A decade ago, brew festivals in San Diego were akin to an old-timey circus rolling into town. Their scarcity gave them an allure that kept me, and many others, captivated. Since that time, surging interest in craft beer and exploding counts of local brewers have created a seemingly unquenchable demand for more. At least nine brew festivals are coming in the next three months, a count that doesn't include a pair that just came and went.
Most brew fests have a pretty standard recipe. Your ticket entitles you to shuffle through innumerable short lines, closing every transaction with (a pittance of) delicious beer. It's simple and people obviously love it, but the volume of essentially identical events has created pressure on the market to differentiate. What are the differences that matter?
As in life, the spice of beer festivals tends to arise from variety, specifically the variety of brewers attending. However, don't make the mistake of letting raw brewery counts alone inform your decision. Your hard-earned cash is technically redeemable for beer outside festival walls, so the biggest benefit of a brew fest is the ability to sample wares from multiple unfamiliar breweries on a compressed timeline.
Taking a moment to peruse the festival's website and perform the cost-benefit analysis can pay dividends later. That said, the massive volume of beers at the Festival of Beers on April 18, Rhythm & Brews on April 25, San Diego Beer Fest on June 15 and the International Beer Festival at the Del Mar Fair from June 20-22 offer the best chances of finding undiscovered territory.
For veterans in the craft-brew circuit, festivals that are more specific in their offerings tend to provide the biggest value. Stone Brewing Co.'s Oakquinox on April 26 graciously itemizes all the brews in advance. While this is not a service most brew fests offer, you can often get better informed by following a festival's Facebook event page, where they commonly share confirmed offerings.
Be on the lookout for ways brew fests sweeten the deal. Over the last couple years, more are including food, or even booze, as part of admission. It's made fan favorites of the (recently concluded) Mission Valley Craft Beer & Food Festival and Bacon & Barrels on May 9.
If maximizing caloric density isn't your thing, there's also an emerging trend to produce brew fests that are more intimate in design. FestivALE on April 12 and Sorrento Valley Brewfest on May 15 proudly limit ticket availability and advertising, to encourage an atmosphere where communities can familiarize themselves with regional beers and meet the brewers who produce them.
Even if you're not the sort to obsessively distill events down to a checklist of benefits, a little homework will go a long way. Your reward will come later, inside a festival's complimentary taster mug.