By Bobby Bush
Beer is roughly 94% water. At the 6th annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival that percentage was just a little bit higher. From start to finish, a steady rain - hard at times - lubricated the Asheville gathering almost as much as the craft-brewed beer did.
In any other city - except maybe Portland, Oregon where dampness is the lifestyle - this type of gray, rainy day would have practically squashed the festivities. Rain gear, umbrellas, plastic bags and boots were the voluntary uniform, as over 1,500 people filed through the gates at Pack Square, right in the hub of this eclectic, active mountain town.
Organizers Doug Beatty and Jimmy Rentz, co-owners of Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria, had a great line-up of breweries, 31 in all, on hand for the six hour party. As expected, North Carolina was well represented with 13 breweries, and their brewers, on hand to greet the masses. From just a few blocks away (Highland, Green Man, French Broad River and Asheville Pizza and Brewery) to Kill Devil Hills (Outer Banks Brewing Station, in its first Asheville fest), a who's who of Tarheel breweries were stationed beneath tents along the square's perimeter. From Greenville (Blue Ridge, Kind Ales and Thomas Creek) to Myrtle Beach (New South) with Spartanburg (R.J. Rockers) in between, five came from South Carolina. Eastern Tennessee made a good showing with three (Smoky Mountain, Rocky River and Sophisticated Otter from Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Johnson City, respectively) as did Georgia with the Atlanta trio of Sweetwater, Dogwood and Atlanta Brewing. From southern Louisiana, Abita was represented by their regionally distributed Turbodog and Purple Haze. Other regionals, scattered across the states from Maine (Allagash) to California (Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Mendocino) were also represented.
It truly was a gathering of great American beers, all exemplary in their own right. The Brewgrass fest holds no beer competition- there's no best of this or best of that. With nearly 100 to choose from, it's easy to cull out the bad ones (there weren't any) and nearly impossible to identify the extraordinary brews. Often asked "what's good?" by fellow festers, I always try to recommend a few. My personal faves this time included brewer Zach Hart's Oktoberfest and Schwarzbier from Mash House Brewpub in Fayetteville. Jonas Rembert, head brewer for French Broad River, who is trying to distinguish his small Asheville microbrewery from the pack by brewing distinctive continental European ales, has several stunning ales on tap. Marzen Oktoberfest was particularly flavorful, as was the port-like In Flander's Field Brown Ale. Lemongrass Wheat Ale from Outer Bank was an intriguing light drink. On the hoppy side, there was the consistently great Cottonwood Endo IPA from Carolina Beer in Mooresville; Sweetwater IPA from Atlanta; Shiva IPA from Asheville Pizza and others. And on the rich malty side of the scale, memorable beers include the chewy Charlie's Barley, made with four different malted barleys made by T.L. Adkisson at Ham's Brewhouse in Greenville, NC and Thomas Creek's impressive Dopplebock.
Hell, there were just too many to try. And too many distractions. Tempting food was available from Barley's, The Golden Horn, Freeman's BBQ and Zambra. And don't forget the music - that's the other half of Brewgrass fun. As we waited in the rain soaked line for our wrist bands, Steep Canyon Rangers kicked off the five band revue. From Switzerland, the Kruger Brothers were next with their traditional American folk and bluegrass sounds, followed by cross-genre banjoist Tony Trischka and his Bluegrass Band. (Both of these acts had been booked for last year's festival but had to cancel due to the 9/11 tragedy just a few days earlier). Traditionalists Blue Rooster made their 7:00 curtain call, but by 8:00 the wind started lifting beer tents off the ground. Rain pelted torrentially as nearly everyone sought shelter with the brewers beneath flailing tents. Spirits remained jovial, even as officials, fearful of lightning bolts overhead, were forced to stop the festival half-an-hour early. That meant newly-formed group High Windy, scheduled to close the show, was not allowed to perform. Spooked by the ominous weather, High Windy became Dark Ridge as the soaked crowd dispersed, wet, smiling and satisfied by another successful Brewgrass Festival.
See www.BeerSouth.com for a photo scrapbook of this and other Southern beer festivals.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush