If you believe in the sacred nature of good beers shared amongst great friends, the legendary Boonville Beer Festival should be regarded as nothing short of a religious experience. Every year for one suds-soaked weekend in early May revelers descend upon the pastoral landscape of the Anderson Valley, raising tents, setting up their grills, and firing up the barbecue smokers. All the while jockey-boxes ceaselessly pipe a parade of craft beer into the chalices of the faithful masses.
The festival itself, held at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, is a magical 4-hour celebration of hops, barley and yeast. But for most, the experience extends well beyond the Saturday afternoon showcase. No wonder that for many attendees embarking on the bittersweet shuffle home this Sunday, the prevailing mindset was "less than 52 weeks 'til next year's Boonville!"
Typically attracting upwards of 3,000 beer enthusiasts, the festival is hosted almost literally in the backyard of nearby Anderson Valley Brewing Company. On tap at its booth was the aggressively tart, German-style Holy Gose. As the newest offering in their Highway 128 session series -- named after the meandering mountain road that led us here from US 101 -- it seemed impossible to ignore. The event also featured one of the earliest tappings of the brewery's annual Summer Solstice release. It's a beer with an unmistakable echo of caramelized malt, surfacing seconds after each sip.
There's many reasons this region of Northern California is regarded as the epicenter of craft beer; most of them were pouring at Boonville this weekend. Russian River Brewing Company, Lagunitas, Moylans, Sierra Nevada, Bear Republic ... to name but a select few. Their greatness is accepted as bedrock within this community and, sure, plenty of folks are willing to do the revolving door, sipping on classics like Pliny the Elder or Lagunitas IPA to no end. But that type of behavior feels amateur here, where the name of the game is to explore distant flavors that don't often make their way to your local watering hole.
Newcomers like Figueroa Mountain Brewery from outside of Santa Barbara and Societe from San Diego County have already begun attracting the attention of the cognoscenti. Being that they traveled hundreds of miles to bring their beer to this secluded mountain valley, it's only right to amble a few yards in their direction to see what all the buzz is about. In the case of Figueroa, their Stagecoach Stout is brimming with roasted malt and dark chocolate -- a natural accompaniment to the heaping piles of smoked pork served just several booths down.
Meanwhile, Societe was pleasing palates with their Publican Hoppy Ale. Sessionable, and intensely aromatic, with floral, pleasantries peppering the nose and finish, its arrival on the scene is indicative of a new trend in craft ales: a more balanced, less bitter-heavy approach. Thoughtful in execution and refreshing on the tongue, I was compelled to fill a second glass before devouring a plate of the crunchy fried pickles that have become a cult sensation here. Fill a third or fourth, if you so desire. With endless pours, it's not as if anyone is counting.
When temperatures can soar into the 90's on a cloudless spring afternoon, it's important to remember that Boonville is most certainly a marathon and not a sprint. And the most dedicated of craft beer lovers have already begun training for next year's race.