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Best of the fest

Gird your loins, drinkers: It’s beer-festival season. From now until late October is the busiest time of the year for these taste extravaganzas, where you can sample a wide variety of beers from brewers large and small.
Image: Octoberfest beer festival
Ready to take it on the road? From the Midwest, to Montreal, taste your way through the best beer festivals in North America.Johannes Simon / Getty Images file
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Gird your loins, drinkers: It’s beer-festival season. From now until late October is the busiest time of the year for these taste extravaganzas, where you can sample a wide variety of beers from brewers large and small.

My first beer festival was about 15 years ago at the Stoudt’s Brewing Company in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. About 20 microbrewers were there. For a $20 ticket, you could sample as many beers as you thought you could handle. There was live music from the Daisy Jug Band and a buffet of wursts, kraut, breads, and potato salad. Brewers poured their own beers: You could ask them about their brewing methods and what made their beer different. Maybe you’d even get some of the “secret" beer they kept under the table. I was hooked. I wanted to go to one every weekend.

With some variation, that’s how most fests go. You can probably find a local one (try the Beer Festival calendar or BeerAdvocate’s calendar). Some offer a free samples; others require you to buy tickets or tokens, but all of them have plenty of different beers to try.

Hit the fest like a pro with these proven tactics: Try lighter beers first; save the dark, high-alcohol, and seriously hoppy beers for later. (You don’t want to blow out your taste buds.) Drink plenty of water to cleanse your palate and your head. Remember to eat; big beers on an empty stomach is a fast ticket to Drunksville. Always know where the bathrooms are. Get a copy of the festival program, and make notes or marks by the beers you like most (you may want to find them again). Most importantly, pace yourself so you can enjoy the whole event.

Ready to take it on the road? Here are six of the best beer festivals in North America:

Mondial de la Bière (May 28 to June 1)
The Mondial (which, as you might expect, is in Montreal) is not just about beer but also about food, cider, and mead (a beer-strength drink made with fermented honey). Beer is still king, though, and you’ll find many Canadian breweries which you’ve likely never heard of. The Mondial emphasizes connoisseurship—learning about what you’re enjoying at seminars and guided tastings. Best of all, it takes place over five days with free admission, so you’ll have plenty of time to try the more than 350 beers (and all the cheese).

Oregon Brewers Festival (July 24 to 27)
The O.B.F. is held in Portland, home to 30-odd breweries and brewpubs, more than in any other U.S. city. This multiday fest takes place on green, grassy fields along the lovely Willamette River. The idea is to experience new breweries, so more than 70 brewers, from Oregon and elsewhere, each bring one beer. Some offer their best-known beer, while others showcase special releases. If you run out of time, several great brewpubs are within walking distance. Admission is free; you only pay for the beer you drink and your souvenir mug.

Belgium Comes to Cooperstown (August 1 to 3)
B.C.T.C. is a small event, with only 800 tickets available. But the experience is fantastic: more than 150 Belgian and Belgian-style beers, including those of the host, Brewery Ommegang, all situated in wooded farmland near Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Add in the music, camping, starlight, some wild brewer behavior, and you’ve got the Woodstock of brewing, without the brown acid.

Great Taste of the Midwest (August 9)
It’s neither the biggest nor the oldest festival, but it may be the hardest ticket to get. The Great Taste is held in a pretty lakeside setting in Madison, Wisconsin, with 600 beers from 100 brewers—and only 5,000 tickets. The home brewers who sponsor the festival will release 3,000 tickets locally on May 4; there will be a mail-order lottery for the other 2,000. Oh, but it’s worth it! Great beer, great brats, and, of course, great Wisconsin cheese.

World Beer Festival (October 4)
At World Beer, All About Beer magazine gathers together not just craft brewers from around the country but also importers who bring beers from around the world. On the first Saturday in October, they all arrive at the historic ballpark in Durham, North Carolina, where "Bull Durham" was filmed. There are specialty presentations of aged beers, cask-conditioned beers, and rare and expensive beers. It doesn’t hurt that Durham sits smack-dab in the middle of some of the best barbecue country in the South.

Great American Beer Festival (October 9 to 11)
The G.A.B.F., which takes place in Denver, boasts more breweries and beers than any other fest in the world. Last year, 408 breweries, from Anheuser-Busch to the smallest brewpubs, poured 1,884 different beers for 46,000 attendees during the course of three days. You only get one-ounce pours, but you won’t taste everything: One ounce of every beer on offer would be 117 pints! The G.A.B.F. awards medals in a dizzying list of categories (86 this year), and when the winners are announced on Saturday afternoon, it’s a rush to the annointed taps. Buy tickets beforehand, or pay scalpers’ premiums on the sidewalk.

And, finally, the first Philly Beer Week (I’m one of the organizers) was a big success last month. Watch for this week of 200-plus beer events—festivals, dinners, tastings, pub crawls—again next spring.