The Specialized Craft Beverage Festival is on the Rise: Lessons from Carmel Firkin Fest and Meadful Things

The Specialized Craft Beverage Festival is on the Rise: Lessons from Carmel Firkin Fest and Meadful Things

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Walter is a beer drinker, there’s no doubting that (although she loves her bourbon too). Her style of choice is the IPA, the closer to the west coast the better. Beyond that, she likes trying many different kinds of beer and different ways of presenting them; however, the individual flavor of whatever is put before her is always primary. On the other hand, I’m probably more about style and history, attaching some sort of information or science to a particular beer. Give me a weird connection between beers or an esoteric link to some beer history or process and I’m a happy guy.

To that end, I really enjoy experiencing tightly niched festivals. They give me a chance to gather a lot of information about what works and doesn’t (for me), and how a particular related group of beers fit into the craft beer world as a whole. That’s why this past Saturday was so interesting for me, it included visits to two very specialized festivals – one just for cask beers and the other for meads and ciders only.

There aren’t that many truly specialized festivals yet – Denver Rare Beer Tasting and Journeyman and Friends Barrel Aged Beer Festival probably fit, but things like Canvitational don’t anymore since so many people now can their beer, and Hops & Flip Flops had many beers poured this year that weren’t hop forward. These are still great festivals, just not as tightly grouped as some others. Frigid Digits and Shelf Ice are specialized because they are outdoor festivals in the winter, but not for the products they serve.

I am of the opinion that with so many festivals to choose from in today’s craft beer environment, you’ll start to see more festivals take a narrow focus and specialize in either a type of beer or beverage or in a specific presentation of beer in order to set themselves apart. Festival organizers would do well to follow the examples of the two festivals we visited on September 1 of this year.

Our first stop was the inaugural Carmel Firkin Fest, held at Union Brewing in Carmel. It was a very limited event, with only 225 or so tickets sold. Many of the attendees remarked to us that they liked the small format; it gave the festival a bit of a higher status. The conversations with the brewers were longer, and the lines at the booths were almost non-existent. The smaller, quieter pace and feel of the festival was appropriate because cask ale (and real ale if only naturally carbonated) is more intimate and social. It calls for more conversation and laughter, more toasts, and the feeling that you’re hanging out in an English or Irish pub.

The beer was served out of small casks, with lower carbonation and slightly higher temperature, more like how the beer is served to your mates in the pub. The higher temperature allows for more of the flavors to come out, and since they’re in smaller batches, you can pack the casks/firkins full of fruit, wood chips, etc. to really bolster the flavors and create new brews from old. Many of the participating breweries Saturday took advantage of the situation and had some wonderful flavor combinations that you won’t be able to get anywhere else ever again. These were one-off beers and should be coveted as such – talk about a rare beer festival.

The crowd somewhat reflected the specialized nature of the event. There were more mature and experienced people and more couples at Carmel Firkin Fest. The brewery T-shirts reflected (perhaps) the breadth of experience of the attendees, and people were genuinely interested in the styles of the beers and cask ale. They knew alot, but there was definitely new learning going on. Real ale is just too rare in today’s beer environment. That’s another reason a festival like this is important.

Carmel Firkin Fest. image credit: Chris Leland

This first iteration of the festival had some breweries that do cask beer often, and some that are new to firkins. Everyone brought good beer, and sometimes it is nice to see a beer you know served a new way – lower carb and slightly higher temp. Union, of course is a cask beer king. Most of their daily offerings are true real ales, and they did not disappoint on this particular day. The Ayatollah of Cinnamon Rolla is a great beer that had just enough cinnamon to matter, but the winner by far for me was the Jonah Juice, a real ale session IPA that transported me straight to the Cotswolds.

