From lagers and IPAs to seltzers, there’s a lot of beer to try at the Arizona Strong Beer Festival.
Complete beginners and connoisseurs will find what they’re looking for, whether it’s a starting place or a new go-to ale. The festival will boast 300 to 450 samples.
The festival returns for its 21st year on Saturday, Feb.19, after a pandemic break. Rob Fullmer, executive director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, who sponsors and produces the event, says the Arizona Strong Beer Festival is coming back strong and he, vendors and customers are excited to get back to it.
“We can’t wait to get back to beer fests,” Fullmer says. “It’s been a long two years for everyone, and we are thrilled to be hosting the Arizona Strong Beer Festival at a new, state-of-the-art location.”
Tickets to the festival start at $60 and can be purchased online. A ticket includes 30 tasting tickets and a commemorative glass.
The festival spans 24 acres of the Mesa’s new Bell Bank Park, the largest sports complex in North America. Part of it will be transformed into a miniature city of breweries and other vendors to make up the state’s most comprehensive beer festival. There will also be live music, games and food trucks.
The festival got its name for promoting beers 8.5% and above, with a strong alcohol content. However, now that the beer industry and technology has advanced, Fullmer says there are ways to get a bolder flavor without having to add more alcohol. Now, they keep the name and characterize it as beers “strong in flavor, strong in character and strong in tradition.”
According to Fullmer, the Arizona Strong Beer Festival started with 25 vendors in a parking lot and has now grown to have as many as 10,000 people attend.
“I think it’s one of the most fun beer festivals,” says Nicholas Rana, owner of State 48 Brewery, who will attend the festival for the sixth year. “It is the Strong Beer Fest, so a lot of people get pretty intoxicated, and it’s definitely one of the busiest festivals. It’s about as central as can be in Arizona, so you get to see people from all over the state that go to it. You get to meet everybody, it’s good advertising and it’s just a fun festival to be at.”
Because it is the premier beer event in the state, the festival will host product and brand launches. Drew Pool, co-founder of Wren House Brewing Company, says it has been part of the festival since it opened in 2015. Pool wants to show off its new barrel-aged projects they have been working on. Strong Beer Festival allows his staff to see what’s trending or what drinkers seek.
Fullmer says beer and breweries have a way of bringing people together. Breweries often serve as a comfortable, laid-back third space for people to gather. He says it’s different than a coffee shop or restaurant in that it’s more acceptable to walk up to a stranger and strike up a friendly conversation, whether it’s asking what they’re drinking or where the best pizza place is nearby.
With about 60% of the vendors being from within Arizona, Rana says instead of a feeling of competition between the breweries, it’s more of a feeling of community and togetherness. Laura Hansen, owner of Saddle Mountain Brewing Company, says her company has been involved for the past seven years and, while it’s fun to be recognized, the best part is the people.
“We’ve won a few different metals over the years for different beers, which is always a fun thing, but the most enjoyable part is honestly the people, both the other breweries and the customer base,” Hansen says. “Getting to talk to them about craft beer and just enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon with some outstanding craft beers.”
In the spirit of community, Fullmer says the event is family friendly, and patrons even have picnics there. For those who don’t really like beer, there will also be mead, cider, seltzers and nonalcoholic drinks available. Those under 21 or serving as a designated driver are still welcome to enter the festival for a reduced cost but will not be permitted to drink.
When it comes to the 30 tasting tickets, Fullmer says there are a couple different strategies to maximize the experience without ending up with a killer headache the next day.
“Do what everyone else is not doing,” he suggests. “I don’t stand in the lines, but I do ask people why they’re standing in line to understand what’s there. Definitely hydrate and take opportunities to check out the food trucks.”
Guests wanting to analyze the differences in the breweries to find a favorite should stick with one category, like sours, to better compare and contrast. Most likely, there will be brewers there who can discuss their particular version.
The Arizona Craft Brewers Guild represents nearly 100 operating breweries, breweries in the planning stage, craft beer bars and distributors across Arizona. Fullmer says Arizona breweries have won world-class medals and competed in some of the most prestigious competitions in the world. He says people frequently ask him when Arizona will catch up to other states leading the beer industry, but says maybe the state won’t “catch up,” it will just do something different and be unique.
Arizona Strong Beer Festival
WHEN: 1 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, February 19
WHERE: Bell Bank Park, 1 Legacy Drive, Mesa
COST: $60 for general admission