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Photo by Jeremy Gonzalez

The Festival of Beers at Stramler Park in 2012.

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Photo by Jeremy Gonzalez

The Festival of Beers at Stramler Park kicks off a string of popular spring social events in Bakersfield. This photo was from the 2012 event.

Whether you're sweet on stout, love your lager or all about ale, the Festival of Beers has you covered. Celebrating its legal drinking anniversary, the 21st annual event at Stramler Park has stepped up its game with cooling stations, home brews and new entertainment.

With more than two decades of drinks under its belt, the festival has a loyal following, drawing more than 2,000 people to last year's gathering. A couple of changes this year should make things interesting for veterans and neophytes alike.

"The big thing we're trying to stress is the (new) time," said festival chairman Blake Palla, referring to the noon start time. "But it seems that people have been catching on to that."

Palla said shifting the event from noon to 4 p.m. (from 1 to 5 p.m. in previous years) addresses two concerns.

"We found out there were a lot of people killing time between noon and 1 p.m. (waiting for the event). And we want to get them out early. There are a lot of after-parties. For us, we can get cleanup done before the sun sets."

Speaking of that sometimes-pesky sun, you might wonder why a drinking festival is held in the heat of the day. Palla said that the Active 20-30 Club, which puts on the event, has considered a later staging but "logistically, it's been a nightmare."

Rest assured that you can keep your cool, literally, at the designated water station, pouring bottled water into your 4 oz. souvenir cup (also used for beer tastings); natural shade from the park's trees; three tents; and, new this year, cooling stations.

"We will have two trailers with coolers on them, essentially a cooling station in the main park, and then a smaller one in the VIP area. ... One of our members was able to secure us some from Premier Rental."

Updating the VIP area is the other big change at this year's festival, Palla said.

"In years past, the VIP area has been a tent away from the crowd, a sectioned-off area, with its own set of bathrooms and food catered in from Cafe Med and Maxwell's. The concept is that you can get the beers you want without having to handle the masses."

Although those elements are still in place, the VIP area will shift gears this year from a respite to a reserved experience.

"We're in the infancy stages. ... Moving forward we want to make that more of a beer-tasting experience. Less of a lounge and more of a place for a person who likes tasting really nice beer. We're going to have select beers in there, 10 to 12, a little nicer than what you get in the main area of the park."

According to the festival website, the VIP brew offerings include select home brews from local outfit Whole Hog Brewing Co. along with Firestone 805, Goose Island 312, Alaskan Black IPA, Samuel Adams Blackberry Witbier, Shiner Bock Bohemian Black Lager and more. Fresh & Easy will add to the food selection with cheeses, antipasto and more.

Even those who can't spring for the $100 VIP tickets will enjoy a special experience with a selection of more than 250 beers and wines, a barbecue dinner catered by the Kern County Special Olympics, snacks from Fresh & Easy and pizza and pizookies from BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse.

"Everything in the park is free. Once you're in, you're good to go."

Although admitting entertainment is not the top draw -- "I don't think people come to our event for the bands" -- Palla was intriguing by a change in the lineup.

"The interesting thing is that we've had Dub Seeds for a number of years. This year our entertainment guy wanted to go another way. It should be interesting; it should be good."

Along with returning act Velorio, music will be provided by indie rock trio Crooked Folk, rock group Mediated Assault and singer-songwriter Kyd Ayo. There will also be a DJ and karaoke.

Along with a good time, Festival of Beers is about a good cause -- helping local children in need. Volunteers from charities such as M.A.R.E., Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County, Kern Assistive Technology Center, Bakersfield Deaf and Hard of Hearing PTO, Clinica Sierra Vista and more help run booths, sharing in the funds raised. Last year's event raised $50,000 for about a dozen local charities.

Ticket sales will pick up ahead of Saturday, but Palla said all those procrastinators may luck out at the gate.

Last year "we set a record for tickets bought at the gate -- in the 600 range."

Tickets are $30 in advance, available at La Mina Cantina locations or Deja Vu Love Boutique or online at bakersfieldfestival of beers.com; and $40 at the gate. VIP tickets are $100, available online or at the gate (space permitting).