From the dual 30-barrel brewhouses of Hi-Wire Brewing to Oyster House Brewing Co.’s 5-barrel system, plenty of variety will be on display at the annual Beer City Festival downtown on Saturday, May 28. True to the range of liquid creativity set to pour at each booth, the ways in which each brewery prepares for the event and how their beers will be shared are just as unique.
Taps from the van
Now that its Big Top facility is in full swing, and its original South Slope brewery has been converted to specialize in sour and wild beer, what will Hi-Wire bring to the festival?
“Maybe some sort of quintuple-hopped imperial session pawpaw ale shot from a cannon through a fiery ring and into cognac barrels that were locked inside of the trunk of a clown car for 18 months as it traveled around the country visiting side show after side show,” says beer juggler Chris McLain. “Probably not, but I can say we will have a fun selection.”
McLain makes his Beer City Fest plans a couple of weeks in advance. He decides how much to bring based on the festival’s predicted turnout, the availability of the beer itself and what he thinks people are going to want to drink, which, he says, is the most difficult aspect to determine. “I look to cover all bases with our selection of beers. I want to be able to pique everyone’s interest and not turn away someone who has been waiting in line to drink something light and refreshing only to find we are featuring stouts exclusively or something silly like that,” he says.
For a brewery like Hi-Wire with a distribution footprint that extends throughout North Carolina and into South Carolina and Tennessee, McLain finds it important to share not only small-batch beers, but also something consumers may find with some sort of regularity. “It can be a bit of a bummer to sample that one really great beer that you will never see again because it was only available at the festival,” he says. “We want to show people we can make great beer consistently.”
Whatever winds up on the menu will be dispensed directly from taps off the side of a company van. (“It’s really popular in bad traffic and for tailgating,” McLain jokes.) The goal is to run out of product at the very end of the festival, but if supplies dwindle early, returning to the brewery for replenishments would mean taking the mobile pour station with them. Instead, the Hi-Wire crew looks to stay the course and revel in an event that supports Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC.
“The beer is great, but it’s also about community,” McLain says. “I’m of the mindset that it takes a community to build a brewery and not the other way around, so when we can get together as a group of breweries and give something back, that’s just wonderful.”
The traveling beer engine
When it comes to the special casks that he’ll take to the festival, Oyster House head brewer and owner Billy Klingel strategizes well in advance. As with Hi-Wire’s selections, festivalgoers will have to swing by the Oyster House tent to see what’s available, but what is clear is the apparatus that will be dispensing these ales: the traveling beer engine.
“Originally it was just a box — I called it a ‘shroud’ because I would put it over my jockey box so you couldn’t see that it was a cooler. Then after having [the two cask hand pumps on the Oyster House bar], I fell in love with the beer engine,” Klingel says.
Following this newfound interest, Klingel purchased an Angram counter-mount model that required drilling a hole in a foundational base as opposed to clamping it on the bar like the two in-house pumps. By that point, he’d already procured a new jockey box that looked good enough without a shroud, so he decided to combine the two components. “The first go-round was a little rough because the torque, when you’re pulling on it, the whole box wants to move. So now we travel with two heavy bricks and weight it down,” Klingel says. “Everyone should have a traveling beer engine.”
Of the four tap lines running through the jockey box that Klingel will also bring to the festival, one will be occupied by the brewery’s flagship Moonstone Oyster Stout. What will flow through its three neighbors, however, will largely depend on the volume of the walk-in cooler that Saturday morning and the needs of the West Asheville brewpub itself. “Come the time of Beer City Fest, and this place is rocking and rolling and we’re full outside and we’re full inside, a batch of Galaxy IPA might last for eight days. So, selfishly, you’ve got to think about this place before anything else,” Klingel says.
Festival organizers want each participating brewery to bring upward of 4 half-barrels (which translates to two kegs of each of the four offerings), but in Klingel’s seven years of pouring at the event, he can only point to one time when a quarter-barrel of a single Oyster House beer wasn’t sufficient. With that history, he doubts he’ll run out of product and can instead enjoy seeing old friends and making new acquaintances at what’s by far his favorite local beer festival.