Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Notes from the Field: International Beer Fest in Cleveland, Ohio: A Quick Review

by Jeff Walcoff

This weekend, Madison Beer Review attended the first International Beer Fest in Cleveland, Ohio, held in roughly half of the nearby International Exposition Center – a massive 1 million-square-foot convention center originally built as a factory that built bombers during World War II.

With more than 200 brewers and 800 beers from around the world for the sampling, The Fest was Cleveland’s first major foray into a full-scale, multiple-session beer festival – and while it undoubtedly had its perks, it also showed certain need for improvement if there’s to be a second year.

As might be typical of new, large beer festivals, the biggest issue was the lack of representation from the breweries and distributorships themselves. The folks pouring the beers were almost entirely volunteers who knew nothing of the offers they were serving, even down to simple facts like style. One of the great delights of any type of beer event is having a chance meet and greet a brewer, owner or distributor. This felt like going to a neighborhood art show and having finance majors from the nearby college describing and selling the pieces.

A couple more novice beer drinkers I spoke with shared similar disappointment.

As for the beers, most of the hundreds being sampled were the same one would find on the shelves of a bottle shop down the street. Most breweries offered between two and four varieties and almost all were year-round offerings.  But nonetheless, there was still plenty of beer to be had and it was a nice chance to revisit some old favorites, as well as retry beers I simply didn’t remember because I hadn’t tasted them in a long time. I had forgotten how good Weyerbacher Merry Monks and AleSmith Red Devil are mostly because the always-constant stream of new beers has prevented me from ordering or buying them in several years. And, let’s be honest, there’s never a bad time to be poured a glass of Rochefort 10 or Orval.

Here were some of the highlights:

* Legendary West Coast brewery Pizza Port was in attendance to everyone’s surprise (they weren’t on the published list of participants). Their Black IPA was a consensus pick among folks I spoke with as one of the festival’s best. They also served a porter, brown ale, and IPA that were among the best we had all day.

* Michigan brewery Kuhnhenn, which also doesn’t distribute to Ohio, sampled four beers, including their Crème Brulee Java Stout that blew me away.

* The Real Ale Bar featured some interesting offerings including a casked version of Fat Heads’ 2010 GABF silver-medal-winning Head Hunter IPA, and one of the very first offerings from Market Garden Brewery (an amber), the soon-to-open Cleveland brewpub by former DogFish head brewer Andy Tveekrem.

* A nicely aged 2009 vintage Great Lakes Blackout Stout served only in the VIP area.

* Four beers from Sierra Nevada’s limited edition “Beer Camp” series.

As for some of the notable award winners, New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing took home the gold medals for both English Pale Ale (Shoals Pale Ale) and Porter/Stout (Robust Porter), while Strongsville, Ohio’s The Brew Kettle’s earned four golds, as well as the prize for Best in Show for their White Rajah IPA.

If you’re considering a trip to the area to experience the fantastic beer scene, I’d also recommend the annual Cleveland Beer Week in October [ed note and it runs from October 14-22], which features countless beer dinners, samplings, rare keg tappings, vintage tastings, and a massive closing-night gala. While the individual events might set you back more than the one-stop Fest, the beer is more geared towards special releases and seasonals and nearly all of the major events are attended by direct brewery reps, oftentimes the brewers themselves.

---------ED NOTE------

As a little follow-up, keep in mind that other events around the country use volunteers to the same mixed results. Great American Beer Fest ("GABF") in Denver, CO does this and the service knowledge even there, at indisputably America's premier beer festival, can be woefully lacking for the inquisitive mind. Many brewers do not attend GABF, and those that do are often there to attend satellite events such as conferences or specific account tastings and what-not - they are rarely available on the event floor. Eventually these satellite events will grow and support the I-X BeerFest and more brewers will see the value in attending such a show. In the meantime, volunteer training should focus on a base level of beer knowledge and volunteers should be getting at least a cursory training on the product that they will be serving.

Other events like Great Taste of the Midwest mandate that brewers attend and that brewery staff pour; this is much easier when you have 120 breweries from a consolidated area (the Midwest). It is also, by far, the exception rather than the rule. GTMW can do this because of the relationship the organizers themselves have with the breweries, it would be difficult for an event not run by industry insiders to mandate this.

The following is the follow-up press release from the event organizers.

----------START PRESS RELEASE--------------

Cheers to a Great Event!
International Beer Fest Wows the Crowd First Year Out

(Cleveland, OH) The I-X Center can cheerfully raise a glass to another successful event. International Beer Fest, the largest showcase and competition of world beers in the Midwest, lived up to the hype. The festival and beer competition featuring 200 stellar breweries and upwards of 800 beers drew 8,567 visitors to its three tasting sessions, gaining instant fan loyalty from both brewers and attendees alike.

“For a first-year show, we were thrilled with the attendance and overall positive comments about the International Beer Fest,” said Robert Peterson, president of the I-X Center. “We will definitely hold the event in May 2012 - dates will be announced soon.”

Show organizers noticed right away that the attendance seemed to grow with each session. Many patrons that had planned to attend only one session soon found themselves purchasing tickets for the next. The site’s Facebook page became flooded with positive comments and “can’t wait until next year” postings. Fans have already been asking for dates and tickets for 2012!

The judged competition was easily a crowd favorite. “Best in Show” went to The Brew Kettle Production Works from Strongsville, Ohio. The brewer’s White Rajah wowed a panel of beer experts and garnered the brewery top recognition. As the ceremony ended, the Beer Kettle crew happily walked away with a total of nine medallions that graced their booth until the end of the show.

Other Northeast Ohio brewers also faired well in the judging, giving the Buckeye State plenty to brag about with a grand total of 36 medals earned between them. Hoppin’ Frog Brewery of Akron, Ohio, and Fat Heads Brewery & Saloon of North Olmsted, Ohio, both walked away with five and four medallions respectively, including two golds for each. Great Lakes Brewing Company and Buckeye Brewing Company from Cleveland, Ohio, and the Thirsty Dog Brewing Company out of Akron, Ohio, each won three medals in various categories. The Willoughby Brewing Co. of Willoughby, Ohio, went home with two, including a bronze for their Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter. A complete list of winners may be viewed on the International Beer Fest website,

International Beer Fest will be held next May, 2012 at the I-X Center in Cleveland, Ohio. For more information call 216.265.7468 or visit us online at, or

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