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Entertainment Music & Nightlife Midnight Sun

Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival signals start of spring in Baltimore

Imagine a bar with all-you-care-to-taste selections of more than 60 beers, 40 bourbons -- all for one flat cover.

It would need to be a pretty big bar, say, the size of the expansive Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium?

On March 21 and 22, the Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival came back to Baltimore, and the formula still works.

"I love the variety of the beer, and the people, and just the fun atmosphere," said AJ Ferguson, a 30-year-old auditor, who came from Ocean View, Del., for the event with her fiance, Jared.

While Ferguson praised the selection of more than 60 beers, she followed the old "liquor before beer" adage early in the day.

"I haven't had much beer; I've had a lot of bourbon," said Ferguson, who suggested a mandatory costume policy at the event. "The Jim Beam Maple tastes like maple syrup and I wanted pancakes."

While costumes were not mandatory, many festival goers chose to dress up anyway. Beards were plentiful, as were broken limbs for some reason. Mullet wigs, oversized plush novelty hats and drastically cut off jeans were popular choices, as were primitive string necklaces threaded through dozens of pretzels, providing convenient nourishment during the marathon imbibing.

From noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, a VIP session was available to a limited number of earlybirds who were willing to pay $14 more than the $35 general admission ($45 at the door), which ran from 2 to 6 p.m.

Savvy festival goers headed straight for the high-end bourbon table, which served 1-ounce samples of a rotating stock of top shelf bottles.

As 2 p.m. approached, there were some concerns from the steadily intoxicated crowd that a throng of general admittees would flood the venue, lengthening the lines to unbearable wait times and ruining the good vibes. But with more than 100 sampling booths to choose from, those fears were proven largely untrue.

Click here for the complete drink menu.

"When I came in, I was worried that the lines would be (too long)," said Aaron Fisher, a 25-year-old Biostatistics student from Charles Village. "We got here early and there was a long line, but it was just because nobody was being let in, so it was building up. The lines have not been so bad. Even at the high-end bourbon table, you get in line and it goes by in like five minutes."

A widely adopted strategy by veteran Beer, Bourbon & BBQ attendees is to sip one sample while waiting in line for another, in a sort of micro, hyper bar crawl.

When faced with an empty sampling glass, there was almost always a "no wait" sampling booth to serve as a port in the storm. In addition to the fancier beer selections, there were also more pedestrian but reliable offerings, such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, National Bohemian, National Premium and even Twisted Tea.

In fact, with so many choices, it would be virtually impossible, or at least not medically advisable, to sample each one.

The fun, then, was in walking the floor and tasting whatever struck one's fancy at the moment.

Still, some festival goers attempted to go for volume, or at least keep tally of how many samples they had tasted.

Cory Melton, a 24-year-old Loch Raven resident who works in tech support for the state government, came with a group of friends who tallied each sample with a hash mark on their T-shirts.

"This is my first time here," said Melton, who was up to 20 beers and four liquor samples with about one hour to go. "I came with friends so I'll just remember the good times and we're taking a tally; we're keeping score."

Melton, whose favorite beer was The Brewer's Art's Resurrection, said that he ran into his boss at the event, who told him that he'd "better see that shirt full of tallies."

While the BBQ was not included with admission, after working up a good buzz, it would be hard to resist the numerous food vendors on hand. The festival did feature a Porkus Maximus stand which periodically offered free samples of whole hog roasts by local BBQ establishments.

Melton praised the jerk chicken, while Fisher came to the event specifically to support Blacksauce Kitchen, a local food truck that he has enjoyed at farmers' markets around the city.

Fisher, whose favorite drink samples included Four Roses Bourbon and the Jolly Pumpkin Maracaibo beer, said that he was surprised that the event was indoors, but was pleased with the overall experience.

"I was expecting something outdoors," he said. "The music is pretty good."

Bands performing at the event included The High Strung Bluegrass Band, Hectic Red, Annapolis Bluegrass Coalition, Kelly Bell Band and Amish Outlaws.

Opposite the music stage was a tasting theater featuring various "drinksperts," like Maker's Mark's John Vickers-Smith, Heavy Seas' Joe Gold and New Belgium's Ryan Carpenter.

But the highlight of the tasting theater schedule was the $19 "seminar" presented by festival founder Greg Nivens to 50 lucky individuals.

Nivens presented a slide show of photographs, but before the audience could realize they were watching a slide show, they were presented with either a sample of alcohol or BBQ, including a special Buffalo Trace made specially for the festival, a Kloby's Smokehouse famous Jarbecue, and for dessert, moonshine cake.

The grand finale was a special taste of Pappy Van Winkle, which I'm told is very special, and sells for upwards of $1,000 per bottle. My festival companion and I agreed that the rare bourbon had a "sharp" taste, and were thrilled to have sampled it.

While drinking and eating were the big draws of the Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival, there was plenty more to do. Festival goers could pet a sweet rescued German Shepherd, play a game of corn hole, scream gleefully when someone shattered their tasting glass or explore informative home organization options at the Closet America booth.

Finally, like any festival, there was people-watching, which was especially enjoyable during the final hour. Perhaps a testament to the short lines or plentiful libations and food, the mood at Beer, Bourbon & BBQ was always festive and never hostile.

Pro tips

  • Take the light rail. It drops off right at the festival entrance, and the ride home with fellow drunken festival goers is lots of fun.
  • Buy your tickets early and pay extra for the VIP session.
  • Go to the tasting seminar with founder Greg Nivens ($19 extra). It's totally worth it.
  • Take advantage of the free food samples from exhibitors, like B More Nutz.
  • Wear something silly.
  • Bring a pretzel necklace.
  • Go to the high-end bourbon table early and often. Sip nearby beer samples while you wait.
  • Get a lanyard holder for your sampling glass so you don't drop it. ($10 penalty for a new glass)
  • Don't leave early.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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