Plenty of good beer: Making sense of Charlottesville’s growing brew festival circuit

Drew Craft keeps the focus on local brews at the Know Good Beer festival. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto. Drew Craft keeps the focus on local brews at the Know Good Beer festival. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto.

Life was so simple when there was only one beer festival. Top of the Hops descended on the Pavilion in the fall, you put on your pretzel necklace and tried a bunch of good craft beer you’d never had before. Your liver had 364 days to recover.

Then came Know Good Beer (KGB), first held at the McGuffey Art Center last spring. Again there were pretzel necklaces. Again there was a lot of good beer. But there was one key difference. The event was locally produced. And on January 24, the local crew and their non-profit sponsor WNRN will make C’ville’s festival pint glass even fuller by rolling out the Sibeerian Express at the Ix Art Park.

The KGB train all started during happy hour, according to aptly named festival founder Drew Craft. “I liked Top of the Hops as a volunteer for different local breweries, but it seemed like they weren’t being as recognized as they should be,” Craft said. “So I liked the idea of doing something on a smaller scale for a smaller crowd and letting the smaller breweries really stand out.”

In its defense, Top of the Hops doesn’t exactly ignore the locals. When the guys at Red Mountain Entertainment in Birmingham, Alabama, started the festival five years ago, they contacted Mark Thompson at Starr Hill Brewery so he could give them the lay of the land. They’ve since gotten to know other local breweries and distributors. The idea, according to Red Mountain representative Jay Wilson, is to take something with a decidedly regional bent—Red Mountain has done about 25 beer festivals in six cities across the South in the last five years—and give it a sense of community.

“For every beer fest, we start with the distributors and challenge them to come up with an interesting list of beers,” Wilson said. “We don’t paint by numbers or take the easy way out. We try to uncover the new and unique.”

Wilson said he and his colleagues, who are concert promoters by trade, started doing beer festivals for much the same reason Craft got into the game: They went to another beer event and had a blast. The Charlottesville Top of the Hops has been produced in close contact with the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, Wilson said, and Red Mountain would like to keep it going for as long “as people keep having fun and want to try new beer.”

Craft and the KGB crew take the opposite tack; they’re local first and then reach out to regional and national producers. While about half of the 60 taps at the spring KGB were from this area, the Sibeerian Express will be around 90 percent local, Craft said. Some of the standouts of the upcoming fest are likely to be a Three Notch’d-Devils Backbone collaboration known as Hysteria (a hoppy brown wheat ale), Champion’s Habanero Missile IPA, Hardywood’s Raspberry Stout, Beach Brewing’s Hoptopus IPA and Lickinghole Creek’s Black Bear Russian Imperial Stout.

“I think there is a way to highlight the local beer community and still bring in the national labels that people want to see,” Craft said.

The question of whether the Charlottesville beer market can support multiple festivals going forward is certainly an open one. Craft admitted the response to the idea of a beer festival in the dead of winter has been mixed—some people said it was crazy—but at the same time, he expects ticket sales to be around the 500 mark, just shy of the spring numbers.

“Besides sitting at home and watching the Pro Bowl, I don’t see much else going on that weekend,” Craft said. “Here’s a great opportunity to pay [less than] Top of the Hops and have access to some great beers.” (KGB tickets are $30 advance/$35 door.)

Craft said he’s worked with nTelos Wireless Pavilion general manager Kirby Hutto to make sure no beer festival scheduling conflicts arise if Top of the Hops decides to put on a spring event, and he’s even looked into the possibility of moving his festival to the Pavilion. That won’t be happening anytime soon, though, as Top of the Hops has a non-compete clause in place that won’t allow the venue to host other beer festivals.

For now, Craft thinks the Ix Park will provide the ideal location for his winter festiv-ale. A large tent, sized based on ticket sales, is ready to go in, and local music acts are primed to take the stage. Craft hinted that a major national rock band is also committed to the schedule but stopped short of naming names. “They’re going to play a pop up set, but we can’t publicize it yet,” he said.

Hopefully, the beer will be enough of a draw.

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