Hickory Really Hopped
By Bobby Bush
The timing just wasn't right. I'd tried over a year ago to organize a Hickory beer festival in late winter 2002, but found no one who shared my enthusiasm. This past fall, Steven Lyerly of Olde Hickory Brewery encouraged Downtown Hickory Development Agency head J.R. Steigerwald to attend the Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival. Held in late September, 2002, the 6th annual Asheville festival greeted nearly 2000 people on a cold, gray continually raining day. J.R. was duly impressed. But that was Asheville and Hickory is, well, Hickory.
But the wheels were in motion. A meeting called in January put the team together. We had J.R.'s organization skills and DHDA's financial support. Other key contributors included Olde Hickory Brewery owners Lyerly and Jason Yates as hometown anchors with much festival experience, singer/songwriter Bob Sinclair and OHB Tap Room manager Jennifer Simmons for musical entertainment, Gotham Advertising for promotion and me for the beer, er, for my friendship with many brewers in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia. Tom Rutledge of the Knoxville Brewers Jam also provided valuable consultation.
The concept evolved quickly, though planning and arrangements continued almost until fest day. The name, Hickory Hops, was an obvious choice. Logos, poster, website, it was all coming together in a most professional manner. Meanwhile, as J.R. lined up tents, porta-toilets, trash cans, staging and a hundred other things, I called the brewers to follow up on an invitation that was mailed in mid-March.
As one of the first beer fests of the season, excitement among usually unexcitable brewers was high. Many enthusiastically accepted. Others had to study their calendars. Believe it or not, from spring through autumn, with only a few exceptions, there's a beer festival almost every weekend within driving distance of Hickory. So brewers choose their fests carefully.
And what a representative field we had. Two brewpubs from eastern Tennessee: Rocky River (Sevierville) and Smoky Mountain (Gatlinburg). A trio of microbreweries from South Carolina: the newly reopened R.J. Rockers (Spartanburg), New South (Myrtle Beach) and Thomas Creek (Greenville). Two sizeable microbreweries from Atlanta, Dogwood and SweetWater, both had just started selling their bottled beers in the area. And eleven, including OHB, brewpubs and micros from all over our own state: Carolina Beer (Mooresville), Catawba Valley (Glen Alpine), French Broad River (Asheville), Highland (Asheville), The Mash House (Fayetteville), Red Oak (Greensboro), Rock Bottom (Charlotte), Top of the Hill (Chapel Hill), Williamsville (Farmville) and Weeping Radish (Manteo). What a line up! We were excited.
Brewers drove up to seven hours to meet fest goers and give their beer away at Hickory Hops. Those who arrived Friday evening were invited to a private brewers' party in my beer cellar basement. Food was provided by the OHB Tap Room and beer of all styles and potencies from all over the world came from my personal stash. The night was pure nirvana.
And for the festival, I've never been more proud of my hometown. Hickory beer drinkers and beer curious, escorted by their designated drivers, turned out in droves, estimated at between 800 and 1,000. Like I've seen at over 75 other festivals, the crowd was well-behaved, sincerely interested in discovering new beer sensations. With live music from start to finish - Bob Sinclair Band, Sons of Ralph, Cigar Store Indians - and local food vendors, there was a friendly, family-oriented, we're-just-here-for-a-good-time atmosphere. After five days of miserably wet weather, the sunny day brought out the best in everyone.
Though there were a few last minute snafus to contend with, noticed only by organizers and brewers, the show went without a major hitch. Praise flowed from all quarters. "The most fun I've ever had in downtown Hickory," was one unsolicited comment that I appreciated.
So did downtown merchants and restaurateurs. We're not Asheville, but downtown Hickory is moving towards that same kind of cool.
Mark your calendars, the 2nd annual Hickory Hops is less than 12 months away, April 3, 2004!!!! Cheers.
We'd love to hear your comments and criticisms about Hickory Hops. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush