting stations and “a gourmet bacon station featuring bacons from all over the country.”
Number of breweries: More than a dozen.
Breweries to look for: Heavy Seas, Boulevard, Mad Fox and Starr Hill.
Hours of drinking: Four (2-6 p.m.) for regular ticket holders; six (noon-6 p.m.) for VIPs.
Number of samples included with ticket: Unlimited.
Is there food? Did you miss the name of the event? Multiple barbecue stations will sell all manner of porky treats.
Beyond drinking: Check out live bluegrass and rock cover bands, take part in a Maker’s Mark tasting or watch cooking demonstrations. Men can participate in a “Best Beer Belly” contest, while women can vie for the title in a “Miss Daisy Dukes” pageant.
Beer-geek excitement level: Very low. A beer festival that lists National Bohemian, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Woodchuck Cider among its offerings is not going to get pulses racing. This is definitely one for people more excited about bacon and bourbon: The whiskey options, including multiple varieties of High West, Bowman and Knob Creek, are far more interesting than the beers.
Saturday, Sept. 27
Hoppy Oktoberfest (Web site)
Location: Mad Fox Brewing Company, 444 West Broad St., Falls Church.
Ticket price: Free entry. Anyone drinking pays $20 for a tasting glass and six drink tickets.
Number of breweries: 30, each with one or two offerings, plus four IPAs and an Oktoberfest beer from Mad Fox.
Breweries to look for: The mix of local and regional brewers includes Sunken City, Champion and Apocalypse Ale Works, as well as bigger names such as Devils Backbone, Hardywood and Port City.
Hours of drinking: Six (noon to 6 p.m.).
Number of samples included: 6 four-ounce pours. Additional tickets are $2 each.
Is there food? A selection of sausages, sandwiches, pretzels and snacks will be for sale.
Beyond drinking:Music starts at 1 p.m. Activities for kids include a moon bounce; adults can occupy themselves with cornhole and KanJam.
Beer-geek excitement level: Medium-High. This annual celebration of India Pale Ale features IPAs and IPA-inspired beers from big-name local brewers and up-and-comers from across the Old Dominion. It's also educational: If you're curious about Old Ox, Forge Brew Works and Champion, this is where you can see how they stack up against similar beers from DC Brau or Lost Rhino. If you don't like hoppy beers, though, you might want to look somewhere else.
Das Best Oktoberfest (Web site)
Location: The DC Armory, 2001 East Capitol St. SE (Metro: Stadium-Armory).
Ticket price: $39. The $59 VIP ticket includes two extra hours of drinking and a pretzel.
Number of breweries: At least 20 breweries and cideries.
Breweries to look out for: The selection includes German Oktoberfest beers from Spaten and Beck's alongside American versions by Victory, Blue Point, Lancaster and others.
Hours of drinking included: Four (2-6 p.m.). VIP tickets include entrance at noon.
Number of samples included: Unlimited.
Is there food? Yes. Expect plenty of sausages.
Beyond drinking: Music alternates between the Edelweiss Band and popular cover bands Liquid A and Flip Like Wilson. There is a Best Beer Belly contest for the guys, and a Miss Oktoberfest contest for the ladies.
Beer-geek excitement level: Low. With the exception of Devils Backbone and Victory, the beer list is uninspired, and filled with brands owned or affiliated with Anheuser-Busch. (I'm not saying that''s always a bad thing, but some diversity would be nice.) Does anyone really associate Shock Top or Singha with Oktoberfest? Organizers deserve credit for including gluten-free options, such as Omission and a choice of multiple ciders, but Das Best Oktoberfest is a place for fake lederhosen and pretzel necklaces, definitely more drunken Oktoberfest party than beer festival.
Saturday, Oct. 4
Mid-Atlantic Oktoberfest (Web site)
Location: The streets of the Village of Shirlington. The main gate is outside Capitol City Brewing Company, 4001 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
Ticket price: Free entry. Anyone drinking pays $30, which includes a tasting glass and 10 drink tickets.
