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Massive, sprawling beer festivals are great, but some of the very best craft brewing events involve little more than a quality venue with a stellar beer list. Such is the case with San Marcos suds standout Churchill’s Pub and Grille’s annual Renaissance event, where owner Ivan Derezin gets out treasures he’s been cold storing, sometimes for years, and puts them out for the drinking public. Hundreds of people from far and wide line up each year to taste some of the most elusive and interesting beers around.

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On Saturday, I had the opportunity to do just that along with droves of people (hailing from as far away as Michigan) who showed up as early as 4:30 a.m. to position themselves for Renaissance’s 11 a.m. start. It was beer nerd nirvana and one of the best, most dignified large scale drinking experiences I’ve ever had.

Despite the fact the place was filled to capacity and most of the beers had high ABVs, an attentive and pleasant staff and crowd made up of true connoisseurs kept it from feeling like a pushy mob scene. It was a good atmosphere for thoughtful tasting and note-taking.

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The following are details on taste profiles should you happen across any of these special quaffs.

Russian River Consecration Batch #2 (oak barrel-aged sour ale): When it comes to American sour ales, this Santa Rosa brewing company is the standard by which others are judged. This beautifully aged vintage batch of their black currant-based beauty features well rounded dark wood notes and a subdued sweetness that is as gentle as it is exquisite. Grade: A+

The Bruery Berazzled (tart raspberry ale): Pouring a crystal clear magenta, this beer looks just like it tastes—rife with raspberry flavor enlivened by an initial citric burst that gives way to an earthy fruitiness that clings to the back palate in much the same manner as wine tannins. Grade: A

Karl Strauss Queen of Tarts (Bourbon barrel-aged sour ale): Brewed with cherries, this sour is a real sign of the Uncle Karl crew’s crafty evolution. Not as woody as longer aged beers of the same style, this well balanced beer has a clean acidity that makes it a great introductory sour for those looking to dabble their taste buds to this subcategory of beers. Grade: B

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Mikkeler Sur Munk (sour Belgian quadruple): The marriage of two disparate Belgian beer styles—a light, tart lambic, and a strong, oak-laden quad—the beer struggles against suds schizophrenia. It's creamy in mouth-feel and excessively sweet (something that will hopefully fall away as the beer ages) in a way that muddies the brew’s sourness. Grade: D

Lagunitas Cherry Ruben and the Brets (Bourbon barrel-aged sour stout): Another beer that endeavors to seamlessly fuse several differing styles with mixed results. The cherry is almost lost amid an overbearing, thick dark chocolate body that in no way benefits from a lemony sourness. This brewery experiment needs to be taken back to the drawing board. Grade: C-

Deschutes The Abyss (Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout): The 2008 vintage of this annually anticipated obsidian number is smooth as silk with lovely notes of cocoa and a nose that’s akin to the first inhale of a tobacco shop. A great example of a solid brew aged under optimal conditions. Grade: A

Craftsman El Prieto (oak barrel-aged sour black ale): Black ales that mess with drinkers’ minds are very en vogue right now. Black IPAs that look like chocolate-coffee behemoths but taste of fresh hops are more typical, but this one creates shock and awe courtesy of fruity tartness and cabernet-like tannins. This interesting sipper is a walk on the wild side for adventurous drinkers only. Grade: B-

Churchill’s Finest Hour (Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout): The 2011 and 2012 iterations of this beer, brewed annually by San Marcos’ Port Brewing especially for this event, combine multiple imperial stouts for a complex chocolate, coffee and Bourbon experience.

The new version was thick and hot with Jack Daniel’s booziness, much as the 2011 vintage was when it debuted. In the past year, it’s mellowed out nicely, trading carbonation for grace and subtle charm. With its taste bud-enveloping mouth-feel and tamed whiskey character, it’s a fine substitute for any fine, warming night-closing Cognac. Grade: A- (2012), A (2011)

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Thanks to the fact Churchill’s has 50 taps, even the onslaught of patrons that came in on Saturday weren’t enough to deplete all the beers on the Renaissance list, meaning some of the good stuff from the event may still be flowing (sans that big line). Churchill’s Pub & Grille is located at 887 West San Marcos Boulevard.

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