Christmas? Nah. Arizona Beer Week is the most wonderful time of the year, and it kicks off Saturday, February 15, with the 14th Annual Arizona Strong Beer Festival, a showcase of the best (and most alcoholic) brews available in the state. This year, about 120 breweries will pour more than 300 beers, and many of those are specialty kegs that will be tapped at certain times throughout the festival. This leaves us with a conundrum: With so many options available, just 15 or 20 tasting tickets (depending on whether you went for the VIP package or just bought regular admission), and a limited time to use them, what's the most efficient way for a festival-goer to tick off all those rarely seen, sure-to-run-out-right-away kegs?
You could take advantage of a cool new text-alert feature offered at this year's festival that sends a message to people who've opted in just before a special tapping takes place (if you're interested, text Strongbeer to 555888). But who wants to scramble around like that? The chaos of Strong Beer calls for some strategic planning ahead, and lucky for you, we've already got your whole day planned. Just follow the itinerary below and you'll be guaranteed not to miss out on any of the good stuff. This schedule assumes that you splurged and purchased the $70 VIP ticket, which gets you into the festival an hour before the mouth-breathers, plus 20 tasting tickets instead of the standard 15. If you're stuck among the huddled masses, start your day at 1 p.m.
Ready, set, beer!
Noon The festival's officially open for you, savvy VIP, and you have what we in the business like to call a "metric assload" of options. We suggest, however, that you make a beeline for Deschutes Brewery's tent, where they'll pour a freshly tapped keg of Abyss, the highly rated imperial stout brewed with black strap molasses, licorice, cherry bark, and vanilla bean. Not only has this brew been aged in a variety of wooden barrels -- including wine, bourbon, and plain old oak -- but this particular keg is more than a year old, and that time has done this Abyss some good. At 11 percent ABV, it's the perfect brew to kick off Strong Beer. Also tapping now: Avery Maharaja, THAT Brewery & Arizona Wilderness Juniper Mesa Black IPA, Old World Brewery Whiskey Sour Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale, Pizza Port Devil's Calibration, Uncle Bear's Holiday Hound Winter Ale 12:15 Mosey over to Phoenix Ale Brewery's booth, where they'll tap a keg of their new Orange Peel IPA, an American-style hop bomb made with grated orange peel. Tell your taste buds to calm down -- the day's going to be filled with abrupt flavor switches like this. Also tapping now: Cartel Coffee Lab Christmas Ale, Lagunitas Brown Shugga, SanTan Saison di Aleatico, Big Sky Ivan the Terrible 12:30 It's time for another trip to the dark side, so move toward Joseph James Brewing Co. for a sample of its Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout, a 9.5 percent ABV version of the Nevada-based brewery's Red Fox Russian imperial stout that was aged in bourbon barrels for seven months. Mmm, bourbon. Also tapping now: BJ's Brewery Wooden Cask Grand Cru, Mother Road Alternator Smoked Doppelbock, Fate Imperial Candy Bar Milk Stout, Barrio Single Whiskey Barrel-aged NCAAle 12:45 Pizza Port! The iconic chain of San Diego pizza restaurants/brewpubs never disappoints at Strong Beer, so head their direction now. If there's anything left of the Devil's Calibration, a 13.3 percent ABV Belgian golden ale that tapped at noon, get that. If it's gone, no worries -- you can also grab some Infamous Chocolate Stout (an 11 percent ABV imperial stout) or Surf Check Alley (a 9 percent ABV imperial IPA).
1 Back to Deschutes! (Or, if you're just starting out: to Deschutes!) The Oregon brewery is pulling out another specialty as the doors open for the GA crowd: Dissident, a sour brown ale brewed with funky Brettanomyces yeast and aged in wine barrels that once held Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also tapping now: Great Divide Peach Grand Cru, Gouden Carolus Noel, New Belgium Clutch, Grand Canyon Shaggy Bock 1:15 Skee-daddle on over to the Bell's Brewery booth, where there's sure to be a line stretching halfway back to downtown. But the wait will be worth it, for these guys are pouring Black Note, the current #6 on ratebeer.com's list of top beers in the world. The beer is a blend of bourbon-aged batches of two other stouts Bell's makes: Expedition Stout and Double Cream Stout. The resulting brew is diabolically flavorful. While you're here, you might as well also get a pour of Hopslam, a juicy imperial IPA brewed with Michigan honey.
1:30 You might need some caffeine to make it through the rest of the day, so do your best to find Cartel Coffee Lab. The coffee shop turned brewery will just be tapping a new brew, Hot Brown. To be honest, we don't know much about this one, but we do know that we love the perky flavor of their regular Coffee Brown, which will also be on tap, and we're intrigued by F.Y.I.T.M, a new 9 percent imperial IPA. We'll let you work out what the acronym stands for. Also tapping now: Deschutes Class of '88 Belgian Strong Ale, Oskar Blues Ten Fidy 1:45 New Belgium's Clutch was tapped at 1 p.m., but there should still be something left of the Colorado brewery's sour stout brewed in collaboration with the band the beer's named after. Zoom over there to grab a taste.