Number of breweries: At least 65.
Breweries to look for: Most of the local powerhouses, including DC Brau, Sweetwater Tavern, District Chophouse and Lost Rhino, will bring their Oktoberfest brews.
Hours of drinking included: Seven (noon to 7 p.m.; taps close at 6 p.m.).
Number of samples included: 10 four-ounce pours. Additional tickets are $1 each with a minimum purchase of five.
Is there food? Shirlington restaurants sell everything from Thai food to pub grub. A German food stand will feature brats and pretzels.
Beyond drinking: The Alpine Dancers will perform traditional Austrian and German dances with musicians.
Beer-geek excitement level: Medium. After 15 years, you know what you're getting at Cap City's Oktoberfest: Sam Adams, Rogue, Delirium Tremens and Dogfish Head have tables alongside the locals, plus relative newcomers such as Old Ox, Forge and Champion. It's always crowded: More than 9,000 people attended last year (including kids and designated drivers), and lines for food or drink often stretch longer than you'd like. The festival also draws people trying to drink as much as possible in an afternoon, similar to a Clarendon bar crawl. But it's an annual fixture for a reason: Plan right and it could be one of the best days of the year.
Saturday, Oct. 18
Chesapeake Real Ale Festival (Web site)
Location: Pratt Street Ale House, 206 W. Pratt Street, Baltimore.
Ticket price: $40. The $60 VIP ticket includes an extra hour of drinking, plus food.
Number of breweries: 26 have been confirmed so far. 27 participated in 2013.
Breweries to look out for: As hosts, Oliver Ales always put on a good showing, thanks to English brewer Stephen Jones. Yards, Blue Mountain and Sly Fox are always worth trying. If you see an English cask – like Thornbridge last year – jump on it.
Hours of drinking included: Five (1-5 p.m.). VIP admission is at noon.
Number of samples included: Unlimited.
Is there food? The bar's kitchen will be serving its usual menu: crab cakes, crab-and-corn quesadillas, flatbreads and all manner of burgers, including one topped with crab.
Beyond drinking: This is an event for serious drinkers. If you need entertainment, head down the street to the Inner Harbor.
Beer-geek excitement level: High. The 11th annual Real Ale Festival serves only cask-conditioned-beers, usually a mix of English style-ales and American-style IPAs with everything from fresh hops to vanilla beans infusing in the cask. The firkins take over the pub's patio and dining room, and the focus is entirely on the beer, not live bands or contests. If you love real ale, it's like Christmas.
Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 18-19
Northern Virginia Fall Brewfest (Web site)
Location: Bull Run Regional Park, 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville.
Ticket price: $25 in advance, $35 at the gate. Designated-driver tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the gate.
Number of breweries: The list of breweries will be released "on or about" Sept. 20, according to the website; the Summer Brewfest in June featured 64.
Breweries to look for: The NoVa Brewfest is usually strong on Old Dominion breweries, such as St. George, Three Brothers and Corcoran, but June's Brewfest added nine new Virginia breweries and cider-makers, including Crooked Run, Parkway and Winchester Cider Works. Throw in a strong national lineup with Firestone Walker, Allagash, Terrapin and Green Flash, and you have a nice assortment of beers.
Hours of drinking included: Eight per day (11 a.m.-7 p.m., though taps close at 6 p.m.)
Number of samples included: 6 pours of 4 to 4.5 ounces. Additional samples cost $1 each.
Is there food? Yes, everything from burgers to oysters to kettle corn.
Beyond drinking: Two stages feature blues and rock cover bands and acoustic performers. The TV Tent will show college and professional football games. At the Beer Stuff Tent, chefs will demonstrate how to cook and barbecue with beer as an ingredient. Vendors will sell T-shirts, jewelry, candles and other craft items.
Beer-geek excitement level: Medium. This is one of the nicest outdoor beer festivals around and bridges local and national tastes better than most; of the 64 breweries at the Summer Brewfest, 23 were from Virginia and five from Maryland. One important note: In the past, the festival has run shuttle buses from the Vienna Metro station. Look for information about buses to the festival grounds on the Web site "on or after September 20."
