A craft beer festival is a great way to sample a wide variety of breweries and styles. But if you're not careful, it is also an event that can tempt overindulgence -- an ultimate "kid in a candy store" situation, except the candy in this case is an intoxicating beverage.
The better the beer event, the higher the risk of your eyes being bigger than your stomach... and head... and liver. The annual Micro Brew and Food Review held Aug. 17 in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park was one such top-flight festival.
The review -- organized by Seven Generations Ahead, a non-profit group that promotes sustainable communities, and the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild -- stood out from most similar festivals because of its theme of environmental sustainability and waste reduction. It also featured beers and ciders from 60 different producers, most of them stars of the fast-growing craft beer scene in Chicago and the surrounding region, with some big national craft brewing names such as Lagunitas (a California brewery that is in the process of building a big new production facility on Chicago's South Side) and New Belgium, a pioneering craft brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., best known for its Fat Tire variety.
If you might be attending a similar craft beer fiesta, here are some tips to make sure you remember the day only fondly:
* Eat before... and during... the event. Never, ever, ever go to a tasting event featuring beer (or any other alcoholic beverage, for that matter) without food in your stomach. Sure, you may have the best of intentions to buy some food as soon as you get there, but the temptation to go right for the beer is intense. If you're stay is extended -- those who purchased upgraded tickets to the Oak Park event could have stayed for a maximum of six hours -- make sure to refuel along the way. Oak Park had seven participating food vendors plus numerous restaurants in the surrounding downtown area, but if you're not sure food will be available at the festival, make sure to bring some non-perishable snacks with you just in case.
* Don't overcompensate, though. Do not make the mistake of thinking if you completely pack your stomach by overeating, you'll be able to drink more beer. Food is supposed to be a cushion or sponge for your beer, not a barrier. The results of pouring a lot of beer on top of a lot of food can range from discomfort to... well, no need to get graphic here, you get the idea.
* Drink as much water as beer. At least. Alcoholic beverages actually dehydrate you and can give you the hangover blues. Drinking copious amounts of water counteracts that, with the side benefit that it also dilutes the alcohol you're putting in your system. Some festivals provide bottled water, but because of Oak Park's sustainability theme, adding hundreds of plastic water bottles to the waste stream would have been contradictory. So instead, attendees were commended to bring their own reusable containers that they could refill at the several water stations around the festival site.
* Go with a plan. Unless you're trying to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, it's ridiculous to think you're going to be able to hit all of the booths at an event as big as the Oak Park festival. So try to decide your sample priorities in advance, something many festivals facilitate by providing a list of participating breweries in advance. Unless you are specifically trying to go with what you already know, don't spend a lot of time and capacity on beers with which you are already familiar, as the best reason to go to a beer fest is to try new things. And you might consider limiting yourself to different breweries' varieties of particular styles, such as IPAs or Belgian-style summer ales or barrel-aged beers.
* Most of all, don't get greedy! This is where the "kid in a candy store" effect kicks in. There's always going to be one or two or six more beers that you just have to try. But keep score, and if you've already consumed a cumulative amount that's as much as a sensible person would consume in a sitting, or you are starting to feel the effects of all that beer, quit. You're done. There will be other festivals soon enough.
* And, of course, don't drive drunk. Be your own best friend. If you've had too many, or even if it's borderline, take public transit or a taxi home. Or take public transit or a taxi there in the first place, so you won't even be tempted to drive.