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Great Smokies Brewgrass Festival 1998

September, 1998

By Bobby Bush

Asheville’s early morning gray skies loomed ominously. The forecast, in spite of two months of drought, did not sound good. But blue skies and warm temperatures prevailed as the 2nd Annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Invitational Brewgrass Festival opened promptly at 2:00 on September 19.

Before the gates of the ballpark at Martin Luther King Park were locked at 9:00 that night, several thousand thirsty and curious beer patrons would carouse among 31 breweries, sampling over 100 different beers from nine states. A even dozen breweries hailed from the host state, with Williamsville Brewing driving all the way from Wilmington, NC. South Carolina presented the wares of four breweries. Georgia, neighboring Tennessee and distant California each were represented by three breweries. Other long distance winners were Rogue from Newport, Oregon and Catamount from Windsor, Vermont. All the beer tents were staffed by knowledgeable and enthusiastic brewery employees.

The entire show was well run by co-directors Doug Beatty and Mike Neel, owners of Barley’s Taproom, an excellent Asheville beer bar. Able assistance was provided by veteran festival organizer Tyrone Irby. As Beatty and Neel put it so succinctly in their program notes: “Barley’s Taproom has been at the forefront of developing Western North Carolina and the surrounding area’s draught beer market, so it seemed natural for us to sponsor a beer festival.” To add meaning to pleasure, a portion of the proceeds were designated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Festival sponsors include Barley’s, Highland Brewing, Carolina Beer Company and others.

Amidst all the brewery tents was one not belonging to any single brewery. The Kolsch Tent, as it was called, was an experiment of sorts. All three Asheville breweries- Highland, Two Moons Brew-N-View and Green Man -collaborated on a single recipe. Each brewer, John Lyda, Doug Riley and Jonas Rembert respectively, worked with the same recipe and ingredients to brew a German-style ale called Kolsch. Originating in Koln, Germany during the early 1900s, this lilting ale requires cold, slow fermentation, producing a hybrid lager-like ale with a subtly complex flavor and sharp hops kick, mostly due to Czech Saaz hops, the same type used to give a Pilsner lager its charge. Though each brewer followed identical directions, these three “identical” brews exhibited some differences, providing a topic for lively discussing and tasting note comparisons. Green Man’s version, named ingeniously Green Man Kolsch, was lighter than the other two, mostly due to a small problem in mashing. The Highland King’s Kolsch was full of flavor, pleasantly gold, while Two Moon’s Sunshine Kolsch presented a winey snap which quickly evolved into a smooth presentation. This may have been the first attempt in America to brew clone beers at several breweries. A similar attempt was made in Portland, OR not too long ago, but brewers were permitted to use their house yeast, rather than a yeast culture common to all.

Beer occasionally took a backseat at the fest, but only temporarily. A nice selection of food was available from tents hosted by Mountain Smokehouse BBQ, Salsa Mexican Caribbean Restaurant, Jack of the Wood Brew Pub (affiliated with Green Man) and Barley’s. From pizza to smoky BBQed meats to vegetarian and salmon burritos and subs, there was no reason to go hungry. Bottled water was free, dispensed by Castle Springs.

And the music, well what’s a Brewgrass festival without bluegrass? The show opened with local favs Michael Reno Harrell, Second Strings, and The Greasy Beans. Punkish bluegrass jokers The Bad Livers, an Austin, Texas phenomenon, created a buzz of excitement in the attentive crowd gathered before the stage. The night cap, Norman Blake, with just his guitar and epic original and timeless traditional tunes, kept that audience captivated.

Starting with the private Brewers’ BBQ the previous night, this was one fine, fun festival. I can’t wait to see the improvements they make for the 3rd Annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Invitational Brewgrass Festival next year. Hope to see you there.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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