Muncie Brewfest Highlights The ‘Art’ Of Craft Beer
Walter and I have been to a bunch (stretch that word out in your mind for emphasis) of craft beer festivals, so it is always nice to see a new festival come along that creates it’s own niche; it has a strategy and a mission, and brings something new to the table. The inaugural (sort of) Muncie Brewfest taught us that everyone can be an innovator in craft beer, even event organizers.
The Brewfest was the brainchild of Jeff Robinson of the Cornerstone Center for the Arts and Ty Morton, a local craft beer guru. The recent explosion of craft breweries in Muncie had gotten people thinking about why there wasn’t a beer festival in town. With places like New Corner, The Guardian, Elm Street, and Wolve’s Head Brewing all within a couple of miles of each other and clustered around downtown, a festival was really a no brainer.
New festivals are often an educational experience for the townsfolk, especially when the local breweries are also new, but Muncie actually has a history of craft beer. That meant that a bit less education and generation of interest was needed in their case. Craft beer haunts like the Fickle Peach, The Heorot, and Savages have been around for years, so the locals knew craft beer even before the advent of the current brewery boom. We saw our nephew Abe at the festival Saturday and he doesn’t need a lesson in beer – he learned from Walter.
Ty had organized and put on a craft beer festival for Muncie as far back as 2009, when festivals were a much rarer bird. Those festivals (2009-2010) were successful, but Ty had found that they sort of plateaued in interest while costs were still climbing. He put the idea on hiatus for a while, and it stayed that way until he started getting questions from the local breweries and craft beer fans, “Hey, you use to run a festival here, whey not try again?”
One of these people happened to be his friend Jeff Robinson, the Director of Community Relations for the Cornerstone. This organization is a local public arts association that provides free or greatly reduced arts education for students of all ages in the Muncie ages. The have music classes, dance, painting, ceramics – over 100 different arts education opportunities for the community. Only 1/3 of their funding comes from grants, the other 2/3 must come from sustaining projects, including fundraising efforts. It can’t be overstated how important these rare fundraiser are, the center financially supports the study of more than 2300 students.
Jeff sees Cornerstone’s mission as one of promoting all the arts, of which he considers craft beer a definite example. If craft beer is an art form, and if Cornerstone needs fundraising opportunities, why not put the two together? The problems of finding a place to hold a craft beer festival disappear with Cornerstone’s involvement, so this seemed a perfect solution. And why not, The Guardian Brewing Co. is about to take up residence just across the street from Cornerstone in the Madjax Building. Maybe they can work some brewing classes into their arts curriculum.
After much work and planning, the Muncie Brewfest came to fruition this past Saturday. You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful space to hold the event – the Cornerstone Center is a former Masonic Temple, built in 1926 with money given by the Ball Brothers. Each floor has a large ballroom, and the auditorium is ornamented with a Gustav Brand mural. The renovations of the late 1990s, after the Ball Foundation purchased the building and donated it to Cornerstone, have preserved the original carpets, wall treatments, and woodwork. The building a is a masterpiece of Greek Revival architecture and Indiana craftsmanship.
Cornerstone has a lot of experience putting on events and it showed at the Brewfest. They host more than 150 affairs a year in the various ballrooms and open spaces of the center, many involving the Greek community at Ball State University. The Muncie Brewfest was held in two large halls on the third floor – the breweries on hand were split between the two rooms, with about half the breweries in each room. Outside these rooms, the food vendors and several Cornerstone artists were practicing their skills as well. The original murals, woodwork, and carpets in the Legacy Room and Great Hall added to the sense of art and history for the festival, and were more than big enough for the festival without feeling cavernous. Walter and I wandered around and drank to our hearts’ content, there was so much to look at and experience, but the beer never ran the risk of losing top billing.
The first niche that this festival decided to carve out for themselves was apparent by looking at the brewery list. Ty and Jeff are most interested in exposing people to central Indiana beers from breweries that don’t push much beer out the door. Places like Deer Creek Brewery, the four Muncie breweries, Half Moon Brewery & Restaurant from Kokomo, and Round Town in Indy – these are all breweries that are smaller and reflect the art-like nature of craft beer. No distribution issues and large area draws for these breweries. Like Cornerstone, they are local and want to stay and work local.
The intimate atmosphere and the limited number of tickets sold (this inaugural event cutoff tickets sales at 450) ensured that the event ran smoothly; no one likes it when breweries run out of beer or when the lines get too long. The brewers were on hand in almost every case to speak to the attendees and dispense a little beer knowledge. Elm Street Brewing brought a new, but very old beer. The Jericho Spur is a pre-Prohibition lager recipe that now joins the ranks of the several 1800s beer recipes no for sale in Indiana (see this article).
The Guardian Brewing Company (who had more people wearing their T-shirts than Taylor Swift does at one of her concerts) had a beer called Sweetie Pie Pale Stout, made with dozens of Mrs. Wicks Sugar Cream pies thrown right into the wort. It sounded interesting to say the least – it tasted amazing to say the truth. This was probably the hit of the festival, although Round Town’s Keep It Simcoe Stupid (K.I.S.S.) IPA and Deer Creek’s Nickel Plate Apricot Wheat were also big pourers. Besides that, Walter was so glad that Triton Brewing brought the Barn Phantom Gose – she thinks everyone should drink that beer.
Since this was a fundraiser for the Cornerstone Center for the Arts and their student artists, they brought out some instructors to demonstrate their skills. There was a graffiti artist doing Muncie Brewfest posters, a nice gentlemen throwing clay on a wheel who was very happy to talk about how to get into pottery without a big investment, while painter Patricia Kreigh pumped out several painting in just a few hours. Patricia was very philosophical about her presence; it didn’t matter how many people came over and talked (although many did). Artists help set the mood and created an atmosphere that promoted the arts. The music stages extended the arts motif even further. Jake Hendershot played solo acoustic covers – in the background but loud enough to be heard because Jeff Robinson stated that he didn’t want the music to take the focus off the beer. In the east room DJ Janelle spun some vinyl, figuratively. Once again, it was subdued enough to add to the experience of beer tasting, not to overwhelm it.
And here we find the second innovation and niche for this festival. I think by now the readers are aware that Walter and I are big proponents of having home brewer competitions and tastings at every brewfest. So many of the new brewery and brewpub opens come from this population, so getting them the most exposure and experience is crucial. Well, if you go out of your way to support up and coming brewers within a festival, why wouldn’t you also support the existing local breweries? Sure, they might be pouring at the festival, but that doesn’t give one a feeling for their taproom atmosphere or for the majority of their beers. How about providing a means for festival attendees to visit the local breweries?
This is where Muncie really got it right. A local couple, John and Amy Mickle just started a beer and wine tour bus in Muncie called Hops & Vines. They got involved with the Muncie Brewfest by offering a free shuttle from the Cornerstone Center to the local breweries (Elm Street, Guardian, New Corner, and Wolve’s Head) and craft beer bars (Savages, Fickle Peach and The Heorot). The festival ran from 3-7 (2-7 for VIPs), and Amy and John fired the bus up at 5:00 to run people to the local venues throughout the evening. The shuttle was a great, not merely a good, idea.
I think all festivals should find a way to work this into their process. It may work better for small town festivals, but it could work for big festivals too. Think about Military Park for Microbrewer’s Fest and all the breweries that are close by. Many of the attendees would love a shuttle that would work in a loop from TwoDeep, St. Joseph’s, Metazoa, Tow Yard, Chilly Water, etc. and even some great food/beer destinations like Shoefly Public House and Kuma’s Corner.