I got news recently that the 2016 edition of the Toronado Barleywine Festival in San Francisco , a festival that has been running for 21 years, has been cancelled. It seems that the growth of SF Beer Week into a 700+ event liver endurance test may have been the main reason.
I went to my first Barleywine Festival 15-ish years ago. The exact details are a bit fuzzy. Possibly due to 15 years of going to said Barleywine Festival. It was always a fascinating look at the style with 50-odd examples on tap at once from all over the world. Many of the maltier English style, lots from the much more assertive American style, and everything in between. Though impossible to taste them all in one day, some would share tastes with others. Some would even line up and get a small sample of each and place it on the Toronado supplied map.
It could be my sadistic side, but watching first timers order from the normally gruff bartenders who were extra so due to the crowds was always a treat. Strict rules were put into place and every few minutes I’d hear Johnny or one of the other amazing staff point to the sign and yell out “order by size and number” or “cash only.” Though a favorite was when someone tried to order something other than Barleywine.
I also enjoyed judging at the festival for a few years and it was always the highlight of my winter. There were lots of friends in the beer industry and outside the industry that I would only ever see once a year, and that was at the Barleywine Festival. But the writing was on the wall that the days of the Barleywine Festival were numbered once the behemoth Beer Week festival started expanding.
I’ll stop short of saying that the overgrowth of Beer Week is the only cause of the death of the Barleywine festival, even though some very candid patrons of Toronado are pretty sure of it. But it’s true that Beer Week in SF found success once they positioned themselves just before the Barleywine Fest effectively using it as an anchor event, though apparently without permission. They then went on to expand the event over the top of the Barleywine Festival. Last year there were dozens of other events on the same day as the first day of the festival, traditionally the busiest day. The result was a considerably smaller crowd than normal for the Barleywine Festival that usually saw crowds out the door.
It’s also true that Barleywine, once the hot style for beer geeks everywhere may have been replaced by ridiculously strong IPAs, kettled sours, and barrel aged one off releases. Perhaps it’s just out of fashion. But it’s still a style worthy of respect and showcasing it in this yearly event was perfect. It was the largest event in the world dedicated to the style.
It’s possible, but at this point it seems unlikely that the Toronado Barleywine Festival will return in the future, but we can hope. I for one will miss it greatly as it was always such a great learning and social event.