Carolina Beer Guy: Asheville’s popular fall beer festivals evolve

ENDURANCE TEST: Attendees at the 2018 Asheville Oktoberfest practice for the stein-hoisting competition. Now in its 11th year, the event returns to Pack Square Park on Oct. 5. Photo by Steve Barker/IMA Photo and Images

With dozens of breweries in Buncombe County, any weekend can seem like a beer festival. Still, big celebrations with hundreds of brews for sampling and savoring remain mighty popular around Asheville, and fall is the season when they are most common.

But there’s been a dramatic change at Asheville’s original beer fest, Brewgrass. Now in its 23rd year, the event has shifted focus from a beer sampling celebration with bluegrass music to a bluegrass festival with big-name talent and beer, organizers have announced.

So, sure, you can still have beer at Brewgrass, but it will be sold one glass at a time on Saturday, Oct. 5, at Salvage Station.

“Asheville is so well known for beer,” says Brewgrass spokeswoman Abby Dickinson. “And there are so many other festivals to compete with. So the decision was made to do something different.”

Brewgrass also found itself scheduled to happen this year on the same date as the Asheville Oktoberfest. “October has become crowded with things to do,” says Brewgrass co-owner Eddie Dewey. “We are trying to find a niche and give Asheville something it really wants to see. We felt like it was time for a change.”

Part of that need for an update is due to shifts in marketing and culture over the past two decades. “When Brewgrass started, [sampling festivals] were how breweries marketed beer,” he says. “You didn’t have the social media. Now that whole world has flipped.”

Dewey knows that the new Brewgrass will likely draw a different crowd from past festivals. “That’s not our goal,” he says. “We hope that the core Brewgrass lovers will come out.”

Brewgrass, 3 p.m.-midnight, Saturday, Oct. 5, Salvage Station, 468 Riverside Drive. Music by the Sam Bush Band, Jamie Kent, Unspoken Tradition, Sanctum Sully, Red Clay Revival and Eleanor Underhill. $35. brewgrassfestival.com

Asheville Oktoberfest

Meanwhile, traditional beer samplings will be offered at two other local events. Asheville Oktoberfest takes place Saturday, Oct. 5, at Pack Square Park, featuring samples of craft beers, wines, ciders, spirits and nonalcoholic beverages, plus games and German-inspired cuisine.

The spirits sampling has expanded from one selection last year to three this year, says J. Nicole Bentley, director of membership and sponsorship for the Asheville Downtown Association, which organizes the celebration. Thirty sampling stations will be scattered around the park, she says.

Beyond the beverages, Bentley says Oktoberfest will include a parade through the park, a pretzel race, a stein hoist, a variety of costume contests and the ever-popular chicken dance. But even with these returning favorites, she echoes the Brewgrass organizers’ sentiments regarding substantial competition on the local fall festival circuit.

“Asheville is blessed with a lot of wonderful events and festivals. Our community is great about supporting everything. This is our 11th year, and we have been successful every year,” she says, noting that Oktoberfest stands out because it is a themed festival. “The costume contest adds a different element. We have had people dress up as a giant pretzel and sausage before.”

While a lot of locals attend, Oktoberfest also pulls visitors from around the Southeast. “It’s a great time to be in the mountains,” Bentley says. “We usually sell out the event at 2,000.” She adds that most years, some tickets are available at the gate the day of the event.

Oktoberfest is a major fundraiser for the ADA, which promotes the central business district. The group also presents the free Downtown After 5 street concerts held each summer. “This is our only ticketed event, so we can continue the free community events,” Bentley says.

Asheville Oktoberfest, 1-6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, Pack Square Park. $45, $10 designated drivers. ashevilleoktoberfest.com

Burnpile

Presented by Burial Beer Co. and hosted by the recently opened Forestry Camp Bar and Restaurant, Burnpile 2019 takes place Saturday, Oct. 12, on the historic property near Biltmore Village that’s also home to the brewery’s production facility and barrelhouse. The celebration will feature samples from more than 60 breweries, plus performances by touring bands Beach Fossils, All Them Witches, A Place to Bury Strangers and the Unifire Theater fire troupe.

Beyond the beer, food, and entertainment, one of the draws this year is the location itself. Structures on the Forestry Camp property were built in the early 20th century by members of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s now home to a craft beverage bar and restaurant led by Cucina 24 chef Brian Canipelli. Meanwhile, the original Burial location at 40 Collier Ave. on the South Slope continues to operate as usual.

The property was purchased four years ago, says Burial co-owner Jessica Reiser. “It’s a 2-acre property with six buildings, so it was a big project,” she says. “It’s a historic property, which we restored. These things take time.”

This is the sixth year for Burnpile, which originally focused on North Carolina breweries. Over the years, Reiser says, more national craft breweries have been invited to attend, and for 2019 the nature of the festival overall has evolved. Previous Burnpiles featured a token system to sell beer samples, but this year the festival has switched to an all-inclusive ticket that allows unlimited samples.

Burnpile 2019, Saturday, Oct. 12, Forestry Camp Bar and Restaurant, 10 Shady Oak Drive. Noon-6 p.m. VIP, 1-6 p.m. general admission. $40 music-only, $65 general admission, $110 VIP level one, $150 VIP level two. forestrycamp.com

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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