My Day at the Baja Beer Fest: A Middle-Aged BrewFest Noob’s Approach to the Arizona Beer Festival
Written by Cheryl Walsh of WhenHopsMetBarley
Intimidated by the 93-degree weather forecast, I very nearly passed on the opportunity to attend the Baja Beer Festival, which was held in Tucson last Saturday, April 7. The thought crossed my mind that I might end up standing atop steaming pavement in a converted parking lot for four hours angling for a square foot of shade to stand in.
But the venue, it turned out, was no parking lot. It was in fact Armory Park, a cool, grass covered, shaded area. A historic park dating from Tucson’s Presidio days, it was the perfect size and feel for an event like this. With the band playing, folks lounging in the shade, and the smell of food cooking, it took on the feel of a mid-summer picnic somewhere back east. The classic buildings surrounding the park, some with kitschy neon hotel signs only added to the atmosphere. It was great day, and with the exception of one less-than-well-behaved patron, who was hastily escorted out, it was a typical craft beer crowd; chatty, smiling, shaking hands with strangers, and just enjoying our fantastic luck, being lovers of the craft in time that could easily be dubbed craft beer’s Renaissance.
Flash back two months earlier. I am preparing for February’s Strong Beer Festival. This would be my first-ever Beer Fest. I know, so much for starting small. I planned for Strong by creating different wish lists in Untappd, broken down by zone. Because you can’t sort wish lists in the app, I also created a spreadsheet which I imported to my iPhone, with each zone list in its own tab, then sorted by Untappd rating. Hand to God, I actually did this. My husband, the Hops of When Hops Met Barley, being woefully familiar with my Type A approach to all things recreational, and my complete deafness to any reason or logic about this – how could a spreadsheet be a bad idea??? – just smiled and said “sounds good” or some such thing.
On fest day, it all went great. For about twenty minutes. That was when the first of the “special tapping” text notifications came in. Suddenly I had to decide, should we head for the beer with the #1 rating that was being served in Zone 3, and take a chance at missing the special tapping in Zone 41? Or finish our way through Zone 79, where we were currently standing? What to do? My text tone went off again. Another special tapping. I spun around once or twice, then it became clear what I had not factored into my plan. I was missing all the FUN. So the hours I’d spent mapping out my strategy got thrown aside. The phone got silenced, and I just headed to the next tent I saw. And the day ended up being perfect.
My second beer fest was Hop Culture Magazine’s Juicy Brews, which was held in Tucson exactly a month later on March 10. Due to some licensing issues, the list of brewers changed a few times before the event. I’m sure this would have made my pre-Strong self’s head explode, so it was just as well I had sworn off obsessive planning and vowed to approach this festival with no plan. This went fairly well. Hops and I loved the venue, a museum stocked with all sorts of classic and exotic cars. But being completely aimless, I almost missed Wren House’s SPELLBOUND, a beer I’d been dying to try. Having snagged the very last pour of that beer and wiping my brow as if I’d dodged a bullet, I realized maybe a complete lack of a plan wasn’t the best approach either.
I hadn’t considered going to Baja until a few days before, when I flipped to the new month on my Beerdoir Calendar (get yours from The Shop – it’s for a good cause) and saw it listed there. Tentatively, as a sworn dieter might pick up a piece of cheesecake, then put it back in the fridge, I glanced at the festival’s lineup in Untappd. It looked pretty good. I didn’t feel any urge to start creating spreadsheets, so I figured I was cured. I closed Untappd and purchased two tickets. On the ride to Tucson that morning, I read the latest list of tappings to Hops, so I knew what to expect, but stopped short of seeking out an event map, which for a festival this size turned out to be just enough planning.
The lineup included the following breweries. This list is compiled from event’s Facebook page, and those we saw at the festival. If I missed any, or have included some who did not attend, apologies. I was drinking.
