In the land of the IPA, it's good to see a festival devoted to something a bit more my speed – Imperial Stouts. Sure, I have issues with most any beer over 6%, but the Imp. Stout is a different animal in the same zoo. It's complex (more so than Barleywine, I think), and seems to be a shape-changer in the lass, never staying as one definable thing for too long. Maybe I'm just trying too hard to wax poetic on the subject, but Imperial Stouts are A-Ok by me. So when I was asked to fill in for Justin at the Bay Area's first Imperial Stout Festival down at Beer Revolution in Oakland, I fell over myself in my rush to RSVP to the event.

The morning of the judging was almost factory-built for the event: a nice, even color of gray had the clouds looking dull and threatening at the same time, rationing out the rain over the course of the day in small amounts. What is it about that type of weather that just makes us want to stay indoors, stoke the fire, and drink large amounts of high gravity beers? Needless to say, I was not dreading this trip.

I arrived at Beer Revolution as Morgan, the event coordinator, was giving final instructions to the first round of judges. After he got them on their way judging the beers, I was able to talk with him for a bit, and was kind of surprised to learn that this fest had been almost 10 years in the making. It grew from him and a few friends doing very informal tastings of bottled Imperial Stouts to a full-on organized deal. Fraggle and Rebecca, the owners of Beer Rev, asked Morgan if he'd like to do a larger event at there place. Keep in mind now, that to throw an event such as this, the host location has to pull all of their other beers and replace them with Imperial Stouts. Just think about that for a second. Each beer on tap, an Imp. Stout. To me, that's an insane idea. But to Morgan and Beer Rev, it's a party waiting to happen.

While the judging was taking place next door to the bar (in what will soon be a small dining area where Beer Rev will serve food), I walked over to the bar to sign in. Name, address, judge rank, blah, blah, blah. Get up, and finally realize what the hell is happening around me. 55 Imperial Stouts – in kegs – are being labeled, checked in, and given to the stewards for the trek next door to the judging room. The bar was packed with jockey boxes in order to accommodate the beers that wouldn't fit on the normal draft lines. Just the organization of that alone is crazy – I know, I've done it. So to manage that AND get them numbered and deal with all the judging stuff is something I would have just not done. I'd just serve them all the same beer and see what happens.

Back to the judging. Which has been made more difficult due to the ongoing construction in the room. Hey, it's being converted into a restaurant, of course there is going to be debris. And no working toilets. Or running water. At all. For that stuff you have to go to the bar, which is fine, but not fun. Enter … The Stewards. These people did an amazing job running empty glasses back to the bar to be cleaned out for the next beer, getting water, pouring beers – all without a proper facility to do so. It was pretty cool to see this handful of people working so hard in the name of beer judging.

Sitting there, watching all of this take place, I'm starting to realize that I recognize almost nobody at the judging tables. Being in this business for 15 years I have gotten around more than a bit, and many of the faces in that room were new to me. And to be honest, it was a pretty cool thing to realize. Seeing that many people – new people – in there, tasting beer, learning beer, being involved in the community was proof that homebrewing is growing each year. Or that the folks I know have died and I didn't know. Or both.

First round done, second round is next. Time to go to work! We had to send three beers through to the final round out of seven. What really sort of impressed me with the style, or maybe reminded me, is how much Imperial Stouts change in the glass. Yes, I know that this is typical of most beers and especially with higher alcohol ones, but for some reason I had either forgotten about these particular ones or I just got clued in a bit more. The first beer we got – and the ultimate winner of the festival – was just awful at first. Hot alcohols, not balanced in any way. Just not great. In fact, the beers that sampled well while semi-cold turned out to be dogs as they warmed up to better drinking temps, while the dogs turned into cats (you know, good things) as they warmed. No matter how much we think we know about beer, there is always something else to learn.

Our three beers chosen, my job was done for the day. I was not on the final judging panel, so I left the good folks at Beer Revolution and headed home, belly full of sweet roastiness. The winner? Block 15 from Corvallis, Oregon. This beer was solid (when it warmed up), and very enjoyable, so congrats to those guys for taking First Place! And congrats to Beer Rev for throwing a thoroughly enjoyable event to be a part of. The list of beer they were able to get in read like a Who's-Who of breweries: Deschutes, Great Divide, Beachwood BBQ, Sierra Nevada, Stone, Green Flash, Dogfish – many kegs had to be picked up on site, since they don't distribute. Rebecca drove around SoCal hauling kegs as she went, just to pull this fest off, and as I disappeared into the rain, the bar was full and the fest was rocking. I have no doubt this will turn into an annual event. I just hope I get on the final round next year!