As the Asheville brewing industry has grown and evolved, 20 years of longevity has become a mark of distinction. Highland Brewing Co. reached that milestone in 2014 and Green Man Brewery joins the club in 2016, as does Brewgrass, the city’s first beer festival, which this year takes place Saturday, Sept. 17, at Memorial Stadium.
Featuring over 55 local, regional and national craft breweries — plus music from The Travelin’ McCourys with special guest Peter Rowan, the Jon Stickley Trio and Bobby Miller and the Virginia Daredevils — Brewgrass’ roots are in another industry trailblazer, Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria. Jimi Rentz and Doug Beatty opened the Biltmore Avenue establishment in 1994, when downtown had a significantly different look than it does today.
“That was a long time ago, and there were no craft breweries around,” Rentz says. “I think we opened with seven or nine taps, but we did have to educate people as to better beer.”
In 1996, the city of Asheville approached the Barley co-owners about organizing a beer festival in the shoulder season (a travel period between peak and off-peak seasons), which at that time was September. Back then, All About Beer magazine’s World Beer Festival in Durham was North Carolina’s only other event of that type. Like the daily work at his business, Rentz says the festival — initially known as the Great Smokies Craft Brewers Invitational — “was born to educate.” But as with many new ventures, plenty of challenges awaited.
“We lost a lot of money the first years, but we believed in it, and we found other people who actually liked it and believed in it, and they helped us out,” Rentz says. “I wrote a large check one year to keep us afloat to pay the bands. You know, it’s a bummer when you throw a festival and you owe money at the end of it. That stinks.”
Rentz estimates that 300-400 tickets were sold for the inaugural event. Despite taking a financial loss — it took three or four years before the festival started breaking even — organizers still wrote a check to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina. The youth mentoring organization has continued to receive a portion of the festival’s proceeds each year, part of an overall commitment to consistency that’s played a significant role in Brewgrass’ success and helped change the shoulder season into a decent-sized weekend for the city.
Rentz, Danny McClinton and Eddie Dewey currently own the festival and have tried to hold the event on the third week of September, which Rentz views as “a great date,” though one that “used to be a little bit colder in the early years than it’s been lately.”
A poster for the 1997 festival hangs framed on a wall in Barley’s and lists that year’s participating breweries, of which only Highland and Green Man represent Asheville. Though Brewgrass remains locally run and annually features a large number of area breweries, the event has attracted a strong tourist following.
“I’d say well over half of the crowd comes from out of town and, actually, out of state,” Rentz says. “We have a big representation up and down the East Coast. Every year, we’ll have somebody [from a foreign country] — I think three years ago it was Great Britain, and two years ago we had a crowd from China drop in. It was interesting.”
The hefty outside interest helped inspire the smaller, more locally focused Beer City Festival, which Rentz also spearheads. But despite Brewgrass’ popularity, it’s managed to maintain a laid-back vibe. Long lines and small pours regulated by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control prevent it from turning into a chugging contest and help keep the mood mellow, as do performances by three or four bands.
In 2014, Brewgrass moved from Martin Luther King, Jr. Park to Memorial Stadium, which Rentz calls a “gem in the city.” Venue upgrades include a bigger space, hardscape bathrooms and an Astroturf field that attendees can’t muddy up — a notable perk since wet weather has been an issue in the past. Rentz recalls one late ’90s iteration where, despite sideways rain, people “were still in it to win it,” as well as the last year at the festival’s former home, where ceaseless downpours forced him to change clothes three times, yet no one, to his knowledge, left the event.
Grateful to the city of Asheville, the local community and its brewers for getting Brewgrass to the two-decade mark, it’s these fond memories that stand out to Rentz as he reflects on its history. But like industry peers such as Highland founder Oscar Wong who’ve let others step into leadership roles, he isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be involved in the festival.
“I have problems letting go of certain things, but I’m trying. I’m 52 this year. I’ve been doing this for a while, and it starts getting heavy — gravity’s working harder,” Rentz says. “It’s been a good run.”
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