Brews On Buckeye – A Craft Beer Event Where Craft Beer Takes A Back Seat To Fun
Kokomo is a bit of a craft beer mystery town. Half Moon Brewing and Restaurant has been there several years and is very successful, and Tin Man Kokomo is enjoying success with its recent opening as well. But other attempts to populate the town with craft beer drinkers have been less successful. Craft beer bars and breweries (District Marketplace and Brass Monkey) closed not too long after they opened (2008) and the majority of bars in the city are straight AB-InBev kinds of places.
I remember a beer festival in Kokomo about 8-9 years ago that was poorly attended and distributor-driven. It didn’t last more than a year or two, and it wasn’t until 2015 that another was attempted. Yet this history is juxtaposed against a thriving home brewing scene (Howard County Home Brewing Club), boasting a former IBC best in show winner (Larry Barnhart) who sells home brewing stuff out of the back of his cyclery (Back Alley Brewing). They have community brew days, and collaborate with people and businesses for beers.
Therefore, it’s hard to get a hand on Kokomo as craft beer town. Half Moon Brewing is one of the best restaurants in the city, so can you say that it’s the beer that brings the people in? Tin Man Kokomo is doing only one brew day per week as of now, but they have popular Tin Man beers and are doing riffs on those beers with Kokomo water, so people are slowly learning to appreciate local beer. But the Hi-Mark has lasted for sixty years or more, so ultra cold mega-beer in iced mugs is still the staple of the town.
It is against this backdrop that the third annual Brews on Buckeye event took place last Saturday in downtown Kokomo. The downtown itself has rarely looked better, with redone streets and lots of esthetic redevelopment. It looks like Kokomo is moving forward with building and trying to lure people back to the downtown area. A couple of the features that are bringing people to the square are The Coterie and The Wildcat, a higher end bar and a restaurant, respectively, that occupy the first second and first floors of a building on the south side of the courthouse square.
Owned by a group of individuals, Kyle Gibson is the one that decided it was time to bring a festival to downtown to help with the revitalization. Kyle has long ties to the Kokomo area; he started bartending at The Hacienda years ago before he ran a nightclub called The Social for several years. Then Kyle expanded his duties and responsibilities when the opportunity to bring a hip cocktail/craft beer bar to Kokomo was presented to him.
The Coterie has a sophisticated feel with a down home attitude. The high-end cocktails come with a good dose of Kokomo friendliness. The Coterie is also a craft beer bar, with a strict policy of serving beer only Indiana craft breweries and which has a nice rotation of different styles throughout the year.
It was this emphasis on local craft beer and craft cocktails that convinced Kyle to start up a festival again in 2015. The first iteration of Brews on Buckeye ran from 5 pm to midnight (way too long) so there was a learning curve from which Kyle has, and continues, to benefit. The 2017 version ran from 5 pm (VIP) or 6 pm (GA) to 10 pm, but the music and dancing carried on a bit longer. Kyle told me has had the same team together for a couple of years now, and they work together very well. It made this third edition run smoothly; Kyle even had time to gab before the festival. He acknowledges that this, and festival itself, wouldn’t have been possible without this great team of co-workers.
The location, on Buckeye Street next to the old railroad depot (redone and home to Tin Man Kokomo), was an excellent linear space with brick on the street and verticals that made from a very insular feel and provided wall space for the light show later at night. There are several restaurants are on Buckeye, so the food options, which also included some food trucks (The Local BBQ had great pulled pork nachos), were plentiful. The music bounced off the brick walls on both sides of the street and helped to turn Buckeye Street into quite the outdoor dance club/bar.
And here is Brews on Buckeye really managed to knock the ball out of the park – rarely have Walter and I seen people having so much fun at a festival. Craft beer festivals are often about the beer; tasting, discussing, talking to the brewers – but here, the beer seemed to take a back seat to unabashed glee. The DJ helped; the fact that nine of the booths were actually craft distilleries helped; even the skateboard park within the festival helped. People were bouncing, dancing, drinking, singing, talking, eating – a very nice sight.
The breweries on hand represented some of the strongest in the state, and this is where Walter and I disagreed a bit. When I see something like 18th Street Brewing with no line – and they had the Hunter no less – I say to myself that here is a town that still needs some education. The three beers that Goshen Brewing brought were fantastic (an imperial strawberry saison, a traditional hefeweizen, and an Azacca NE IPA) – they won the beer day hand down. Yet Goshen found it easy to keep up with their crowd as well. And it wasn’t because there was a sparse crowd.
