The 2nd Annual Columbus Craft Beerfest – For The Love Of Home and Beer

The 2nd Annual Columbus Craft Beerfest – For The Love Of Home and Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The third largest craft beer festival in Indiana is back for the second time on September 30th in Columbus. The Columbus Craft Beerfest promises to be a Hoosier beer chautauqua, with over 45 breweries from around the state coming together for an afternoon of craft beer talk, tasting, and admiration of all things Columbus. The VIPs will be admitted at 2:00, with the GA patrons joining them an hour later. Last pour will be at 6:00, but the party will continue in town for hours more.

Though not organizing the festival itself, ZwanzigZ Brewery & Pizza is the major sponsor of the festival. How fitting is it that the main sponsor is the reigning small brewpub of the year for the entire nation (GABF, 2016). Mike Rybinski, the head brewer at ZwanzigZ met Kurt Zwanzig while they were both studying at Northern Illinois University.

The Columbus Craft Beerfest has great brews, food, and music, but read on to see how amazing the planning group is. image credit: Columbus Craft Beerfest

Mike switched from electrical engineering to brewing when the owner of the bar he was working for in DeKalb saw how popular Mike’s craft beer club was and decided to open a brewery. When asked what his favorite beer is, Mike shows how deeply he thinks about craft beer, he said, “It depends. What’s the conversation? Who’s the company? What’s the mood? What’s the weather like? What time is it? Craft beer is about the context and the experience in which it’s enjoyed. I’ve brewed over 70 different styles of beer and tasted countless more. My favorite beer is the one that fits the mood and tastes the best in that situation.” Mike is a stickler for detail and innovation, so it is completely logical that the beer fest sponsored by his brewery would also run smoothly and be innovative as well.

For example, Mike was one of the early adopters of barrel aging beers in Indiana. I can remember the 2013 Microbrewer’s Festival, when it was still held at the Indianapolis Art Center, and the hubbub that went around the grounds when a young brewery was serving a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. The lines were insane at the ZwanzigZ booth for that and their other beers, yet after the festival, ZwanzigZ returned to relative obscurity down in Columbus.

Along those same lines, ZwanzigZ was one of the first breweries in Indiana, and still one of very few, to make an eisbock beer. You make a bock, then freeze it to eliminate the alcohol from the water ice. Take out the ice and you are left with a strongly flavored, strongly alcoholic beer that makes my mouth water. But this is what the folks at ZwanzigZ do, they make incredible beer without calling big attention to themselves. Heck, there are experienced beer geeks in this state who had no idea ZwanzigZ existed until I brought them up in conversation.

Kurt, Lisa, and Mike’s brewhouse at ZwanzigZ is just gorgeous. Check it out before and/or after the beerfest. Might they be expanding?? Photo credit: ZwanzigZ Brewing

Like the major sponsoring brewery, the Columbus Craft Beer Fest is innovative and pays close attention to detail. It has several important attributes that demand that people attend and pay attention, not the least of which the great venue. Mill Race Park is a gorgeous open space around a circular pond just off the river in Columbus, and yet still in the downtown, next to all that is happening there and the great sights. The breweries circle the pond under the canopy of the growing trees, but the walking paths are right there, as is some of the spectacular architecture of the city.

More than 45 breweries (see the list) will be on hand for the festival, including representatives from every part of the state, although there are fewer from the far north. Perhaps this could be a focus for next year’s festival, since people in the southern Indiana get fewer chances to drink beer from Crown Brewing, Devil’s Trumpet, 10-56 and others. Luckily, the brewers do include three home brew clubs – the Indiana Brewer’s Union, the Bloomington Hop Jockeys, and the Columbus Area Classic Alers. Walter and I love home brewers at the festivals, because they form a good number of the future pro brewers and because their beer is often so good.

There will be live music from two different acts from Indy – Tic Tac Flow, an acoustic duo, and the Carmichael Band. Carmichael plays everything from Neo-folk to Alt-country…..OK, I have no idea what either of those genres are, but they have a woman playing upright bass, so it has to be good. The music will accompany your beer tasting and help digestion after you wander over to the food trucks, including Ruth’s Chris, Cornography and Blackerby’s Catering.

The crowd for Columbus is big, but spread out around the pond, so there is plenty of room. photo credit: The Republic

New for the 2500+ attendees year, there will be many more local vendors with their wares, just to show you that Columbus is more than beer, food, and architecture, and for the DDs there will be craft sodas on hand. Then, after the party in the park, the festivities continue at ZwanzigZ Brewery where the pizza will flow and the beer will be sliced up.

The above description is a good enough reason go online and buy tickets (see below), but there is something even more amazing about this festival – it has this many breweries (not distributors bring beer from a bunch of different breweries, but the breweries themselves) but the entire festival is put on by a bunch of unpaid volunteers that don’t work in the craft beer industry.

A couple of years ago a number of young professionals who love Columbus and knew each other through work or play decided that they wanted to do something to draw attention to the city and to help repay Columbus for all it had done for them. These were a group of true believers that loved their town and wanted to give back.

