In the mid-’70s, I was a kid with a beer-can collection in a small, Southern college town where drinkers viewed Coors as prized contraband.
Poking around behind a newly defunct wine shop one muggy summer morning, I uncovered a Lilliputian black can. Theakston Old Peculier, it called itself. It suggested it was beer.
When I punctured the diminutive tin to drain it, the sweet-smelling liquid within resembled thin tar.
I searched for more Old Peculier for years, once I got a clue that beer cans weren’t as cool as their contents. My quest only bore brew when I moved for a while to England, its source. Now I can get a bottle of OP at The Grey Eagle anytime I want it.
What the hell happened?
Drinking the good fight
The craft-brew, micro-brew and import invasion of this nation’s Miller-heuser-Busch selection is by now stale lager under the bridge. When Pete’s Wicked Ale butts up against Bud Light at the corner Texaco, and my once-PBR-drinking dad will now only tolerate pricey Czech export Pilsner Urquell, the revolution has become entrenched.
But in more recent years, a new battlefront has opened: Festivals devoted solely to the labors of hops, malt, yeast and water in creating that elixir that Ben Franklin once praised as proof of God’s desire for human happiness — Hopfest (Pleasanton, Calif.), the Real Ale Festival (Chicago), the Cask Beer Festival (Seattle), and on and on.
Yet Barley’s Taproom co-owner and craft-brew aficionado Doug Beatty has found most beer festivals he’s attended to be interchangeable, he said. And that got him to thinking.
First of all, WNC needed its own sudsy event. But of course.
“Asheville is the hottest beer area in the state,” noted Julie Bradford, editor of the longstanding All About Beer magazine, now based in Durham. “[It has] great breweries and a really educated drinking audience.”
Plus, Beatty felt he and Barley’s partner Jimi Rentz could do it better. They could, he considered, even expand beyond just great beer. What if they added some tunes — some mountain-styled music? (See “The Other Side of the Brew”).
Years of beers
The Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, Sept. 13, began in 1995 at MLK Park, with about 500 beer nuts attending.
The event moved two years later to Memorial Stadium, and then on to downtown’s City/County Plaza. It was a tough sell at first to the city, which directly sponsored the first three festivals. “I had to convince them that it wasn’t an overgrown frat party,” Beatty said with a chuckle.
Last year, Brewgrass moved to grassless Pack Square, where the acoustics are wanting, and that big concrete pool screws up pedestrian flow.
“I had people say they wouldn’t come back,” Beatty admitted.
Happily, Brewgrass is returning this year to City/County Plaza, where Beatty hopes it will now stay — that is, unless Memorial Stadium invites the festival back (concerns about playing-field upkeep have thus far prevented it).
And through it all, the Brewgrass reputation has spread like news in a bar of a guy buying a round of free drinks.
“The festival is one of the best,” raved Bradford, whose magazine puts on this state’s largest such event, the World Beer Festival in Durham.
“I’ve started planning vacations around [Brewgrass],” said local resident Dave “Super Dave” Sanders, who’s attended all but one.
Fans like Sanders meant that last year’s waterlogged festival still drew 1,700 people. Beatty, who’d taken out event insurance that paid out at a half-inch of rain, confessed to standing in the downpour saying to himself: “Payday, baby! Payday!” (The sky, however, was stingy with that last .04 of an inch; Brewgrass collected nothing, Beatty admitted with a grin.)
That year, Brewgrass still gave $7,500 to its favorite nonprofit, Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Western North Carolina, Beatty said.
The festival taps out, so to speak, at 2,500 people; a sell-out means Big Brothers takes home $10,000, Beatty noted. (Brewgrass also raises money for the Asheville Rugby Club and the Asheville Wizards soccer team).
One of each, please
A good beer festival emphasizes flavor, diversity and education, Bradford noted. Organizers work closely with staff and volunteers to control pour size — you’re not likely to be drunk unless you arrive that way.
“People are concentrating on the contrasting flavors, not on the volume of the beer,” she explained.
OK, so now you’ve got your 6-ounce sample glass ready for your first 2- or 3-ounce Brewgrass pour. And nearly 40 brewers are set up around you. Where in God’s name do you begin?
You can immediately rule out any breweries owned by the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller or Coors) — there won’t be any.