Rather than fade away in the face of adversity, AVL Beer Week pivoted amid the pandemic — and did so quickly and continuously. But after two years of reimagining its annual gathering, the festivities return Friday, May 27-Sunday, June 5, with events that combine the lessons learned throughout the ongoing public health crisis with celebrations reminiscent of its pre-pandemic past.
Survive and advance
Launched in 2012 to promote and support Asheville’s then up-and-coming craft brewing industry, the event was all set to proceed in its usual, in-person capacity in late May 2020. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit that March and public health restrictions made the annual celebration’s numerous large gatherings impractical, the event’s brain trust had to think fast.
As the days wore on and taprooms shifted to delivery and to-go service, members of the brewing industry turned to Zoom for virtual face-to-face communication. Noting the ubiquity of this technology, AVL Beer Week co-coordinators Joanna Postlethwaite Brown and Katie Smith, along with then-Asheville Brewers Alliance Executive Director Leah Rainis, started thinking about how to use the videoconferencing platform for a virtual Beer Week.
Creative results included guided, at-home beer tastings led by local brewers, the Virtual Beer Olympics competition and a panel discussion about stouts with Burial Beer Co. co-owner Doug Reiser, Cory King of Side Project Brewing, John Wakefield of J. Wakefield Brewing and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso of Evil Twin Brewing.
The offerings kept the community connected during an uncertain time. But the following year, AVL Beer Week leaders opted to skip an official 2021 edition due to ongoing uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 infection rates and health-and-safety mandates. Instead, the group launched The Road to AVL Beer Week, which highlighted the WNC brewing industry at large through events and social media posts.
“2021 was the ‘Beer Week in your backyard,’ and we tried to promote that message because we were aligning with all of the breweries that were having to rethink their entire models of customer service,” Postlethwaite Brown says. “And, honestly, there are some things from that that I really hope stay: the expansion into the outdoor spaces; the new means and ways to enjoy beer at home — everyone had to think outside the box a little bit.”
With the addition of more outdoor events and Buncombe County easing pandemic-related restrictions, AVL Beer Week leadership is proceeding with cautious optimism and bringing the celebration back to nearly pre-pandemic levels. But in working with breweries to schedule events, the co-coordinators are respecting the individual preferences of each business owner and working with the owners to find the type of gathering that best fits their comfort level.
“Last year, we didn’t want to put pressure on people to have people in their spaces and host events — and that was kind of a good call [considering the rise in COVID variants],” Smith says. “And this year, too, we totally understand if they aren’t comfortable having a big group for events. We’re just excited to finally bring somewhat of a Beer Week back.”
The event’s return, however, raises the question of its necessity, considering the ubiquity of the industry in and around Asheville. Postlethwaite Brown and Smith — industry veterans for close to a decade — know as well as anyone that the wealth of local breweries and steady stream of new beer releases have resulted in an embarrassment of riches.
But it’s in recognizing the hard work that it took to reach that status and celebrating those accomplishments that help maintain Beer Week’s significance to the local community, the co-coordinators say. And by honoring that legacy, they continue, craft beer fans who don’t otherwise experience Asheville’s plentiful offerings on a daily basis get to visit and partake in events that elevate those assets to rare levels.
“It’s almost like you’re waiting for Christmas: This is the blowout. This is when everybody wants to do this special thing,” Smith says. “We have people messaging us months in advance, asking for the dates. They plan their Asheville trip to hit during Beer Week because they know there’s going to be festivals and beer dinners. This is the time to go. You want the best of the best in Asheville beer? This is the week to do it.”
A greater sense of WNC
Among the standout offerings for 2022 are the American Craft Sake Festival on Saturday, May 28, at Ben’s Tune Up; the return of Thirsty Thursday during the Asheville Tourists’ June 2 game at McCormick Field, where a brewery representative will throw out the first pitch; and Burial Beer Co.’s beloved Skillet Six Ways event, in which a half-dozen adjunct versions of the brewery’s flagship Skillet Donut Stout will be available individually or in flights.
AVL Beer Week’s tradition of hosting notable beer authors also continues Tuesday, May 31, when Highland Brewing Co. presents an evening with John Holl, writer and photographer of The Craft Brewery Cookbook. And in what promises to be one of the most emotional events, the Mountain Ale and Lager Tasters homebrewing club will honor former member Bernie Kessel, who passed away in January after a 20-month battle with cancer. MALT members brewed a pre-Prohibition-style pilsner in Kessler’s honor with the Green Man Brewery team, which will be tapped on May 31.
The AVL Beer Week crew is also joining forces as a community partner with GrindFest, the free, four-day festival that celebrates Black freedom and the success of Black entrepreneurs and business owners in Asheville, which runs May 27-30. Through that connection and incorporating cider and other craft beverage producers within and beyond the city limits, the co-coordinators seek to honor all who contribute to the area’s thriving industry.
“It’s called AVL Beer Week, but it really represents a greater sense of Western North Carolina, and it represents Western North Carolina to the world,” Postlethwaite Brown says.
For more information, visit avl.mx/bkz.