2019 Sour Wild Funk Fest Grows into a National Draw

2019 Sour Wild Funk Fest Grows into a National Draw

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

There are many craft beer festivals that draw attendees from local fans or from across town. Other festivals have a larger draw, from the region or even the state. As examples, Brews on Buckeye in Kokomo each summer seems to draw a good number of people, while the Irvington BrewFest is a more ultra-local event ….and that’s OK, that’s what they want to be.

Fewer festivals draw from an even larger region, bringing in people from more than one state or a part of the country. Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, WI and Festival of Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago being good examples. You might even put a festival like Tailspin Ale Fest one of these because it is held in an area that is close to three states. Then there are the rare festivals like Great American Beer Festival (GABF) that draw from all over the country, like the mountain coming to Muhammad.

image credit: Upland Brewing

Locally, few festivals fall into the regional mold, and none so far really draw significant numbers from the entire country, but there is one event that is climbing to that sort of altitude. I am speaking of Upland Brewing’s Sour Wild Funk Fest to be held on March 23rd this year. Talking to the attendees over the last couple of years, it has become apparent that this festival is drawing from many states, with a lot of people coming to Indy specifically for this beer event.

There are many reasons for this type of attendance. One, the breweries being brought in year-to-year hail from all over the country and the world. For 2019, twenty states and four countries will make their way to Indy from their respective homes. In all, fifty different breweries will have funky products on hand for unlimited samplings, and the quality of these participants is more than enough to prompt people from all over to make the trip to Indy for this festival.

Secondly, SWFF draws such great bunch of breweries is because of how well Upland Brewing takes care of them before and during the event. There is a pre-SWFF party at the Wood Shop in Bloomington where all the breweries are invited to a bottle share experience. There is an Upland dinner for all involved, and then shuttle buses up to Indy and more time to connect. For out of town and out of state breweries, Upland pays for their hotel rooms the night before the festival and provides everyone with lunch before the festival begins. When you treat people this well, they are going to keep coming back and will spread the word. That definitely has an effect on the draw of this festival.

The third reason for people coming from afar for SWFF is that sours and wild ales are as popular as can be right now. Recent statistics showed sour beer sales increasing by 49% in both 2017 and 2018, exceeding 2013 sales by more than seven fold. The reasons for this could be many, appealing to wine drinkers, the development of the craft beer palate, the craving for new things, the increasing number of women drinking craft (a Nielsen survey said women are 75% more likely to prefer sours beers than men), etc.

Furthermore, Indiana is a perfect state to have a festival like this. In other states, festivals are required to sell tasting tickets rather than just a general admittance ticket to a tasting event. Sometimes extra tickets can be purchased, sometimes not. However, the idea of limited tasting is going to reduce the urge for people to drive from long distance to come to a festival that works that way. For some people sours would fit that bill, but for others it wouldn’t.

The Mavris Arts & Event Center is a great host for SWFF. image credit: Unveil

What’s more, the alcohol laws in some states (like Michigan) do not allow for festivals to sell samples at less than manufacturing cost of the beer. So for festivals like their Winter Beer Festival last month, certain beers required more than one tasting ticket, some all the way to four of the 50 cent tickets, meaning that a 3 oz. pour was costing about $2. Luckily, we’re in Indiana, and the state laws allow for unlimited sampling of beers at a festival once an attendee pays the entrance fee. If you’ve got 50 breweries each offering a couple of beers or more, it’s nice to know that you can sample to your heart’s content. This makes a great festival in Indiana more appealing than one in some other states.

A fourth reason that people are coming to SWFF from many states is reputation. Upland is distributing sours to many states now, and with that has come the realization from all over that they make great beer. This in turn has generated social media followers for Upland all over the country (over 35,000 followers on Facebook and 32,000 on Twitter, by comparison BrewDog USA has 28,000 FB followers). When they follow Upland because of the greatness of their beers, they are necessarily going to see notifications for the SWFF. This carries over to the great breweries that come to pour at SWFF too. Their followers then learn of the festival, learn of the other great breweries coming, and they are more likely to make the trip.

