Review: Max's Belgian Beer Festival 2011
Contributor Alexander D. Mitchell IV, who writes for trade publication Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and blogs regularly about beer, sums up Max's Belgian Beer Festival, which ended its three-day run on Sunday.
After six years, is there really anything that can be added to what is arguably the largest presentation of Belgian beer in one location in North America? Not really, but that doesn’t keep the crew at Max’s Taphouse from trying.
With a recent expansion - from 70-some draft lines to 97 (plus five cask-ale hand pumps) - the venue was able to offer an initial 102 beers on draft, plus a stunning 192 in bottles.
By the time the doors opened at 11:01 a.m. Friday morning, there was a line of nearly 200 eager beer fans waiting outside.
The pleasant weather and an eager crowd kept the scene chaotic almost all weekend. Spread over three downstairs rooms and an upstairs lounge, the crowd at times resembled the worst of an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day.
But just how many beers were there? Believe it or not, folks are still counting.
Max's tables were covered with multiple glasses of multiple shades of beer, from blonde to ink black, with various shades of amber, tan, red, and even the occasional pink or purple.
The official list released before the start of the festival indicated 153 beers, including only a scant few that were only slightly different from one another - such as the current Rodenbach Red versus the 2008 vintage of the same, or a decadent De Struise Black Damnation imperial stout aged either in whiskey barrels, rum barrels, or with coffee beans.
But according to one distributor at least two kegs were grabbed from a shipping container at the Port of Baltimore by the distributor and run straight to the bar’s cellar on the Thursday night before the festival.
There were also 192 bottled beers listed, ranging from many beers at $6 or $7 for a 330-ml (11.2-oz.) bottle to $50 for a few exotic 750-ml bottles; most 750‘s, though, hovered around the $15 range. If you really wanted to stimulate the economy, there were also a few other gargantuan “showcase” bottles on display for potential purchase, some with three-figure prices.
Drafts were available for $3 a sample glass, which in the case of stronger beers (as much as 12% or 13%) was really a proper serving size itself, or more for standard goblets or tumblers. The first hundred (or so) people in line were treated to a free sample from a massive 12-liter bottle of St. Feuillien Tripel.
In all that selection, there was surprisingly little duplication. Nor, for that matter, were there any of the more readily available Belgian drafts such as Stella Artois or Duvel. Only a token few Belgian-American beers were present: home-town favorites The Brewers Art sent two special casks, and Baltimore‘s “gypsy brewer” Brian Strumke provided several new releases of his Stillwater Artisanal Ales, including the third “Channel Crossing” collaboration with Pratt Street Ale House’s Steve Jones.
In addition, a few special beers from Duvel-owned Ommegang of New York State were added on Sunday morning. The photocopied beer lists, updated daily, quickly became works of fantasy as beers ran out and were replaced overnight with replacement kegs or new beers. The bartenders reported that 100 kegs were depleted by the first closing time Saturday morning.
And in spite of the crowds and chaos, an occasional bottle of Blue Moon, National Bohemian, and Bud Light was spotted by this writer, as well as cans of PBR and Boh, being consumed by people obviously either there against their will or totally unclear on the concept. One wondered if a double spill would result in an explosion from matter and anti-matter........
By Sunday night, bartenders confronted so many covered tap handles that they asked patrons to “just pick a style of beer” and they would get one of what was left. With a government holiday on Monday, there were more stragglers to the end than usual.
Missed out on the weekend fun? As of last night, Max’s still was pouring more Belgian and Belgian-American beers (45 and 14, respectively) than one might find in some entire cities or states, as well as eight Belgian-styled beers from Danish “gypsy brewer” Mikkeller.
The latter includes an exquisite, and expensive, 10.9% oatmeal stout made with “civet droppings” kopi luwat coffee, named Beer Geek Brunch Weasel.
In effect, the “festival” continues until the beer runs out, and now you don’t have to elbow your way past beer geeks checking their tasting notes and checking off their lists.