The event was very well attended, and the pouring was consistently active through out the entire festival. It’ just like people found other things to do than stand in line for another beer sample. Devil’s Trumpet and Triton seemed to be fan favorites – the Make It A Cheeseburger and the Mango Barn Phantom had good receptions. Deer Creek brought a nice selection that mimicked their Microbrewer’s Fest tap list. They had a maibock, a saison, and an imperial red; pretty heady stuff for a mid-summer festival and perhaps beyond the reach of many of the attendees. But that was just the thing, everyone was just so happy with whatever they had – the dump buckets went largely unused on this Saturday.
That isn’t to say everything was perfect; Brews on Buckeye still has things to learn – as does every festival. Number one – disposable plastic cups for samples are a non-starter, although the public brick street did mean that glass was going to be difficult to work with. Plastic imparts a taste and smell as you sample the beer (residual volatiles in the plastic), the beer doesn’t stay cold as long because your hand warms the plastic faster, and the version used in Kokomo broke way too easily. The slightest pressure on the sides resulted in cracks. It’s not that Walter and I need another set of glasses to add to our festival collection, but the investment in a nice sampler glass (not those hideous mini-mugs that are way too small at the lip) can help people remember the festival or can be used to advertise a sponsor. However, this is the third year that Kyle has used the plastic and perhaps this is one of the rare festivals where it doesn’t really matter what the beer is served in.
The second problem was with the portalets; not their number, but their location. The restroom facilities were located down a short side street – no big deal – but separating the festival attendees from the bathrooms was a temporary skateboard park, complete with ramps, bars, and early twenties guys moving way faster than comfortable. Walter had to run the gauntlet a few hours into the festival. She hugged the wall as she moved down the street, like a spy in a bad cold war movie. When she got to the porta potties, she could only open the door a few inches to keep from injury the riders, and then she had problems washing her hands afterward since the plastic sinks were located at the end of one of the obstacles.
Me? I used the restroom inside Tin Man Kokomo. It’s good to have inside knowledge, I avoided Tony Hawk and his cohorts completely. Brews on Buckeye get points for ingenuity with respect to bringing skateboarders for entertainment, but the positioning could be rethought for next year. Yet, the skateboards were not the last of the creative ideas for the festival.
One of those things was a rather ingenious booth set up by Fade Salon on Buckeye Street. Located next to the Quaff On! Brewing van, Danny Gold had an extra helping of people to pour for, made even more interesting since he was the only person working the Quaff On! taps. The Common Necessity coffee hazelnut stout flowed out the side of their green van while people watched shiny speckles, wild colors, or crazy up-dos being administered next door. Free shaves and dos did a lot to enliven the festival. Kyle’s business partner Dustin Ogle and Dustin’s wife Lindsey run Fade, and Kyle lets them go with whatever they want to do for the festival – this year the color-dyed beards with glitter were a big hit.
I guess this is one of the best pieces of evidence that Brews on Buckeye is less of a craft beer festival and more of a block party with good beer. Seth West, one of the volunteer pourers for the breweries, spent just as much time singing with the patrons as he did pouring beer. Everyone seemed to be just as much about the atmosphere and camaraderie as the beer. The light show delivered by Herm Productions in Indianapolis as the sun set and into the night did much to promote the street party atmosphere.
Anecdotally, one can also see the dichotomy of Brews on Buckeye on the internet. Even Microbrewer’s or Winterfest don’t match the number of people posting on Facebook about how much fun they had at the festival, yet when I recorded our tasters on UnTappd a day later, very few check-ins were made from the festival. Again, it shows the relatively lack of craft beer nerdiness at the festival juxtaposed against a plain, old fashioned, really fun time.
It makes it hard for me, a guy who derives a lot of his fun from the beer itself, to reconcile this situation. It’s much easier for Walter. Sure, she likes and knows the beer, but she likes people, music, and social outings more. As a couple we represent both sides of this festival. I guess that is my problem and I just have to expand my definitions of how to have fun with craft beer.
The success of Brews on Buckeye was something that will probably be seen in the money till once all the bills are paid, but the best signs of its success and future were on the faces of the attendees. Be on the look out for notices of the 2018 version of Brews on Buckeye – it’s guaranteed to be a party. The beer is better than just good, but the atmosphere and party make the day. Perhaps a festival like this could only be done in a town that is an enigma when it comes to craft beer; there were things for both the beer geek and the extremely casual fan.