The Beer Festival Is Back — and More Vital Than Ever

With the return of beer festivals, it's a valid time to ask if they're still needed — we attended the 2022 Firestone Walker Invitational to find out.

man holding a beer at the firestone walker invitational
Firestone Walker

As someone who is a Certified Beer Server, I think I qualify as a pretty big beer nerd. But even I’m not the kind of person who goes to beer festivals for kicks. I've never been keen on large crowds of people seeking hyped-up hazies, and that was before the world changed.

Since the beginning of 2020, things have been different. Beer fests were canceled, travel postponed, Zoom tastings and even virtual festivals became the norm in the craft beer world for the past two years.

The Firestone Walker Invitational in early June marked the start of a new era, and something I hadn't experienced since the Opening Bash for NYC Beer Week at the end of February 2020. But in a world that is different in so many ways, does the beer festival still have a place?

To the 5,000 ticketholders who sold out the first Firestone Invitational since 2019 in two minutes, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” Widely regarded as one of the premier beer fests not only in the country but the world, the Firestone Invitation is unique in that it tends to bring out more than local reps and marketing people, but brewers and founders themselves. The majority of festivals don't have the luxury of such a draw. It's certainly a steal to talk to the person who actually made the thing you are drinking for a mere $99.

brewer holding a beer at the firestone walker invitational
Firestone Walker

And that clearly matters for the brewers who attend the Firestone Walker Invitational camp on the grounds of the festival in Paso Robles, California as well. They were out in full force, clapping backs and joking about the "two-year time warp" and the way it feels as though nothing has changed.

alvarado street brewing jet ski tap system
Ryan Brower
bottles from fonta flora brewing
Ryan Brower

In many ways, it does feel like things picked up right where they left off. The brewers at Alvarado Street, with their converted JetSki draft system, offered up one of the most-talked-about beers of the festival: Biggie’s Bogus Baja Bash, a fruited sour that is nearly a one-for-one color match to Baja Blast. Schönramer Brauerei was on deck with traditional Bavarian lagers. And from our friend Doug Reiser of Burial Beer (and of Gear Patrol lager fame) offered up his best beers all day, along with cocktails to boot.

That's not to mention the many legendary and rare beers offered up, like Pliny the Elder from Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Boston's Trillium Brewing and North Carolina's Fonta Flora. And getting to see my good friend Jack Dyer for the first time in over a decade being at the helm of his brewery Topa Topa and their wonderful California beers was just icing on the cake.

people socializing at the firestone walker invitational
Firestone Walker
panelists at the firestone walker invitational
Firestone Walker

And to cap it all off, Garage Project from New Zealand, boasted as long a line in 2022 as it had in 2019, and ended up winning best in show, thanks in part to that doozy Yuzu Rising Sun sour with a balance of sweet and tart that has you coming back for a second.

The Firestone Walker Invitational always kicks off with a bit of a mad dash when the gates open and the public rushes in, typically to cheers and joyous yelling. This year, it carried a weight to it, a feeling that even though we were all strangers, we were also all here.

crowd walking into the firestone walker invitational beer fest
Ryan Brower

It's not that I haven’t enjoyed being at beer festivals in the past, but this felt starkly different. Virtual drinking on craft beer video chats has made the crush of the crowd all the sweeter. It made me remember why I love craft beer and why I feel so lucky to get to cover it: the people and their passion.

Sure, it’s just craft beer, but when you’re passionate about something you want to surround yourself with others who share that same passion — even if they are strangers, but especially if they are some of the best brewers in the world.

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