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Great Southern Beer Fest

August, 2001

By Bobby Bush

When is a beer festival not a beer festival? Seemingly a simple question, let’s examine the situation in light of the recent Great Southern Beer Festival.

Organizers had almost everything in place for this first time fest in Memphis. They’d secured Mud Island River Park, an island-bound recreation area with ample space and a 5000-seat amphitheater. Entertainment for this late August fest was top notch. Two side stages gave emerging groups, such as Pepper’s Ghost and Swinging Lovehammers, a platform. Over 30 groups provided music during the fest’s three day run. Main stage headliners for Friday were Cheap Trick and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. Saturday’s bill was topped by The Radiators and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, while Sunday’s line-up was stellar with John Hiatt, Buddy Guy and blues legend B.B. King. Good seats were easy to obtain in the general admission show.

Unfortunately, good beers were not as plentiful. Sponsor Budweiser’s beers were everywhere. The Beer Garden, a short walk from the amphitheater, was where the “beer festival” beers were sold. An ID-check plastic bracelet and $5 bought one of 75 or so bottled (only) beers. Sample tastes were not offered. Beer selections included the standard Beck’s, Fosters, Guinness, Corona, St. Pauli Girl import ilk along with Fat Tire Amber from New Belgium (Ft. Collins, CO), Samuel Adams, Pete’s Wicked and several Sierra Nevada brands (Chico, CA), all produced by regional brewers of note. That’s it for “micros.” And nowhere a sign of a craft-brewed beer - such as Cottonwood, Highland, Dogwood or Sweetwater - from the Southern states. For their own reasons, Memphis brewpubs Boscos (with two locations), Hops and Gordon Biersch chose not to participate in the GSBF.

This was the first domestic beer festival that I’ve been to (in over ten years) where payment was required for each beer, though many have used purchased wooden nickels or tickets for each sample. And it was the first fest for me with only bottled beer. And worst of all, it was a first time fest with no locally produced beer.

The weather was torrid, blasting hot and steaming humid. While temperature and humidity are uncontrollable variables, there must be a reason, as a Memphis resident complained, why outdoor events are infrequently held in July and August.

Besides the great music line-up there were other positives as well. On Saturday, the local homebrewers club, Bluff City Brewers, held a homebrewers competition. Under the shade of their own tent, plied by a generous supply of free beer, homebrewers and an appreciative audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. Jay Sadler of Nashville won best of show with his 70 Shilling Scottish Ale. If only the Bluff City Brewers had brought enough beer for all three days.

Budweiser set up their triple wide beer school trailers, providing a history of beer and free samples of A-B products. And there was a plentiful abundance of food served by local vendors. Merchants sold tie-dyed clothing and hand-crafted jewelry. Just NO hand-crafted beer.

The biggest disappointment to promoters worked in favor of those in attendance. The crowd was marginal, only 11,000 spread over three days, nowhere near the tens of thousands expected. So, beer, bathrooms, food, everything was easily attainable, though certain bottle brands became scarce as B.B. King wailed away in Sunday’s closing set. From all outward appearances, this GSBF had all the makings of a truly great show - location, organization, security, punctual schedule - except for beer (meaning real microbrewed beer) and people. Hopefully next year’s Memphis fest will put more emphasis on beer.

So, when is a beer festival not a beer festival? You probably have a clue by now. Find more GSBF photos at www.BeerSouth.com and festival information at www.thegreatsouthernbeerfestival.com.

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

© Bobby Bush

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