A Tale of Two Indiana Craft Beer Festivals

A Tale of Two Indiana Craft Beer Festivals

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

It was another busy weekend of craft beer for me and my wife Walter. We did two outdoor festivals on Saturday and then spent Sunday recovering from the heat. Never sell the recovery period short when you’re talking about craft beer festivals – a quiet Sunday helps one keep the enthusiasm for the various Saturdays, and it gives one time to reflect on the intricacies of what one experienced the day before – if one is given to reflection, or to referring to oneself as one.

On this particular Sunday, I’m sitting directly in front of the air conditioner vent and I have no particular intention of moving until a finger snaps off from frostbite. Walter is sitting further from the cold air stream I’m hoarding and is knitting a blanket, but she definitely has a fan blowing across her. Did I mention it was hot at the festivals yesterday?

My mind is going back over what we experienced and I’m struck by how different the two festivals were. This then makes me wonder if anyone can predict, from the outside, how successful a festival might be – there are so many variables, but with experience comes a better understanding of the event and its crowd. I guess there is no overestimating how important previous experience is when organizing a festival.

Saturday was the first festival for a couple of breweries, including Ft. Wayne’s not yet open Dot & Line Brewing. image credit: Dot & Line Brewing

As for differences, one festival was small, about 500-700 people, and one was larger, something over 2000 people. One was in the afternoon and the other started in the evening went into the night. One was in a small town connected to a large city (bigger draw), while the other was in a medium size town. One city is craft adept, bordering on becoming a state leader in craft beer, while the other less schooled in the arts of craft beer.

Wait, there’s more. One festival was quite distributor driven, with the other being more about individual breweries pouring their beer. One had a vote for fan favorite brewery and the other didn’t, and it surprised me a bit to see which one it was that had the competition. One served homebrew and the other didn’t, and again it was a bit of a surprise that it was the more distributor-driven festival. Yet, with all the differences between the two festivals, both had the same basic outcome – they worked for their location and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day for us, seeing a lot of friends and trying a lot of great beer. Walter and I started out in New Haven, just outside Ft. Wayne for the Brew Haven Craft Beer Festival and then we drove an hour southwest to Kokomo for the third annual Brews on Buckeye. Between the two, we saw things that distinguished each and things that they had in common – like people looking for shade – but let’s talk about each and see if we can determine why two very different festivals could each succeed on an uber-hot day, one week after the largest festival in the state was held.

Brew Haven. The VIPs entered Schnelker Park in New Haven at 1pm on Saturday, just about six miles east of Ft. Wayne and just a couple of hours before the hottest part of the day. This 8th version of Brew Haven had a few changes in management, but from the looks on everyones’ faces, the changes didn’t seem to affect the outcome. The entire park was used for the festival, which we thought still wouldn’t be enough, but even after all the GA ticket holders were in the festival, it seemed to work just fine.

As usual, MASH homebrew club a ton of beers for Brew Haven – 36 to be exact. image credit: MASH Homebrew Club

There were several lines of booths for the breweries or distributor rep.s pouring, and these were far enough apart (unless you get picky and complain about the middle lane which was two sided) so that people weren’t crowded. Crowded is bad, but crowded on a scorching hot day is much worse. From a logistics standpoint, Brew Haven went off without a hitch, with one fairly glaring exception. There was more than enough water for rinsing and drinking, also crucial for a hot day, and there were dump buckets for pouring out a bit of beer if you wanted to try a few extra.

There was plenty of shade in the park, another thing Walter was worried about as we walked up early in the afternoon. There were tables at which to sit down and have something eat or give your feet a rest. There were tables in the sun for people who were insane or had just been released from solitary confinement, and tables under the shelter for us regular folks. In fact, the warmest area was under the tent where the home brewers were pouring, the MASH club and the Pour Misfits. It’s no secret that Walter and I are proponents of including home brew in festivals, and we braved the sauna under the tent to get some great beer.

I mentioned the one snafu in an otherwise flawless afternoon, and that was the check in for the GA attendees. Corrals have become popular at festivals lately for good reason. You get people ID’d, banded, and given a glass and then let them sit in a holding pen until the proper time. This worked to perfection at Microbrewers Festival last weekend, but at Brew Haven a lack of space may have prohibited such a technique. As I mentioned, the park was big enough for the festival, but not oversized by any means. With the check in next to a public street and with little room to spare for a corral – people ended up waiting in line, and it was noticeable.

By my watch, the last of the line got to check in at 3:11pm after the GA opened at 2pm. That’s a problem in anyone’s book, but we didn’t see or hear people that were upset – kudos to them; I would have said something I later regretted. I am sure the organizers were aware and will remedy the situation for next year – there are some problems that come with success. But once inside, the beer flowed and people still moved throughout the grounds easily.

HopLoreBrewing took home the People’s Choice Award for the second year in a row. image credit: Trion Tavern

As far as the beer went, Walter and I were very impressed with the offerings. It is the rare Indiana festival that provides us with many new beers, yet we checked in more than two-dozen beers that were new to us. I think that the voting for “People’s Choice Award” might have had something to do with that. Pennies in buckets were the votes as people left the festival, with every brewery, whether pouring for themselves or by distributor were eligible for the prize (a logo’d ceramic mug).

Sun King Brewing, who could have brought their standard beers and a seasonal or two, brought a stellar lineup, perhaps the best overall list of the day. They had the Sunlight Cream Ale because they had to, but the rest of their choices were big hitters, the Gin Barrel Aged SKB IPA, the 4000 (an imperial version of the Pachanga), Oktoberfest, and Whip Fight – that’s a good list for the taproom, let alone a festival 100 miles from the brewery.

Firestone Walker brought a 2018 Parabola, but the lack of a line at that booth told me a good deal about the overall beer acumen of the crowd. Despite being near Ft. Wayne, where breweries have been popping up lately like blemishes on a teenager’s face, this was a middling to low beer-experience crowd. And that’s OK, it’s how new beer drinkers become seasoned beer drinkers, or not – and that’s OK too.

In the end, HopLore Brewing from Leesburg took home the trophy for fan favorite, a well-deserved win for sure. The Amish Krack was on hand, a pastry stout of the nth magnitude, made with 13 dozen doughnuts per batch. Stephan also brought the Raspberry Dreamsicle and the Life B’wizzle barleywine, so people had their choice of stunning beers at that jockey box.

But the most interesting beer in the park had to be Wayne Patmore’s sort of debut beer for Carson’s Brewery out of Evansville. Dragon Breath was a porter aged in Tabasco barrels. It did not disappoint – and it was only in the barrels for five days!. On a day when sweating was going on anyway, this beer added a layer of heat for your tongue, not just your skin. I don’t know if I could do a full pint, but then I’m sort of a weenie. I was glad that I saved that beer for last.

One of this year’s logos for Brews on Buckeye. image credit: Brews on Buckeye

Brews on Buckeye. A change of shirt and a gallon of cold water later, we were lulling in to Kokomo for the third annual Brews on Buckeye Festival. This event featured a good number of craft distillers as well as breweries, and this festival seemed to be almost completely producer-driven. We saw many brewers and beer slingers on hand to pour samples, and even the distilleries had their staff on site for pouring.

The 5pm start didn’t mean that it had cooled down at all. We got there about 6pm and it was still 91 degrees. . The brick street was and is a picturesque spot for the festival, and the brick buildings on either side held in the music from the DJ and added to the ambience, but they also radiated heat – even if they didn’t realize it, everyone was happy for my shirt change.

It might seem like I’m giving Brews on Buckeye short shrift in this write up, but I wrote a big review last year that you can read here, and many of the aspects of the festival were maintained this year. And why wouldn’t they, last year’s event was very successful. Nevertheless, there were several items worth discussing here, including the great beer.

Walter suggested after last year’s festival that they move the port-o-lets away from skateboard demos, and they did. This proves that organizers listen to feedback – my guess is that Brew Haven will get some feedback and figure out a new way to manage the check in for next year. At Brews on Buckeye, check-in was handled by people moving back through the line to check IDs and band the attendees. This led to a smooth beginning when the GA session began.

The breweries present Saturday included both the new and the established. Teays River from Lafayette has been open just a few months, and Brews on Buckeye was one of their first festivals. Head brewer Jason Cook was on hand discussing their beers with the patrons; he was pleased with the comments and the enthusiasm of the crowd. Another new brewery was Nailers Brewing from Whiteland. Co-owner and brewer Steve Harmon, Jr. was behind the jockey box to explain beers and pour samples. We welcome both of these breweries to the festival circuit and look forward to seeing them more often.

Nailer’s Brewing from Whiteland was making it’s festival debut at Brews on Buckeye. image credit: Nailer’s Brewing

Burn ‘Em Brewing from Michigan City, Bare Hands from Granger, and Central State were all in a row, with Central State serving their Bare Hands collaboration called Highway Strawberry, with fresh mint. Joined by Devil’s Trumpet from Merrillville, these breweries from farther away were present because they are distributing to the Kokomo area and are looking for a closer relationship with their patrons. Festivals are a good way to build that connection, and it helps when the people from the brewery are present to do it – this is the strength of the brewery-driven festival.

One of the beers presented to the public was appropriately called Malignant Melancholia, from Elm Street Brewing. It’s a raw ale, meaning that the temperature never reaches boiling in the brewing process, which limits the bitterness and prevents breakdown of some of the original compounds. More interestingly, it is made with Butterfly Pea Flower, which adds a floral aroma and flavor, but messes with the color. The beer was blue in the sunlight, but head brewer Tyler Hutchison told me that if you drink it in the taproom, it’s red. That’s an interesting beer. Add in the light show (I wonder what the beer looked like then) and the styling salon for glitter beards – Brews on Buckeye was again a rocking time.

Conclusion. So what did we learn from visiting these two different festivals on a single, hot Saturday in August? Distributor/brewery vs. brewery/distillery, having homebrew vs. only professional, afternoon vs. evening, lots of different entertainment vs. primarily beer and music – there were many differentiators, but there were also some similarities. Both had less than astute craft beer crowds (overall), and both had shade, water, and food – all the things that tell me that the organizers were thinking about their attendees.

The explanations for the success of both festivals could go two ways – 1) it doesn’t matter what kind of festival you run, the people will come, or 2) these organizers each hit on a formula that worked for their area. I think it is mostly likely the latter explanation, mostly because it is becoming apparent that festivals are getting harder to turn into successes, but that’s another story. Perhaps the best lesson is for the drinkers – choose a variety of festivals to attend, there are things to be learned and experienced from each, and it’s often the differences in the experience that prove to be the key.

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