Do your homework.
Beer festivals are a great introduction to new breweries. So before you go, check the festival Web site - most events list the participating breweries, and some (such as Snallygaster and the Annapolis Craft Beer and Music Festival) provide the names of all the beers those breweries will be pouring - and plan your approach. Focus on beers that are not available at your favorite happy hour.
Washington-based beer lovers going to Annapolis on Saturday, for example, should look for beers from RAR Brewing (Cambridge, Md.) and Burley Oak (Berlin, Md.), which are hard to find on this side of the Chesapeake Bay. Lagunitas fans might want to skip its table, since the Petaluma brewery is bringing its IPA and Pils, which are common in local bars, and explore other beers instead - perhaps Victory's Prima Pils or Finch's Hardcore Chimera Imperial IPA?
With 275 choices over seven pages, Snallygaster's beer list is overwhelming. But take time to study it beforehand instead of just scanning it when you arrive at Yards Park on Saturday. You don't want to realize at 4 p.m. that your favorite rare Oktoberfest, Avery's The Kaiser, has already kicked, and you didn't even know it was available because it was buried down at No. 258.
Stretch your legs.
If a festival doesn't offer a complete list of beers in advance, the best approach is to get a bit of exercise. Grab a beer from the first spot you see without a line and make a circuit of the tables. (This is time-consuming at more spread-out festivals, such as the Mid-Atlantic Oktoberfest or the Northern Virginia Brewfest, but there's no reason you can't grab another sample along the way.) Make note of where your favorites are located and what they've brought.
Geography matters: Tables near festival entrances are frequently crowded, as people try to score beer as soon as they arrive. Head for the fringes or the middle and beat the rush.
Planning is good, but be flexible.
While Beer Advocate and RateBeer are helpful Web sites, they're not the be-all, end-all arbiters of what's good. "People make the mistake of waiting in very long lines for massively hyped beers," says Tim Prendergast, who works for craft beer distributor Kysela Pere et Fils and has manned taps at several festivals this year. "They show up with their lists [printed from Beer Advocate] and they're only in line for the Hill Farmsteads of the world. But there are beers that are probably just as good that don't have lines. People have preconceived notions about breweries before they've even tried a beer."
"Part of the fun at a festival is finding new things," says ChurchKey supremo Greg Engert, who picked the beers for Snallygaster. "Leave yourself open to new things: If you walk by a table and it's not busy, and something looks good, go try it."
At a festival with unlimited sampling, Prendergast recommends trying as much as you can: "Just get a half-pour, try it and if you don't like it, move on," he says. "You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't take advantage of this."
Don't drink things you've had before. If you do, save them for last.
You could run an entire festival by harnessing the power of beer geek eye-rolls as they walk past a Shock Top or Guinness stand. (Yes, you'll be able to find those at some events.) The purpose of a beer festival is not to get as drunk as possible - it's to try new seasonal beers, or find out why your friends came back from the beach raving about Burley Oak.
One exception I make: It's fine to order an old favorite if you're comparing two similar beers. If you know you love Sweetwater's IPA, for instance, it's nice to have that as a control before tasting Ballast Point's Sculpin IPA.
Choose quality over quantity.
"Sometimes people feel pressure to drink to get their money's worth," Engert says, which is why Snallygaster isn't an all-you-can-drink event, but requires people to pay for each beer. "This is a beer festival for everyone. It's not just a Rare and Obscure Festival - we don't want it to be all expensive $9 rarities," he says, pointing to AleWerks' Shorty Time, a session IPA, as something everyone should try.
The No. 1 mistake people make, Prendergast says: "They drink too much. . . . People overimbibe and they bring the festival atmosphere down for everyone." Just because the taps are open for four hours doesn't mean you have to spend every minute with a beer in your hand. Most festivals have soda and water available, too.
Engert is more succinct: "Make sure you eat, and plan on drinking as much water as you do beer."