Friday the 13th in Boonville this year brought a very specific kind of visitor to Anderson Valley. By Saturday, the mob was upon us. If you were fortunate enough to be in the center of Boonville on Friday afternoon at just the right moment, you may have seen a potent symbol that captured the spirit of the weekend: a gigantic bear standing well over eight feet tall in the back of a pickup truck, its mouth frozen in a snarl at the procession of cars behind. It must be noted that this was no ordinary bear. Adding to its impressive height, atop its grizzly head sat a pair of antlers. Not a bear, a beer.
Saturday's Boonville Beer Fest brought to town a mixture of beer enthusiast, drunken debauchery enthusiast, and enthused onlookers of drunken debauchery. Upon walking into the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, three or four college boys wearing matching green T-shirts bearing Irish Shamrock circled by writing; “I'm a drinker, I'm a 'fighter” pounded beers.
As a ticket holder walks through the front gate, a small plastic sampling cup resembling a miniature pint glass presents a challenge: “How do you sample over a hundred beers from over 50 different breweries in just five hours?” Worn around the neck, this petite pint fits into a rubber ring attached to an Anderson Valley Brewing company necklace, thus allowing a participant to stroll curiously between beer tasting booths to at least try, with his hands thus freed, to enjoy foot long hot dogs, chili, and $15 turkey legs that look like they should be eaten by Robin Hood perched on a mossy stump in Sherwood Forest.
A crazed bearded festival-goer sports Pabst Blue Ribbon pajamas. A Boonville man shook his head earlier in the day while having his morning coffee, “I don't understand it. Before they go in to taste microbrews and local beer, they stand outside pounding Silver Bullets.”
I met up with my drinking companion and partner in crime in front of the building which usually serves as the Boonville public library. There we stood, prepared between the two of us to attempt to document the celebration before us.
Successfully transferred to his intended location, Barkley, the horned griz that's the Anderson Valley Brewing Company mascot, served as a perfect ambassador at the very first booth, beckoning to visitors to taste local favorites. Inside, employees from mostly California and Oregon Breweries filled our sampler cups with Imperial stouts, IPA's, Abbey Ales, and specially crafted ales like Uncommon Brewery's Bacon Beer. Local musicians played bluesy acoustic tunes under an old wooden awning. My companion and I decided to get a giant turkey leg, and I stood in line and held my banjo case vertically in front of me as she went to get more beers for us.
A buzzed middle-aged man standing with his wife in front of me turned around and looked at me. Referring to my instrument case, he said: 'Good, someone finally brought their machine gun.” I petted it the way a super villain pets a cat on his lap.
“Yup,” I said, and the man and his wife turned around. My drinking companion came back with beer and we got our turkey leg and started to eat it next to some antique farm machinery. The turkey leg was pink and covered in barbecue sauce. We joked that they should have made necklaces to hold your turkey leg. I stood alone again in the middle of the field for a moment, turkey leg in hand, cowboy hat, and instrument case at my feet. Another buzzed middle aged man walked past me and said, “If I had a camera, “I'd take a picture for your album cover.”
We met up with a friend of ours who was carrying around a full sized pint glass from tap to tap, and successfully got it filled with Scrimshaw. We saw a hysterical bearded guy, deliriously laughing, his face poking out of a banana suit as he feasted on chili and flirted with passing girls. Primal chants were arising from various corners of the festival every time someone dropped the plastic tasting cup.
We stood reveling with more friends we found, other locals who enjoy beer enough to venture on in and partake of the festivities, cup in hand in the beautifully wooded area where vendors pitched artisan tap handles, blown glass, and ceramic goods. A token hippy sits next to a stage. On the stage, older men in black western suits set up for 45 minutes before they play easy listening music. As we move on, we hear a commotion and turn to see a human pyramid fall laughing to the ground in the grass.
We find ourselves in a winning corner of the festival. We sample some of Firestone Walker's artfully crafted Hemp Brown Ale, always a delight and especially on tap, and we thank the pourers. Next was North Coast Brewing where we enjoyed Mendocino's famous Blue Star and Scrimshaw ales. Six Rivers shined with a roasty Kona Porter, and a Jalapeno Pepper ale that was dead on.
As five o'clock loomed, I knew it was time to leave when I realized the increasing anger from the crowds. Drunks always want to keep on drinking. As we exited, a marching band whose conductor resembled a wizard on vacation played in all its brassy glory.
I parted from my companion for a bit, and walked back downtown to the bench in front of All That Good Stuff. I played a song I had just learned by Little Feet called “Willin.”
“I've been worked in the rain, driven by snow, drunk and dirty, don't you know, but I'm still...willin,”
A guy younger than myself passed on with his friends, all in good spirits. He took out a $20 bill and handed it to me.
“Shit, man!” I said, not immediately accepting his donation.
“Shit man.” he confirmed, insisting I take it.
“You deserve more. This is from Healdsburg Eggs.”
“Thank you!” I accepted finally.
Two wonderful local girls found me on the bench, so we bought beer from the Pic 'N Pay and carried our guitars and banjos to a Boonville backstreet and played songs around a fire with some kids from Eugene. A couple of youngsters from Santa Cruz sang an Irish drinking song, and the musicians from Eugene and I sang every John Prine song we could remember.
The influx continued to drink and pump the local economy until the wee hours of the night all the way through to Sunday.
The truth is, it's almost impossible to sample all of the beers available at the festival in such a limited amount of time. So it was off to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company where the brewers from the festival were being hosted, and tiny fires flickered on in the night in the surrounding campgrounds.
Here the celebration continued into the evening. Ninkasi Brewing from Oregon marched around offering beer to all in their path, which people graciously accepted. Beach Chalet from San Francisco made a delectable smoked porter aptly named, “Smoky the Beer,” and Speakeasy handed out their signature bottles with peering eyes.
Some friends of mine who are a local couple asked me who had the best beer at the festival.
“Well there was good beer and the people associated with the breweries who were good people.”
Both were equally important for me. Both were found in Six Rivers Brewery, kind, genuine people pouring a Kona Coffee Porter and a Chili Pepper Ale.
Sunday morning, the weekend visitors trickled out of Boonville after coffee and a few farewell beers. Tents were dismantled and easy-ups folded. The front gate of the Mendocino County Fairgrounds was closed, and the “Legendary Boonville Beerfest” was over for 2011. See you next year.