2 Much ado was made over Odell Brewing Co.'s Creme Brulee Porter at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival -- attendees couldn't stop talking about its rich flavor. Find the cask at Odell's booth and see for yourself what all the fuss is about. Also tapping at this hour is a batch of collaborative barleywine brewed with Sonoran White Wheat and 100 pounds of Cabernet grapes by Arizona Wilderness and Borderlands Brewery. Also tapping now: Mother Road Second Anniversary Ale, Wanderlust Shakedown Anniversary Baltic Porter 2:15 Time for a taste of Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works, newly available to Arizona. They've brought a couple of sours, including St. Dekkera Blueberry. Vinegar, lactic acid, and funky blueberries? You know you like it.
2:30 Run, don't walk, over to Fate Brewing Co. The Scottsdale brewery will tap another keg of Imperial Candy Bar Milk Stout, a bigger, badder version of Fate's lauded stout brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla bean, sea salt, and honey-roasted peanuts. The standard version of this brew earned Fate a silver medal at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival; this should be very, very good. Also tapping now: Cartel Cupid's Woody, Cismontane The Mesa Table Beer 2:45 THAT Brewery tapped a keg of its Imperial Doppelsticke aged on French oak and bourbon at 2:30. Swing by the booth for a taste of this 10 percent ABV German-style ale. 3 Peanut. Butter. Oatmeal. Cookie. Stout. Let those five words guide you as you make your way to Huss Brewing Co. for a taste of this treat, served right from the cask. Also tapping now: Abbey Brewing Abbey Tripel Reserve 3:15 It's Four Peaks time! Arizona's favorite brewery always brings it when it comes to strong beer, and this year is no different. Sample any of the following and you'll be satisfied:
Sirius Black (bourbon-aged imperial stout, 9 percent) 2010 Bourbon Barrel Aged Hopsquatch (barleywine, 11.5 percent) Bourbon Barrel Aged Kilt Lifter (Scottish ale, 6 percent) Bourbon Barrel Aged Bonehead Red (imperial red ale, 8 percent) Bourbon Barrel Aged Ryewine (barleywine, 11 percent) Tequila Barrel Aged Raj IPA (English IPA, 7 percent) Wine Barrel Aged Cherry Baltic Porter (Baltic porter, 7.7 percent) Double Knot (imperial IPA, 9 percent) 2012 Hopsquatch (barleywine, 11.5 percent) Diablo Rojo (imperial red ale, 9.2 percent Weizenbock Collaboration (weizenbock, 7.5 percent) 2011 Winter Wobbler (barleywine, 9.2 percent) 2012 Winter Wobbler (black IPA, 7 percent) Odelay (imperial porter, 8.1 percent)
3:30 Saunter toward Grand Canyon Brewing Co. for a taste of Hop DIPA. This is the last special tapping of the day, so no more need to keep an eye on your watch.
3:45 You came here for strong beer; The Bruery's got your strong beer right here. Bring three tickets to the California-based brewery's booth -- one for Sour in the Rye, a 7.6 percent sour ale; one for Bois, a 15 percent bourbon barrel-aged old ale; and one for Melange #3, a 16.8 percent, bourbon-aged blend of Bois, White Oak Sap (a wheatwine) and Black Tuesday (an imperial stout).
4 Tucson's Borderlands Brewing is pouring tasters of Noche Dulce, a 7.5 percent ABV vanilla porter, but you want the holy water: Agua Bendita, a 13 percent ABV wheatwine.
4:15 Fly to Desert Eagle Brewing's booth, where the Mesa brewery will be pouring Imperial Adler, a 12.6 percent ABV imperial oatmeal stout, and Black Sugar, an imperial stout aged in rum and oak barrels.
4:30 Scramble! Last call hits at 4:45, so it's time to squeeze in any brewery you thought about stopping by but missed. If you're looking for bang for your buck, hit the Shmaltz Brewing tent for tasters of Funky Jewbelation, a 9.4 percent ABV blend of six different ales and lagers aged in bourbon and rye whiskey barrels, and Jewbelation Reborn, the hardest-hitting brew (17 percent ABV) at the entire festival.
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4:45 Most of the good stuff will be gone at this point, so if you have tickets left, use them on whichever brewery your blurry and bloodshot eyes happen to land upon. You may have to do some searching -- a lot of the vendors like to pack up their wares by this time. A lot of groups like to ditch their really trashed friends around now, too.
5 Festival's over, homes. Time to grab a cab, since you just drank 60 ounces of high-quality, high-gravity beer (the equivalent of five to six shots of hard liquor). Be sure to get plenty of rest -- you've got a long week of beer-drinking ahead of you.