Just how to do that was the next question. Some weren’t craft beer fans at the time, but the success of other festivals suggested that they should look into the idea of holding a festival in downtown Columbus so that visitors could see all the things that they themselves love so much. As Elaine Wagner told me, “We all love Columbus and want to give our time to something meaningful and something that gives back to our town.”

North Christian Church in Columbus was designed by Eero Saarinen – he also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. This is just one of the amazing pieces of architecture in Columbus, IN. photo credit: Visit Columbus

The group formed itself into not for profit 501c3 corp. called Columbus Craft Beerfest and found a bit of funding to start their investigations and inquiries. They approached Kurt and Lisa Zwanzig of the eponymously named brewery and pizzeria with positive results. They were very much on board with the idea, so the non-profit could take this sponsorship to breweries, which definitely carried weight. That first year they had to work hard to convince the city that putting the festival downtown was a decent idea and that there wouldn’t be problems, but the great festival that resulted made it so much easier to put together the second iteration.

Remember, this is a bunch of people who work outside the craft beer industry and who didn’t even know that BA has a checklist for putting on festivals until about a month ago. They have done and continue to do it all themselves, they do it as volunteers for their city on their own free time and without any remuneration. And yet they do it so well.

To have a 501(c)(3), there must be a board of at least three members that are liable for everything the organization does. This year, the board is made up of Elaine Wagner, a Marketing Professional at Cummins Engines and a city counselor, Jerry Hanner, who has a family run small investment firm, and Jordan Hilber, who is in finance and accounting for Cummins.

Beyond this is the planning committee, made up of David Morse, Chad Sowash, who owns a consulting firm involved in getting veterans hired, Nathan McClellan, who owns Avis rental Car stores, Christian Wagner, Daniel West, Mei Huei, and Nicola Dickinson. Each has a group of tasks for which they are responsible, sometimes these overlap with their training and schooling and sometimes they are completely foreign entities.

The Columbus Craft Beerfest committee hands out promotional coasters for the festival when they visit breweries – smart. photo credit: Walter

The 501(c)(3) has committees for each aspect of the festival, from volunteers to marketing to safety to the brewers. I sat in on a meeting of the executive committee in August and it was amazing to see them tick through a list of subjects with efficiency. Training of volunteers is coming along fine….a radio station in Cincinnati wants to sell tickets for the festival and keep half the proceeds in exchange for giving the committee half the money and free radio advertising for a month.

They had a good number of breweries confirmed, but were expecting to hear from several in the next couple of days, and they would traveling to hand out Columbus Craft Beerfest coasters and recruit additional breweries in the next week…….the ticket sales are going well enough that they may want to start thinking about additional invites so that the number of people matches the number of breweries and the amount of beer….the sheriffs are all set up, and EMTs have had their contracts faxed…… general liability insurance is set and weather insurance has been discussed and is being drawn up. It went on like this for more than an hour.

They even had a good discussion on manning the railroad crossing with volunteers and how long could they ask someone do it without losing concentration. This was important because they had questioned the city on any changes in the workings downtown and found out that the trains were now more numerous and were allowed to travel at a faster speed.

That’s pretty good for a bunch of business people who just happen to like craft beer (some longer than others), and it reflects well on the hard work they have done observing other festivals and asking good questions about what works, what doesn’t, and where the hidden details lie. There is only one brewer amongst them (Dave Morse) and he serves as the liaison between the committee and the breweries. Dave has been a home brewer for more than 14 years, so he knows quite a bit about what it takes to put a beer out to the public. He says that, “This festival in Columbus represents a dream of mine for a long time – to be involved with a high-quality festival in my community.” But other than Dave, this is an amateur effort that comes off like a professional endeavor.

These are some of the folks bringing you the Columbus Craft Beerfest. If you see them, thank them. Photo credit: Columbus Craft Beerfest.

Together, all these friends make a very strong team that cares about Columbus and craft beer – in that order. In 2016 the proceeds went to the Mill Race Park for maintenance and upgrades, and with all of their inexperience and the problems of running an inaugural event, they still made a considerable profit for the Park (more than $16,000). This year, half the money will go to the park and half will go to Just Friends, an adult daycare facility in the city.

This is what they were seeking – an event to benefit the city and to show it off to visitors in the best way they could. Jerry Hanner said, “I think it’s important to give back to your community and get involved in projects that bring people together. Beerfests are very popular with people our age, it’s a great opportunity to introduce friends to my hometown of Columbus and showcase what we all have to offer.” Chad Sowash was more to the point about why he has taken on all this extra work, “It’s simply for the love and community of Columbus, Indiana.“

In the end, the craft beer festival in Columbus is just the appetizer. Stay for the people, the architecture, the food…. OK, and for the breweries. A downtown park as a venue is great, but the love that these volunteer organizers show for their hometown is what has led to such a successful event. Come see why they love Columbus, and then find your own reasons.

Click here for ticket ordering and information.

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