Most of the 50 breweries were offering two or three beers, and the biggest disappointment for me was that some of the better-known breweries that I was excited to see there—Lagunitas, Great Lakes, Magic Hat—only brought beers from their regular lineup that I'd tried a million times before. A few, like Dogfish Head and Sam Adams, offered a few limited-edition beers as well—nothing particularly rare, but some stuff that I hadn't tasted before, at least. But with 130 beers on hand, it wasn't possible to try everything anyway, and I managed to fill my time just fine. Given the crowd—both sessions were sold out, with 2,000 people attending each one—even if I'd had the stomach for all those beers, I would have run out of time.
A few favorites:
5 Rabbit: The 5 Vulture, a dark ale brewed with ancho chiles, was surprisingly smooth and light, not too spicy. The Vida y Muerte Ale is their fall offering (for Day of the Dead), brewed with dulce de leche and the herb hoja santa; it's hoppier and spicier (from the hops, not chile spice).
Finch's: The guy serving us said that their blonde ale is actually hoppier than the pale ale, which turned out to be true. Both were light and very pleasant; my friend said after we tasted them, "I would drink that beer normally." It's easy at beer tastings to focus on the more unusual offerings, but Finch's has set out to make very drinkable, everyday beers and has done a nice job of it.
Wild Onion: The nut brown ale and Winter Warmer (an oak-aged American strong ale) were much more assertive than Finch's beers but still fell into the category of easy-drinking brews.
Bell's: The only beer from Bell's I hadn't tried before, the Sparkling Ale, was described as an American interpretation of a classic Belgian triple with "effervescent carbonation." I'm not sure exactly how that differs from regular carbonation, but it was lovely—and dangerous at 9 percent alcohol, since I'm pretty sure I could drink it all day.
Sam Adams: The Vixen (chocolate chile bock) and Maple Pecan Porter were both dark, rich, and pleasantly sweet. The Cherry Chocolate Bock makes the list because my friend loved it, and I'm willing to chalk up my hatred of it to a long-standing aversion to anything cherry-flavored.
Crispin Cider: The Fox Barrel Blackberry Pear was tangy and refreshing—I could taste the dark berry notes, though I wouldn't have been able to pin it down to blackberry without knowing ahead of time what was in there.
Destihl: This might have been my favorite brewery of the evening, mostly because it was a surprise to me. I haven't really learned to like sour ales, and the St. Dekkera Reserve Sour Ale was—well, very sour. But it's apparently won medals for the last two years at the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer, so I'll believe it's good if you like that kind of thing. The Dosvidanya Russian Imperial Stout, aged in bourbon barrels and weighing in at 13 percent alcohol, got the best reaction of the evening from my friend: "Woo! Hot dog!," she said. "It tastes like bourbon!" It did indeed, and like chocolate, velvety and rich.
Uinta: I'd stopped taking notes by the time I tried these beers, but I remember both the Punk'n Harvest Ale and Wyld Extra Pale Ale from this Salt Lake City brewery as being very good.
Goose Island: The only offering of the Chicago staple that I hadn't tasted before was Lazarus, made with the leftover mash from brewings of Bourbon County Stout and Pilgrim and Sovereign hops. It's surprisingly robust for a beer made from a second run of mash, and, less surprisingly, quite similar in flavor to BCS.
We didn't stay until the very end, because our feet were sticking to the floor and the crowds were beginning to feel oppressive. But considering how many people were there, it was a very pleasant group; no one seemed to be upset at the lines (which moved pretty fast) or general congestion. If Hoptacular wants to attract true beer nerds it'll probably need to add some rarer selections to its offerings in the future, but it seems to be doing just fine for now with what it's got.
UPDATE: I just heard from the event's PR person that Destihl's Dosvidanya Russian Imperial Stout was voted Beer of the Year at this year's festival. 5 Rabbit's Vida y Muerte Ale won second place and Piece's Camel Toe Egyptian Pale Ale took third.