Jan 28, 2011

The 2011 World Beer Festival

The Setup

Three years ago we decided to shoot our 'On The Street' show at the inaugural World Beer Festival in Columbia, SC. After all, what better venue could provide the comic relief that was the hallmark of that show, a question and answer format. We also decided (and we still question our good judgment on this one) to tape both the afternoon and the evening sessions – each lasting 4 hours.
While all this footage provided us with an interesting and funny show, we noticed that the attendees for the evening session were less the beer aficionados as their afternoon brethren, and more like the college-age frat boy beer lovers. This was brought home to me as I decided to volunteer for this year's festival.
At the volunteer meeting, held a few days prior to the event, it was brought up that the afternoon and evening sessions were as different as night and day, and our observation of the past audiences were spot on. It was with this knowledge that I walked into the Convention Center in Columbia on that cold, January morning.
My original plan was to be a captain of a group of volunteers, which would put me in charge of a row of booths, a support position at which I thought I might excel. Alas, all the captain positions were filled when I submitted the volunteer application, so I decided to leave my fate in the hands of the fine folks at the Columbia Opportunity Resource (COR) who were helping to provide volunteers for the event. When I stepped up to the table to get my assignment for the day I asked for anything in the VIP area. I thought that the area curtained off for the VIP attendees would be a quieter, more civil atmosphere for this young grandfather. Informed that all the VIP assignments had been handed out, I threw my fate to the wind and said to Kathryn (COR representative) “then just assign me anywhere”. Kathryn looked me up and down, scanned her assignment sheets and said “then I'm putting you in booth 143 as a pourer”. Assignment and T-shirt in hand, I made my way to the convention hall to find booth 143.
When I arrived at the booth, the first thing that I noticed was the sign which hung above the booth - “B. Necktar Meadery”.

I also saw below that a list of flavors – Orange blossom, Vanilla Cinnamon, Wildberry Pyment, Margarita-Style Melomel, Pineapple Coconut Melomel, Backwoods Cyser and Barrel Aged Dry Cyser. I was soon met at the booth by Ian, the young rep of the meadery.

We set up our booth by lining up bottles of the precious nectar along each side of the table, arranging the literature across the front and placing our large pan of ice at the back. We then hung the “B Nektar” t-shirts (yes, they also sold shirts) and women's tank tops across the back of the booth. Ian now gave me a brief history lesson on mead, his company's take on the product, and the wild success that this beverage is attaining in this new century.

What is Mead?

The wikipedia definition of mead follows:
Mead (pronounced /ˈmiːd/ meed) (also called honey wine) is an alcoholic beverage that is produced by fermenting a solution of honey and water. It may also be produced by fermenting a solution of water and honey with grain mash; the mash is strained off immediately after fermentation.
Depending on local traditions and specific recipes, it may be flavored with spices, fruit, or hops (which produce a bitter, beer-like flavor).
The alcoholic content of mead may range from about 8% ABV[4] to 18%. It may be still, carbonated, or sparkling, and it may be dry, semi-sweet or sweet.
Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, although archaeological evidence of it is ambiguous. Its origins are lost in prehistory. "It can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks," Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat has observed, "antedating the cultivation of the soil."

Armed with this knowledge, and cases upon cases of corked bottles, we faced the morning crowd.
And so it begins.
The announcement of the opening of the doors was called out immediately after the ceremonial tapping of the keg, the official opening of the festival. It was only a couple of minutes later that we were swamped with people wanting to taste their 2 ounces of mead. Four lines soon formed and Ian and I were pouring and pouring and pouring into cup after cup after cup. After 3 hours of solid un-corking and pouring, we ran out of the morning session's allotment. The obvious disappointment of the remainder of the tasters was evident as we were chided for not bringing enough to satisfy all the attendees. Truth is-most of the tasters were rounding to the back of the line for another sip of a different variety. Some were even bold enough to hold up the line while they tried all the flavors.
The reviews were outstanding. A friend of mine dropped by for a sip and reported to me that the mead booth was the hit of the session. Our lines were longer and steadier than any on the convention floor. I could believe that as my arm was sore from pouring. I might also mention that, at about the halfway point of the session, Ian told me to start pouring one-ounce samples instead of the customary two-ounce shot. He thought that this move would help us to survive the entire session with our stock intact, but too little too late.

The Evening Madness

Let me first post the mission of the beer festival, taken directly from their website:
Our mission is to educate the public in beer appreciation and beer quality, and to build the local beer community. Every aspect of the World Beer Festival focuses on promoting the positive attributes of the growing beer culture.

Mission stated, the doors of the evening session opened and in they came- a motley crowd of 20 and 30-somethings, cute beer sayings on faded t-shirts, the obligatory torn jeans, cell phones glued to ears, smirking and pushing their way to the front of the lines. This is what I had observed three years ago when we were taping On the Street and I certainly wasn't looking forward to this crowd.
The line forms at the table and we begin again.
Ian and I had grabbed a separate break after the first session, Ian struggling with a far-away issue by phone. His wife had called from Michigan where she and their 2-year old had just been involved in an accident. Seems a guy had run
a light and rammed into their car, slightly injuring her but had thankfully left the child unharmed. I went to my car to sit and rest, listen to NPR and recover from the madness of the morning, When the second session began, I was a bit more confident of my pouring and presenting abilities and Ian, although obviously still rattled, had gotten the home situation in hand. We had opened several bottles to get ahead of the crowd and were now staring at our first customers. Let the fray begin!
Guess what?
These 20 and 30-somethings were polite, patient, cheerful and downright fun!
They were interested in anything Ian had to say about Mead, asking relevant questions and listening intently at his every answer, even amidst all the noise and madness. Color me pleasantly surprised and I dove into my duties with a renewed vigor. I had also been listening to Ian and was able to field a few of the simple questions myself, such as “what is mead?” or “which is your favorite?” (I choose the Orange Blossom (check out the description; Our orange blossom mead is made from the honey of orange and other citrus trees, and is aged on American oak. The flavor and bouquet will transport you to warm climates, where citrus groves stretch on for miles and miles. This mead will continue to mature wonderfully in your cellar.))
I had learned from Ian that they buy honey from Florida citrus-area beekeepers
for use as their honey base for Orange Blossom, which struck me as cool.
The second session was a carbon copy of the first – long, constant lines, inquisitive patrons, those who loved it and those who hated it. And, like the first session, we ran out; except this time a full hour and a half before the closing bell.
We only ran into a few assholes, one in particular who kept coming by to remind us that he had “to drive three states to be here, and by-God we shoulda brought more cause now he's not getting his money's worth!” After about the third time coming by, Ian pulled out a special bottle of B. Nektar that he had stuck back for a later purpose. After giving the obnoxious slob a full shot, the guy actually had the nerve to talk about how bad it sucked. I thought this funny. After taking care of so many people for so many hours, we finally had to endure this fucker-the one that we had waited for all day. Thankfully he waited till the very end to show!
After hanging around for another hour, I shook Ian's hand and wished him well-especially thankful for his home situation outcome, and headed for the door.
I must say that although I initially thought that volunteering for both sessions might be a bit of a stretch for this old man, I was feeling sort of elated from the day's events. I had met many new people, received an education about one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man, had my faith in 'today's youth' restored, been reminded that there will always be at least one asshole at any large event, and, best of all, I had survived it with a cheesy-assed grin plastered on my face as I drove back to Fort Reid!