Chris Vandergrift has drunk a lot of beer. He has brewed a lot of beer. And this weekend, he is set to host hundreds who will quaff a few pints from among 202 selections of microbrewed beer, all hand-crafted by folks who dare not make more than the law allows, which is something like 25,000 barrels.
Still, Vandergrift, who has tasted most of the 202 varieties he is about to set before everyone at the Lexington Craft Beer Festival on Saturday, says the best beer he has ever had “was probably just an average beer with great company. The situation and people you are with have more impact on your enjoyment of a beverage than you could imagine.”
He gave that answer because he is a Bluegrass gentleman first and a brewsman second.
But we pressed a little harder. OK, the finest example of the brewer’s art to have ever passed his lips is: Westvleteren 12.
“It’s from Belgium,” he says, then almost tearfully adds, “and is no longer imported to the U.S.”
Vandergrift will have Belgium represented at the fair, but you can expect all kinds of culture and taste surprises at every table.
Vandergrift, president of the Brewers of Central Kentucky, says the fair will wrap up American Craft Beer Week, something everybody on the planet ought to lift a glass to. Except for those designated to drive the rest of us home.
For the uninitiated, Vandergrift offered to answer a few questions about beer and the festival.
Question: What’s the definition of a microbrew?
Answer: A beer brewed in a facility that is limited to producing 25,000 beer barrels a year.
Q: When were the first licenses issued for microbreweries in Kentucky?
A: 1994, only two years after California licensed the first ones.
Q: How much home-brewed beer will we see at the festival?
A: None. It’s technically illegal to home-brew in Kentucky. It’s one of three states that prohibit it. Kentucky and Oklahoma even have stiff penalties for doing so, the result of lumping home-brewing in with moonshine laws.
Q: And yet we sell home-brew kits and have entire home-brew shops?
A: That’s right.
Q: Ever had any bad beer?
A: One comes to mind. It’s made with chili peppers. A friend of mine said, “I respect what they’re trying to do.” I don’t. It set your mouth on fire.
Q: Do you ever drink a Miller Lite?
A: Sure. If it’s the only thing there or if someone else is buying. The free kind is always good.
Q: I understand that sometimes big brewers use rice and corn syrup to make the sugar that feeds the yeast that makes the alcohol in the beer, and that microbrewers use real barley mash. Will I notice the difference in the taste?
A: The flavors indirectly are enhanced by the sugars, but it would take a sophisticated palate to notice the sugar difference. What even a first-timer at this (festival) will notice is the abundance of flavor in a microbrew.
Q: How should a first-timer go about tasting 202 different beers?
A: First thing, smell it. Then sip it. Swish it around. The difference between beer tasting and wine tasting is that you have to swallow the beer.
Q: Oh no!
A: That’s right. Some of the taste receptors for bitterness are on the back of the tongue, and you’re going to need to get the beer past those to get the full flavor. The more hoppy beers should linger on the taste buds. Lagers should finish clean. The sweetness of stouts will stick around.
Q: Will there be people on hand to explain their beers?
A: Yes, representatives of the breweries and judges should be on hand to answer all kinds of questions.
Q: In what order should people taste beers in this kind of setting?
A: Start with the lighter flavors and progress to the stronger. You don’t want to destroy your palate too early, where you can’t taste the more delicate flavors because you’d stepped too hard on it with the double bocks.
Q: So, how to proceed?
A: Pilsners, wheats, lagers, fruits, ambers, standard stouts, barley wines, imperial stouts, Belgian doubles, triples and double bocks.