By Bobby Bush
The history of Asheville' Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival, which just held its 7th run, is storied. In 2000, two weeks before due date, the festival was forced by drought conditions to relocate from a comfortable football stadium to City County Plaza, a central downtown park with a dearth of restrooms. Somehow the crowd survived with only six porta-toilets.
And then in 2001, with plenty of well-placed outhouses, disaster struck the nation just four days prior to the appointed date of Brewgrass #5, September 15. With quick thinking and help from the local Red Cross, organizers Doug Beatty and Jimmy Rentz, co-owners of Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria and sponsors of the fest, decided that the show must go on. Several of the bluegrass bands scheduled to perform were unable to fly, so local groups filled in the void. It was a somber show that helped instill a degree of normalcy.
2002 saw another unexpected move for the festival, because another group booked the Plaza. Even though it was just up the hill, right in the center of town around the obelisk and pool of Pack Square, the new quarters were cramped and exposed. A pounding downpour of rain did little to slow the determined crowd, which demonstrated true Asheville spirit in spite of the weather. Raincoats, umbrellas and wet t-shirts were the garments of necessity. Once again, the show went on as planned.
One only had to pause for a second to consider what Mother Nature, the City or terrorists had in store for 2003. Good planning and good luck brought a sunny day with friendly blue skies on September 13. Back in the comfortable City County Park, with abundant plastic portable johns parked at convenient locations, the show was ready to go when the gates opened promptly at 1:00. Five bands, four food vendors and 33 breweries did their best to entertain the sold-out crowd of 2,500 people.
With most of the South's best breweries on hand, accompanied by a nice array of regionals - Sierra Nevada, North Coast and Rogue included - it's impossible to have favorites at a fest of this magnitude. Some of the more memorable brews came from Asheville's French Broad River (two Belgian style lambics), Carolina Beer's Mooresville-brewed Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale, King Don's Pumpkin Ale from Catawba Valley Brewing (Glen Alpine) and Outer Banks Brewing Station (Kill Devil Hills, NC) with four distinctive pleasers: Olsch, Lemongrass, Rollakin' Rye Stout and Ryed the Tied. Other tasty and interesting beers included My Favorite Martian (a German-style Marzen) from RJ Rockers, Spartanburg, SC; Ham's Schwarzbier from Greenville, NC; Atlanta's Dogwood Oktoberfest Lager; New South (Myrtle Beach) White Ale; Sophisticated Otter Porter (brewed after the flood in Johnson City, TN); St. George (Hampton, VA, a new brewery at the fest) English-style IPA; hometown brewery Highland's Mocha Stout; Asheville Pizza's hoppy Shiva IPA; Greenville, SC's Blue Ridge Foothills Pilsner; Thomas Creek (a Greenville, SC micro) Vanilla Cream Ale; Sevierville, TN's Rocky River Brewing's Copperhead Red; Sweetwater (Atlanta) Blue, a popular berry fest beer; Red Oak from Greensboro; Mash House's award-winning IPA from Fayetteville, NC; Weeping Radish (Manteo, NC) Oktoberfest; McGuire's Irish brewpub ESB (representative Daryn Morain also brought along some delicious homebrew); First Coast (a.k.a. Williamsville from Farmville, NC) Amelia Ale; Kind Ale Porter and Pale Ale (brewed under contract by RJ Rockers); Olde Hickory Ruby Lager and Piedmont Pilsner served from mini-kegs and Moon River, from Savannah, with IPA and Belgian Wit. And that's just what I remember! Thirty-three brewing entities serving over 110 different beers are enough for anyone and everyone.
There's nothing a brewer loves more than taking empty kegs home. That means his or her beers were well received. And besides, they're easier to carry. A handful of brewers were beer-less before sunset, but most had something to serve until last call.
Nothing can stop and nothing can top Asheville's annual Brewgrass Festival.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush