JA Wine & Beer Fest in South Bend: A Great Event and Cause, with a Surprising Great Find

JA Wine & Beer Fest in South Bend: A Great Event and Cause, with a Surprising Great Find

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Beerfests are fun anytime, but they’re especially fun coming out of the pandemic. The smiles you see on peoples’ faces are as much about social interactions as they are about the alcohol that is being tasted and is lubricating those interactions. Add in a great program being supported by the festival and you have a trifecta that everyone can feel good about.

The JA Wine & Beer Fest in South Bend on Friday evening, May 14 is a good example of a festival for a cause. Junior Achievement serving St. Joseph County gets about 1/3 of its yearly funding from this event, which is used directly to support the mission of JA. Event organizer Dani Elgas told me, “The programs we offer are focused around Financial Literacy, Work Force Readiness and Entrepreneurship…basically we are helping kids think about their future and have a plan!” Given the complicated nature of the growing gig economy, this is a laudable goal and worthy of being supported.

The festival was begun in 2019 following the model of the JA Wine & Beer Festival in Fort Wayne, a very successful event. Dani said that the event has grown each year (given the Covid restrictions of 2020), and it really broke through this year as a major event. Over 1100 people enjoyed the festival on Friday evening, and nearly $90,000 was raised for the community-supported programs that JA runs for over 10,000 students throughout St. Joseph County.

Walter is finding that she likes 1) Friday evening festivals, and 2) festival at baseball stadiums. image credit: Stadium Journey

Saying JA is 100% community-supported is no idle statement; without the support of the attendees, the vendors, and the local business sponsors, the festival would not be possible and neither would the JA programs. Dani said, “Our Presenting Sponsor, Lippert, has been with us for three years since the inception of this event. They not only support JA financially, but they provide numerous classroom volunteers to deliver the work that we do all year long. Smith & Associates is our Platinum Sponsor this year and their support is driven by the work they do as financial planners…they truly believe in the mission of JA and see the need for all students to have an understanding of money management, starting at a young age.”

No fewer than 33 local companies and groups worked to support the JA Wine & Beer festival, not the least of which were the South Bend Cubs and Four Winds Field where the festival is held each year. Dani told me, “The partnership with the South Bend Cubs is phenomenal. There is a lot of energy and momentum in the downtown South Bend area and the expansion of the stadium over the past several years has been instrumental in this growth.” She added, “The South Bend Cubs have been venturing out for several years and hosting all kinds of events – people love to come to the ballpark, even when there isn’t a game! Their management team is very professional and a joy to work with.”

While it was successful in the past, the organizing team wasn’t resting on their laurels as this year’s festival approached. They brought in more vendors (more than 30), and expanded the VIP offerings, including three high-end wine vendors and local desserts from The Ragamuffin. Designated drivers were well taken care of with five vendor booths geared strictly to them with non-alcoholic products. The After Hours Party was ramped up this year as well, with live music from Michiana favorite Mr. Z; it was the perfect way to stay a bit later in downtown and enjoy the fine weather.

A nice addition was the 50/50 raffle which acted as yet another fundraising mechanism for the JA programs. This replaced the silent auction that many fundraising events do. While silent auctions work well and involved the local businesses, they are harder and more time consuming to organize and carryout. Dani added that this was especially true for local businesses which have had a rough go of it this past year and might not have the wherewithal to participate this year.

JA Wine & Beer fest in South Bend had a great crowd come out to support a great cause. image credit: Walter

The VIPs entered Four Winds Field an hour early, at 5pm, a feature that was enhanced by the adjacent parking that was used just for the VIP attendees. The layout for the festival gave two different entrances (one for VIP and one for GA), and this reduced lines and crowds too. The booths were spread out around the entire perimeter of the stadium, from the covered concourse from first to third base, and around the common areas circling the outfield. Booths were well spaced for lingering health concerns and provided room for people to gather, talk, and to enjoy their samples.

As for those samples, attendees had much to choose from. National and regional brands were brought in via distributors, while local breweries and wineries were also on hand. Walter and I enjoyed a very nice milk stout from Ryan at Studebaker Brewing in South Bend, and the vanilla rye porter from Evil Czech Brewery in Mishawaka never disappoints. Metazoa Brewing from Indy brought in one of their newly distributed IPAs called Crocodilian, and it was a fan favorites, as was the Mango Hyperbole from Ruhe Brewing in Napannee.

Zorn Brew Works in Michigan City, Goshen Brewing in Goshen, and Crooked Ewe Brewery from South Bend were all there and had great beers. We particularly liked the old school hefeweizen from Zorn, the Mexican pepper/vanilla bean dark ale called Where There’s Smoke from Goshen, and oh! that English barleywine with coffee, vanilla, and white oak from Crooked Ewe was amazing.

We liked the opportunity to drink some Silver Harbor Brewing beer from St. Joseph, MI since we don’t get that in Indianapolis, and the offerings from Maplewood Brewing in Chicago also allowed us to try one beer that was new to us. Neither Walter nor I are wine drinkers (she’s allergic and I need to leave room for beer), but the offerings in that field were also varied and numerous. I did get to try the Peach Pie wine from Oliver Winery in Bloomington, a seasonal product that sells out fast each year and was brought to my attention when I published their press release on it last week.

Perry Vine was the find of the festival. Keep an eye out for them. image credit: Perry Vine

All that being said, Walter and I have to mention our big surprise from the festival, a startup meadery/cidery called Perry Vine that is just getting started and is still homebrewing. The JA Wine & Beer Fest was their first public tasting, and we think they nailed it. They had a mead that was light and not too sweet, and a cider that was well spiced with cinnamon and would be great warm. While Tavarus Perry doesn’t have a commercial location yet and hasn’t applied for his farmhouse winery permit, we think he’s ready to get things moving – we’re hoping he comes to pour his samples at Hops & Coaster Drops at Indiana Beach in September.

The Perry Vine mead and cider were certainly good, but it was also the way they presented them that made it interesting. There was a small wooden cask on the table with product, as well as an aerator that they used when pouring into the sample cups. This allowed for a mixing of air and cider/mead that really broadened the aroma and the depth of flavor, like when you decant a bottle of wine before serving. I hope they continue to do this in the future.

In sum, the JA Wine & Beer Fest was a nice first-time festival for us, and I’m sure we will want to return in the future to see how it grows and to support JA, both in the funding for its programs and in growing its brand. The growth in 2021 is an indication that this festival is well received and people understand it’s importance – oh, they like it because it’s a lot of fun too. Make sure to pass the word and help this festival grow for 2022.

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