Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Byggvir's Big Beer Cup 2014: ITS A TRAP!

Every year I take part in one of the most unique of homebrew competitions: Byggvir's Big Beer Cup.  This competition takes place on site at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, a place I have been visiting since I was a child.  As a result of being on site, Byggvir's has some challenges involved: getting the beers and equipment into the festival grounds, the pervasive odors of food and smoke, loud crowds, strange weather conditions, etc.  But all that makes this such a unique experience that I just have to keep going back!  For the past few years I have helped run the competition, but this year didn't have the time to invest--I still signed up to judge.  Here is how my experience went this year...

Volunteering at the competition gets you into the grounds for free, one of the best perks of the event for many.  On Saturday, very early in the morning, Steven M. picked me up and we took the sun-dappled country roads from Waconia to Shakopee.  This is one of the few homebrew events that is actually out our direction, so we were happy with such a short commute.  We entered through the "back door" off highway 41, to the new Queens Gate parking area.  Over the past several years the rock quarry that surrounds the festival grounds has expanded like some massive progressive sinkhole bent on eventually swallowing the entire festival in one massive final gulp.  The regular parking lot has been almost entirely subsumed by the expanding pit of doom, requiring many people to park some distance from the grounds and get shuttled on old yellow school buses.  Each year we have done this event the cast/will call entrance location and process has been different--last year we were sent to no less than three entrances before eventually giving up and sneaking in a secret way!  This year's was a bit less stressful, but the will-call ticket booth had no list of us.  Luckily they were understanding and let us in with a minimum of fuss.

Entering into the festival grounds a few minutes before the cannons fire is a strange experience.  There is an odd ghost-town effect.  Most of the players are clustered at the main King's Gate to greet the incoming crowds, and the only people around are a few shop keepers frantically attempting to get their places in order before the influx.  Rather than a roaring crowd of costumed folk and patrons there is very little noise at all.  No lewd shouts from the pickle sellers.  No fiddle music drifting across the breeze.  No people being placed in the stocks to be ridiculed.  The experience is akin to seeing a supermodel in scrubby sweatpants without her makeup on.  A strange experience for sure to one who has been going to Fest for so long! 

This Saturday I was actually supposed to be spending the morning wandering the Fest with Sj, but she was sick and stayed home to wallow in her illness.  Steven's family ended up coming in the front entrance shortly after cannon fire announced the official start of Fest, so I hung out with them for a bit before striking out on my own.  I got my obligatory Scotch egg and glass of mead.  I had my camera, so took some pictures of the strange environs (and denizens.)  I had a great time trying to catch good shots of the camera-shy reptiles at the Royal Herpetological (not an STD) Society Cabin.  An essential part of any trip to Fest for me is to see The Dregs--a hilarious "Irish" band that sings songs of love, sea shanties, death, and zombies.  Check out their website here and see them in person!  Eventually, a smile on my face and an Enki beer in hand I headed back for judging.

Steven and I reconvened at the Blue Lion Tent for our afternoon of beer judging.  I've said this before and I'll say it again to anyone who will listen:  Byggvir is the most fun you will ever have judging beer.  When we arrived, the early shift was over and Todd was working on a demo brew for the spectators.  This year they have added a portable beer serving station at the tent, so we had to fight for space a bit with the beer swilling, turkey leg gnawing rabble!  I was judging Belgian strong ales, a great category that I have a fair amount of experience with.  I got to sample a good mix of Belgian pale ales, dubbels, tripels, and dark Belgian strongs.  Aroma was quite difficult to deal with between the strong smells of boiling wort, turkey smoking, cigarette and cigar smoking, privies, and spilled beer--but hey that is part of the fun!  Just like learning to blind-fight in martial arts, one must learn to accurately judge beers under the most extreme of circumstances!  I think the overall quality of entries was much better this year, perhaps a sign of improving homebrew information out there.

At the tail end of judging Ye Olde Cell Phone and darkening skies warned us of an impending cataclysmic rainstorm.  Steven and I high-tailed it back to his car and piled in just as the bottom dropped out.  The rain almost instantly turned to a deluge, dumping tons of cold water on the rapidly exiting crowds of festival goers.  We made it about 10 car lengths from our parking spot by the entrance before we hit a stop in traffic.  With the encroachment of The Pit, there is really only one main exit from the festival grounds.  The literal Perfect Storm of rapid patron exodus, limited traffic control options, torrential downpour, and apparently three accidents caused converged to trap hundreds if not thousands of people in a traffic line OF DOOM!  Festival goers streamed out past us on foot, soaked to the bone.  The fine red dirt and clay of the lot rapidly turned to a thick muddy morass that sucked shoes right off of running pedestrians and made the whole place turn into a wickedly messy Slip-N-Slide. 

Shuttle buses were trapped right with us so all of those who were parked a mile away were either stuck in a children's school bus or walking through the rain and mud back to their cars.  We were actually stopped on the firmer dirt roadway, but many cars became stuck in the mud pit that surrounded our high ground, blocking more traffic and necessitating tow trucks to navigate the chaos.  After about 45 minutes the rain slowed and eventually blew over, but the damage had been done. 

After the storm

A hint of blue sky peaked out from the retreating Doom Clouds but night was approaching quickly.  We were now camping, but at least we were in the relative comfort of Steven's car, listening to music on the radio and watching the **&^%-Show Nightmare that surrounded us.  Not knowing about the accidents near the exit, none of us had any idea what was going on or how long this might last.  Quickly the thin veneer of humanity dropped from us and we began to discuss cannibalism options...luckily we had a nut roll and hunk of beef jerky in the car to hold us over for the first hour or so.  As time went on we started to People began to exit their cars, smoking, raiding coolers, talking with "neighbors".  Regretting the beer and mead I had partaken of earlier, I began to think seriously about making the small Barley Johns growler I had won during judging into an upscale trucker-bomb. 

The truck in front of us died a slow death of battery drain.  The car next to us in the muddy ditch had jumper cables, but they had to get another car that was closer to the front to actually jump the truck's heart back to life.  Minutes later the car next to us went dead, requiring another car to jump them!  Darkness came upon us at this time, dropping like a thick veil over the muddy and bedraggled crowd that was trapped.  Now the red tail lights put a devilish crimson glow over everything.  Screaming infants, exhausted and hungry, wailed through open windows, adding to the bedlam that surrounded us.  Like a scene from a futuristic Hieronymus Bosch painting, the costumed fiends cavorted about in the dim bloody lights, awaiting their escape from this endless purgatory. 

We had entered our car at 5 PM.  When the traffic began to move again it was after 8 PM.  Tired, dehydrated, sweaty, and needing desperately to void my bladder, I staggered into my home at 9 PM.  Migraine ensued. 

And flip to 7 AM the next morning!  Dragging my still flimsy carcass out of bed, I donned my vest, pantaloons, and boots, ready to face the music again.  Strapping on my sword and leather mug, I headed out for another fine day of judging beer at the Renaissance Festival! 

Luckily the Sunday session was much less dramatic!  Driving in, I did have a little PTSD flashback to the night before as I passed stalled out or stuck cars still entrenched in the surrounding fields.  This cool morning I helped set up things for judging and then started out with Specialty Ciders for a nice liquid breakfast!  I was pretty impressed with them overall and we had a difficult time coming up with our overall winners.  After a eating a massive and drippy turkey leg, I judged Strong Ales for the afternoon session.  Again, a good set of beers! 

Despite the insane events of the previous night, the Sunday visit was much more reasonable.  As always, the competition and locale has left me with stories to tell!  What could possibly happen next year?  Check back here again and I'll surely have more tales!

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