It's Saturday night and I'm standing in front of my tent sipping Lakewood Brewing's Zomer Pils when one of Dallas' most talented brewers wanders up and offers me a sip of his homebrew. Barrett Tillman and I do not know each other — save for the fact that I asked question after question during the fascinating talk he gave earlier from the nearby stage — but he saw my lantern light on, he says, and popped by to share some of his beer.
That moment, sipping one of the finest sours that's ever crossed my lips with a friendly, knowledgeable beer lover who offered me beer while asking for nothing but conversation in return, is the essence of Texas Beer Camp, an annual event in rural Princeton, Texas, less than an hour outside of Dallas. Held Oct. 1 on private property owned by married couple Jason and Deanna Starnes, the event is part beer fest, part bottle swap and part camping trip all rolled into one cheerful, forward-thinking package. Attendees are encouraged to camp out overnight and bring all their favorite beers to swap and sample with friendly strangers. Homebrewers set up on site to offer demonstrations while Texas bands play from a nearby stage, and campers hunker down in set-ups ranging from a sleeping bag rolled out on the dirt to massive RVs with mini bars set up out front.
For 24 hours, this little patch of grass set off winding country roads becomes its own hops-filled ecosystem where good beer is revered and sharing with strangers is the golden rule. How is it legal, you ask, to have a festival where beer flows freely but money isn't exchanged? Much like the recent Brew Riot homebrew festival in Bishop Arts, Texas Beer Camp operates within Texas homebrewing laws. To attend Brew Riot, drinkers had to become members of the Texas Homebrew Society in order to spend the afternoon sampling homebrewers' goods. The same is true of Texas Beer Camp, which requires buying a $40 membership in their homebrew club. And since the event is held on private property, it's perfectly legal for people to bring their own beer — some commercial, some homebrewed — to share with one another. Attendees signed a waiver at the registration table and were told to pick a patch of grass to set up camp. After that, it's up to drinkers to make friends and share the wealth.
I've been a part of the craft beer community for nearly a decade, regularly attending festivals and tap take-overs, writing about beer for newspapers like the Houston Chronicle, and this year I became a certified beer server through the Cicerone program. Despite that, I often find myself at beer events where I'm talked over, mansplained to and overlooked by beer snobs who ask my boyfriend for his thoughts about a beer while looking right through me. It's getting better, but it's still not always easy to be a woman in craft beer, a world that's dominated mainly by men who are strongly opinionated. Once, at a beer swap in Beaumont, I saw a young female craft beer newbie well up with tears after beer snobs laughed at the brews she brought to share.
When I bought tickets to Texas Beer Camp, I felt a little wary, wondering if I was about to spend a night surrounded by stubborn men who talk at me, not to me. But my concerns dissipated before we'd even finished popping the tent. These beer lovers — who were, in fact, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, though there were women and one particularly cute cat in attendance — were attentive and generous, and they spoke to me as if I was one of them and not just some beer guy's girlfriend.
As it turns out, Jason Starnes, one of Beer Camp's founders, pays close attention to the avenues he uses to promote the event.
"Craft beer can easily become a dick-wagging contest," he says. "I don't like the competitive thing."
Starnes is careful about his marketing and promotions, attempting to target steadfast beer-lovers who also love Texas music, barbecue and the outdoors. He shies away from any promotions that may attract a crowd that turns the festival into a rowdy kegger.
"I don't publicize to or recruit college kids," Starnes says. "I want a certain type of crowd."
And he's achieved it.
"What I like about this community is I haven't met a bad person," Barrett Tillman, the Deep Ellum Brewing brewer who's put the company's new sour program on the map, said during his engaging keynote talk at Beer Camp. Tillman shared his story, one that involved walking away from a well-paying desk job to move into the low-paying world of brewing, and talked about the future of beer. Nearby, the Sixpack Philosophy podcast recorded an episode while across the field, a homebrewer walked people through the process of brewing a rambutan and lychee tripel. LUCK cooked up a phenomenal barbecue dinner, and bands like Buffalo Ruckus and Phantom Sensation played sets so good, it was hard to pay attention to your beer.
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Between all that, Deanna Starnes raffled off thousands of dollars in beer swag and brewing goods, with proceeds from the raffle benefiting Homebrew for Heroes, which pairs veterans with homebrew clubs willing to teach them a new skill. Even if you holed up at your campsite all night, people endlessly popped by to introduce themselves and share their brew. People drank responsibly, cleaned up after themselves meticulously and shared everything they brought with them. It felt like another, better world.
Texas Beer Camp is a beautiful example of what can happen when we step away from the traditional, money-driven model and distill things down to the essence of what is good: beer, music, food, the outdoors and, above all else, unabashed kindness. The beer world could learn a lot from this way of doing things.