I have not been shy about my loathing of beer festivals. The oversold, over-poured and overdrunk spectacles offer little more than an all-you-can-drink smorgasbord of debauched indulgence aimed more at flask-carrying frat bros than bonafide beer nerds. But I had never been to the self-proclaimed "largest beer festival on the West Coast," the San Diego International Beer Festival, and thought now was as good a time as any to take another swing at fun. It was only half the nightmare I expected.
I splurged on the $122 VIP pass and MTS fair tripper ticket bundle, which included train fare, unlimited full pours and access to a VIP lounge. The lounge, advertised as "overlooking the festival" with "several" food stations, sounded like just the thing to salve my fest anxiety.
Arriving an hour late, I dumped my family on the midway and hoofed over to the arena. I began waiving my Ticketmaster receipt at the event staff, frantically asking where the VIP entrance was. I was pointed toward a booth but approached with caution. It looked suspiciously like General Admission. In no time I was handed my souvenir glass and wristband and set loose on the Del Mar Arena floor. Starving, I made a beeline to the VIP lounge.
By "overlooking the festival" organizers meant "a platform three feet above the main floor." A security agent eyed my wristband. We exchanged silent nods as I was granted access to the exclusive area. There were a handful of food options but only one captured my imagination. Two words: tot bar.
I stayed in the VIP lounge until the tot bar closed, eating tater tots drenched in nacho cheese and drinking Ballast Point Yellowtail pale ale. I surveyed the proletariat from behind my imaginary velvet rope, knowing that eventually I would have to join them. I took some photos, ate some Rita's frozen custard, took a deep breath and stepped down from upon high.
The main floor was standard beer fest frustration: oblivious groups of four or five people obnoxiously loitering in front of booths or obstructing pathways; already-drunk dudes in tank tops wearing pretzel necklaces cutting in line, throwing elbows and spilling beer. Most breweries brought their production beers, and much of what was available was the same stuff anyone can find at Vons. Fortunately, Abnormal Brewing was on hand with its Mostra mocha stout, Abbey Normal IIPA and Steampunk Ale, a steam ale brewed for the fair.
Although not worth what I paid, I did enjoy the festival. Something about the carnival, blue ribbons and atmosphere of gross indulgence was infective. I saw the award ceremony and watched as several local brewers accepted their ribbons. I observed the latest in pretzel-jewelry technology and, despite the crowds of loiterers, there were plenty of places to sit and refocus for more. Only one person passed out during my session (that I saw) and only one had to be carried after collapsing on the way out. While not a ringing endorsement, if I can get through a four-hour, full-pour festival and not hate myself the entire time, anyone can. I might even do it again next year.