• Buqui Bichi
• Copper Mine
• Crooked Tooth
• Grand Canyon
• Green Feet
• Mother Road
• Prison Hill
• Pueblo Vida
• SanTan Brewing
• Sentinel Peak
• Thunder Canyon
• Uncle Bear’s
• Wren House
The general admission ticket was $35 which included 20 four-ounce pours and festival admission from 2PM to 6PM. This is also where I should say, I have not yet come close to using all my tickets. This is a concept that seems more familiar to those of us who have upwards of, a-hem, 25 years of drinking under our belts. The novelty of being able to lawfully consume has long since worn off, and we’ve had way more than our share of sorry late-nights and next-mornings. The beer fest is about the flavor, which you can get in a sip or two. I have been using around 15 tickets, and almost always resort to requesting half-pours to avoid the blasphemy of dumping extra beer inconspicuously behind a bush. Or throwing it on some woman’s shoes, which someone did to me at Juicy Brews. You really must consider your size (sorry gals, another rude injustice) and be honest with yourself about how you are feeling when deciding to go for another pour. You may feel like a failure, staring at a handful of unused tickets a half hour before last-pour, but be smart – or as close to smart as you can get near the end of a beer fest. You’ll thank yourself later. And your Lyft driver will thank you even sooner.
For Baja, there were VIP tickets available, which included an hour-earlier entrance time, and covered VIP area with their own bathrooms. I had purchased the Super-VIP tickets for Strong, and the general admission tickets for Juicy Brews. Because of the last-minute planning, we just decided to go GA, and for this festival, where the lines were short (except for the bathrooms, more about that later), GA was fine.
My game plan this time was to try to visit the breweries we, West Mesa residents, don’t normally have easy access to. With this in mind, we headed for Catalina, which was very near to the entrance we used. With our taster glasses full, we went to take a lap around the venue. Well, we made it half way around, when I spotted Buqui Bichi, a brewery out of Hermasillo, Sonora. We’d never seen an imported beer at a beer fest, so had to stop there for a refill before continuing our loop. We located the VIP area, food booths, water-filling stations and the tent and bathrooms for us steerage passengers, then just started slowly working our way through the breweries. In addition to Buqui Bichi and Catalina, I had my first sip of 1055 and Green Feet and also visited SOAZ brewers Dillinger, Pueblo Vida and Crooked Tooth (that Muchos Mangos Papi, holy moly), among many others.
The event was held in conjunction with the Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT), so the food was outstanding. There were four teams of chefs participating. I had Team Four’s beer-battered Forbes’ Meat Corndog with a delectable cheese sauce.
We had great conversations with other fest-goers about beer and just life in general, sat around in the grass and walked around barefoot. Overall it was a great day and with friendly brewers and a wonderful crowd. Looking forward to next year!
All proceeds from the Baja Beer Fest support the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, the state’s sole organization for promoting and advancing the Arizona craft brewing industry and responsible consumption.
• The venue was clean, green, cool and shaded.
• Music was a good mix and a good volume level.
• Fantastic food.
• The security team, including a few of Tucson’s finest, were friendly and alert, but not intrusive or a buzzkill in any way.
• Multiple entrance and exit points kept foot traffic flowing and prevented bottlenecks, even at the 2PM GA admission time.
Things I’d like to see changed:
• Bathroom lines – at their peak, the bathroom lines for GA were upwards of 15 minutes long. It looked like the line in VIP wasn’t much better, as they had way fewer port-o-johns than we did.
• A designated area should be set aside for ride share drivers to drop off/pick up passengers. Our Lyft driver wasn’t sure where to drop us, so we just volunteered to “jump out here”.
• Try to keep the water filling stations in the shade. Near the end of the event the water was getting quite warm.
Cheryl Walsh is a Phoenix area resident, the mother of four adult children who currently reside in AZ, PA and Kyrgyzstan (Peace Corps), and one retired racing greyhound named Zazu. During the day, she makes her living as a healthcare IT programmer at an area hospital. But when the work day’s done she becomes the Barley half of WhenHopsMetBarley and she, and her fellow-adventurer Hops (husband Shawn) travel this great state visiting Arizona’s craft breweries. You can find her on Instagram and at http://www.whenhopsmetbarley.com.