For years, one man has been the first in line at Max's Taphouse for the first day of its regionally celebrated Belgian Beer Fest. "I can't wait for the same guy to roll up at six o'clock in the morning, same guy every year," says Casey Hard, Max's' general manager and beer czar. Those who have attended Belgian Beer Fest-now in its 10th year-know to expect to wait in a line that trails well up Broadway toward Aliceanna Street.
But the wait is worth it, this year more than ever. "We probably have 60 percent new draft from last year, and we have some special ones that I can't say yet-some really rare stuff, some casks from Belgium, lot of barrel-aged stuff, lot of sours, gueuzes, I'll have all that on draft," Hard says. On the short list of highlights, Hard includes collaboration brews from extremely elusive Vermont brewery Hill Farmstead and two Belgian breweries, Fantome and Brasserie de Blaugies; sour beers from Danish brewery Mikkeller and German brewery Freigeist; balsamic vinegar-esque sour Catherine the Great, served in a Lagavulin Scotch cask that once aged beer from British J.W. Lees Ales; and a 30-liter gravity keg filled with Belgian brewery De Dolle's Christmas beer, Stille Nacht. (Not to mention off-the-record offerings, "some stuff that's going to be really big and that people haven't seen in Maryland before," Hard promises.)
The litany of Belgian breweries won't overshadow domestic output, however. On Sunday, Feb. 16, two American breweries making first-rate Belgian-style beer-Oxbow Beer from Maine and Perennial Ales from Missouri-will have 10 beers each on draft. The next day, Max's' second Sour/Wild Ale Day, Hard says that 90 percent of the sour beers will be American, with Allagash, Dogfish Head, Jester King, and slew of others on deck. "The sour day, last year we did like 15, 20 drafts; this year we have between 40 and 50 drafts, with 60, 70 bottles," Hard says.
As with Artscape or Hampdenfest, massive amounts of planning determine the festival's lineup. Hard starts planning eight months beforehand, coordinating with importers and distributors. "I go to Belgium every year and talk to a lot of people and visit breweries and try different stuff to try to get that stuff brought in for next year," he says. A week prior, Max's starts to winnow their 1,200-large bottle selection to just the American beers. The eve of the festival marks a rare occurrence: "On Thursday we have no draft-which is interesting for Max's-because there's no way for us to change that many beers overnight. [But] we bring in some crazy American bottles so people find something new."
Max's' staff starts hooking up kegs on Thursday; Hard stays overnight all through the weekend. "We close, I start changing over kegs so we can open. And we have three different bars, so each day I have to figure out which beers go to which bars. It's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle." Hard, who started at Max's as a doorman, has seen the festival grow exponentially in 10 years. "The first year, we only had 12 drafts and we did 20 bottles or something. Now, it's 102 times however many others I put on."