I guess that given all this, it isn’t too surprising that so many of the people we have talked to at SWFF in recent years had come over from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and places even further afield. Like I said, this festival is coming close to one of those festival that can draw nationally, like that Washington DC’s Savor: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience from the Brewers Association.

VIPs will have presentations and tastings at four different stations before the festival begins. image credit: Upland Brewing

We all recognize that SWFF is great every year, but there are several things this year that will even improve on the experience. The festival is still being held at the Mavris Arts & Event Center in downtown Indianapolis, the gorgeous venue that has played host for the last two years. While nothing needed to be done to make this beautiful space any better, they have done painting and other touch ups that will give it a new spit and polish for the event.

As for the event particulars, Upland and Mavris have kept the best things and improved on others. The VIP Experience this year has had some tweaks to make it even more amazing. From 12:30-1:45pm there will be a VIP Experience before anyone else is admitted. Four stations will be set up for private tastings of rare beers not being sampled at the festival itself, each with a discussion with the brewer for education and to get to know them. This is in place of the VIP Experience last year that was conducted downstairs during the festival.

After that cool experience, the VIPs will have a full hour of sampling by themselves, before the GA attendees are let loose. VIPs will have the Speakeasy downstairs again, with a Chill Zone for private bathrooms, palate cleansers, additional sour ales, and food at 3pm. The Speakeasy has some new decorations, while the outside garden will again be used for everyone’s benefit, both VIP and GA. This has proven to be a nice addition to the festival, as the weather has been great ever since the move to Mavris. For VIPs and GA attendees alike, there will be an newer Upland collaboration to taste as well. Last year Upland and Cascade Brewing had their versions of Pearpawsterous on tap, and this year, the just released Entwined collaboration (sour aged on grapes from both California and Indiana) with Mikkeller will be on the serving list. Look for Upland to go into the cellar to bring out some rare sours at their booth as well.

Scratch Brewing poured at SWFF in 2017, but not 2018. Thankfully, they will be back for 2019. image credit: Scratch Brewing

Like Mavris, Upland has made a few improvements for the festival. Drink Culture will be on hand doing a live podcast episode, interviewing brewers and attendees. Axis Apparel will be back doing live silk screening on demand, this year with a slightly higher profile due to their popularity last year. Circle City Kombucha has joined the fun as one of the palate cleansers, along with Champagne Velvet from Upland. Also new this year, food concessions will be available on both the second and third floors, so there will be no reason to go hungry.

However, the most compelling changes for this year include the amazing breweries that are either back after an absence or pouring for the first time. Check out these breweries – 4 Noses from Broomfield, CO, Battery Steele from Portland, ME, Birds Fly South from Greenville, SC, Brasserie Dunham from Canada, Brewery Bhavana from Raleigh, NC, Idle Hands Craft Ales from, Malden, MA, Madhouse Brewing from Des Moines, and Whiner Beer Company, IL.

That’s a lot of good new beers, but the there are just as many amazing breweries that are coming back again this year, some after missing a year or so – Scratch from Ava, IL, Wild Mind from MN, Bond Brothers from NC, Paradox Brewing from CO, etc. The hardest part will be prioritizing your route around the space to get all the best beers. And there is the local favorites who bring their best sours and new beers to show off, places like Black Acre, Taxman, Three Floyds, The Sour Note, and more.

Come be part of the growth of this top tier festival in 2019. Tickets can be purchased here, but I wouldn’t dawdle.


Update: As proof of our hypothesis that this festival is growing into a national player, Upland’s Sour Wild Funk Fest has been nominated for the Favorite American Beer Festival by USA Today. Twenty festivals received nominations and fan vote will determine the winner. Everyone is allowed to vote once per day, and voting will continue until noon, March 25th. Here is the link in order for you to start voting SWFF.

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