Best beer in Florida? I'll be the judge of that.

The crowd was a jovial blend of everyone who is anyone in the local craft beer scene, dedicated and knowledgeable beer enthusiasts, amateurs, and, oddly enough, children. Get in the car, kids; it's time to go for a ride.

Attendees were ceremoniously adorned with the artifacts of beer culture. Many chose to bring their own glassware -- goblets, mugs, steins, mini boots. And there were more beer tshirts than you can shake a bottle at -- brewery shirts, beer fest shirts, beer bar shirts, and especially brew club shirts, everyone representing affiliation like old school break dancing crews, only considerably less active and without the short shorts. Thank god. [image-1]

Getting down to the brews -- there were out of town gems like the slick and divine Ole Woody, crafted by Seven Bridges, a Jacksonville brewing restaurant, also maker of Winter's Nip Porter, the BFBC judges' pick for this year's Best Beer in Florida. McGuires Irish Pub from Pensacola brought a nicely done breakfast stout and an imperial IPA that were both quite tasty. Gnarly Barley, made by The Corner Café and Brewery in the tiny town of Tequesta, was also really impressive. As a porter, the Orlando Brewing Company's Organic Blackwater Porter really sucked, but as an easy drinking dark beer, it performed quite nicely. So just forget that it's a porter and enjoy.

Best of all, there was a bountiful selection of excellent hometown brews -- Dunedin Brewery's Redhead Red Ale, Tampa Bay Brewing Company's Old Elephant Foot IPA, and Yuengling Brewery's Black and Tan, which earned the second place nod from BFBC judges. For me, and pretty much everyone else I encountered, the ultimate brew of the day was Hops of Palm Harbor's Lumberjack Breakfast Oatmeal Stout. I must confess; I am one of the assholes that anchored myself directly adjacent to this sweet magnificence and got after it like it was my job. The brew was too perfect, and I just couldn't help myself. The winning beers picked by the BFBC panel were all very nice, but something about that Lumberjack really worked for me. And judging by the way all the Lumberjack kegs were spent only half way through the event, it worked for others just the same.

Also up for evaluation -- homebrews sponsored by Tampa Bay BEERS (Brew Enthusiasts Enjoying Real Suds). This homebrew competition was sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association; it marks the beginning of the Florida Circuit Homebrew Competition and the search for the best homebrewer and homebrew club in Florida. I thought the Old Ale aged in bourbon barrels was outstanding, with both fresh, intense bourbon flavors and smooth drinkability. The crisp Altbier and lightly smoked Dortmunder were also lovely.

[image-2]As the event pressed on, the restroom lines grew longer and the mountain of raffle swag dispersed among the crowd. The amateurs busied themselves with tattoo showing and aimless dancing, and the professionals cast aside their food plates and brought forth beer discussion o'plenty. The air was thick with beer geek words like diacetyl and esters. Lips moved quickly with excitement, reciting web addresses for online beer retailers, planning for the next rare beer meet-up, and sharing hot tips, like the liquor store in Tampa that has cheap bottles of last year's Dogfish Head World Wide Stout.

At the end of the day, some folks were chauffeured home or to after-parties in campers, limos, and vans, while some opted for a power nap inside their own vehicles. As for me, the only cogent course of action involved a liter bottle of water and giant plate of guacamole tostados. Altogether, I can only describe the event as a truly magical time. I heard some complaints that there were only around 30 brews, but if you ask me, I'll take a smaller selection of the best brews in the state, which I can pour myself, over 100 random bottles that I can buy at local beer stores everyday. That's a beer fan no-brainer.

As I walked the dusty path toward the front entrance of Skipper's Smokehouse, the festive sounds of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes mingled with the heavy aromas of cigar smoke and Cajun spices.

The occasion — 10th Annual Best Florida Beer Championships Brewer's Ball. It's kind of a big deal in the beer community, like a twisted version of prom for brew aficionados. This IS the most important day of my life. After being outfitted with hand stamps, food tickets, and plastic cups, myself and the rest of the eager crowd was set free to graze among the taps, filling when necessary. Yes, that's right; a beer fest where you pour your own beer — one of the few shared fantasy worlds of beer nerds and kegger meatheads. No separation from the tap; just walk right up there and give it a pull. Pour a little splash or overflow the cup. It's your world, champ; everyone else is just living in it.

For this glorious occasion, all cups were filled with beer that was brewed in Florida — 24 works of genius in total, all gold medal creations chosen by Beer Judge Certification Program judges and members of the professional brewing community, during blind taste tests that were held weeks prior to the event. With the exception of a home brew variety, all the beers offered are also commercially available in Florida. But I am getting ahead of myself.

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