Editor’s note: Due to complications stemming from Hurricane Florence, the 22nd annual Brewgrass Festival has been rescheduled for Saturday, Oct. 27, at Salvage Station. Read about the organizers’ decision here.
A lot has happened to Asheville and its beer scene since the city hosted the inaugural Brewgrass craft beer festival in 1996.
At the time, Highland Brewing Co. was the lone local brewery, and Brewgrass — initially known as the Great Smokies Craft Brewers Invitational — was the only local festival showcase for the growing Southeastern craft beer scene. Today, breweries are booming in Asheville and around Western North Carolina, and there’s no shortage of beer festivals.
Brewgrass, which returns Saturday, Sept. 15, to Memorial Stadium, remains a major Asheville beer celebration. Attendance is expected to be 1,500-2,000, according to Abby Dickinson, who is helping organize the event.
Most attendees will be from Asheville and WNC, but she says she also anticipates some visitors from surrounding cities such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, Greenville, S.C., and from eastern Tennessee.
Guests will again find a wide array of alcoholic craft beverages from more than 40 breweries, cider makers and even producers of mead wine. Also on tap will be food and bluegrass music by Acoustic Syndicate, Mountain Heart and the Songs From the Road Band. Food vendors are Mojo Kitchen, Luella’s Bar-B-Q, the Root Down food truck and Cecila’s Kitchen.
But there will also be some changes this year, both visible and behind the scenes. Jimi Rentz, the longtime Brewgrass producer, has stepped back, turning over day-to-day duties to others. Rentz will remain a Brewgrass partner, along with Eddie Dewey and Danny McClinton, and this year they are joined by Joe Baker, who is also a partner in Yee Haw Brewing Co. of Johnson City, Tenn.
Rentz, however, remains “the godfather of Brewgrass,” says Dewey. “It’s very important for him to be involved as someone who understands why it was created and what it is.”
Wicked Weed Brewing Co., which has not participated in recent years, will be back for 2018. And for the first time, the Asheville Brewers Alliance will share the festival proceeds along with longtime beneficiary Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Western North Carolina. According to Dickinson, the latter organization will provide 40 or more volunteers for the event.
In another change, there will not be shuttles to haul visitors up to Memorial Stadium. Since parking is very limited near the entrance, the public is urged to use a taxi or ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Additional tweaks are being considered regarding music and food offerings for 2019, but Dewey notes that nothing has been finalized.
“We need new energy and new focus,” Dewey says. “What made a beer festival successful years ago is a lot different than what makes a beer festival successful today. Craft beer has changed in the last 20 years. We have to reinvent the experience, how folks want to enjoy beer. We have to make it more interesting. We have to appeal to a new generation.”
As such, Dewey says Brewgrass is looking to have a more “robust” music lineup in 2019. While the event “will always be focused toward bluegrass,” it will also embrace other genres.
To pep up the beer line for 2018, seven breweries will bring out brand-new creations or release new batches of prized beers, which will first be available at Brewgrass. Businesses with exclusive offerings are Wedge Brewing Co., French Broad River Brewery, Nantahala Brewing Co., Asheville Brewing Co., Green Man Brewery and Bhramari Brewing Co. Also in that group is Hillman Beer, offering its Four Fat Baby Belgian-style Quad, which took a bronze medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
“It’s a special beer, and we wanted to showcase it [at Brewgrass],” says Hillman co-founder Brad Hillman. “It’s great to see the community and all of our supporters, and we want to get in front of new people that haven’t had a chance to try our beer.”
The 2018 Brewgrass will be Hillman Beer’s second time at the festival. The brewery pours at only a handful of such gatherings each year. “I think beer festivals need to focus more on releasing new things or re-releasing older beer and making [events] more special,” Hillman says.
Though numerous beer festivals have come and gone in the past 22 years on the local and regional scenes, Brewgrass has endured. Mike Rangel, president of Asheville Brewing and interim director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, which represents local breweries and beer-related businesses, believes that the festival has also played a key role in Asheville’s emergence as a major beer destination.
“Brewgrass is one of the reasons that Asheville became Beer City,” says Rangel, whose brewery will release a Norwegian farmhouse IPA, made with yeast from Norway, at the event and debut the dry Brutgrass IPA. “It’s almost like homecoming weekend.”
Festivalgoers can bring lawn chairs, but must leave pets and outside alcohol at home. Service animals can be admitted. Organizers also recommend that attendees consider bringing hats, sunscreen and cash to buy food or souvenirs.
WHAT: 22nd annual Brewgrass Festival
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Asheville. brewgrassfestival.com
WHEN: 1-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. Tickets are $125 for VIP, $45 for general admission in advance. Day-of general admission is $65. Safe-driver (no alcohol) tickets are $25 at the gate.