Walter and I really liked the offerings from TwoDEEP, an Indianapolis brewery that has a history of doing innovative cask ales and doing them well. Their wit beer with passionfruit was called Lieutenant Dan’s Sea Legs, and the King Fergus English Brown had plum and brandy soaked oaked chips – wow. Centerpoint’s Orangy McOrange Face was a Belgian Golden Strong with lots of orange in the firkin and might have been the single best beer of the session (it was for Walter), but Wooden Bear’s This Porridge is Just Right (an oatmeal stout with maple, cinnamon, and habanero) was a close right there.

Field Brewing from Westfield was making their craft beer debut in Carmel. Owners Greg and Jackie Dikos and head brewer Rian Umbach (previously from Moerlein Lager House in Cincinnati) were on hand to pour the American Pale Ale they made in collaboration with Centerpoint Brewing, aptly named Center Field. It was a fan favorite of that afternoon; Field is just getting their brew house up and running, so we should be seeing more of their beers in the next month and a half with the restaurant and brewery set to open in mid to late October.

Field Brewing made their debut at Carmel Firkin Fest. image credit: Chris Leland

The knowledgeable audience, the one-off beers, the excellent location along the Monon, the appreciation for cask ales and what they mean to the history and future of craft beer all contributed to a great festival. Carmel Firkin Fest is unlike any other festival around Indiana. It needs to be small, intimate and have some status; there is no reason why this festival can’t become a big success. I would suggest keeping it small and perhaps holding it in the evening to set it off from other festivals.

With our cask event well in hand, we set off for downtown Indy and the Meadful Things & OutCiders Festival. I think you can already see how specialized this festival was. Hosted by New Day Craft and held at the Circle City Industrial Complex (where the New Day has its production facility), this was a craft beverage festival, but not a craft beer festival. Meads, ciders, wines and a few other alcohol containing beverages were on display from around the country and around the world. Just as craft beer has many styles, meads and ciders offer multiple variants, so there were many different types of meads and ciders to try on Saturday.

The crowd at Meadful Things was decidedly younger, decidedly more boisterous, and decidedly more female than that at Carmel Firkin Fest. This was perhaps the result of being two very differently niched festivals – they appealed to different groups. However, there was definite overlap; heck, we were at both and we’re as craft beer as you can get.

The Nobody’s Poet coconut mead from Misbeehavin’ Meads. image credit: Kate V

So is our friend Ben Bullock; nobody hits more beer festivals than Ben (OK, except maybe us), but he chose to go to Meadful Things on this particular weekend rather than Carmel. Tristan Schmid, Communications Director for the Brewers of Indiana Guild was there too, and even Indiana On Tap had a booth there, so it’s apparent that craft beer has an affinity for these beverages. And of course Indiana craft beer has a great relationship with Brett and Tia, the owners of New Day, so this also contributed to the beer drinker turnout on Saturday.

Meadful Things was a much bigger festival than the Firkin Fest, in part because it is three years old now, but mostly because it’s just a different brand of festival, one where many more producers are represented and variety is the key. Also, this festival is about other forms of entertainment along with tasting. Balloon hats, henna art, dance lines, etc… it’s not better or worse than the Carmel Firkin Fest, just different. Both are unique, and they can co-exist because they are appealing to fairly distinct crowds.

The meads and ciders were of a decidedly strong variety Saturday afternoon, both in ABV and scope. There were meaderies and cideries from near and far, and they were fantastic. We particularly liked the offerings from Schramm’s in Ferndale, MI. The ginger mead was hot and spicy and oh so good. However, some local products really stood out for us and it gave us a comfortable feeling to see that homemade products in the mead and cider world are top of the line, just as we have found in craft beer. Circle City Zymurgy is an Indianapolis home brew club that we talk about often, mostly because their beers are so good, and because many festivals are now learning that inviting home brewers is a good idea. Saturday we found out that they don’t just make beer, CCZ does meads and hard lemonades and ciders too. Four different CCZ members were in the house serving up several different kinds of drinks, including a cinnamon mead called Sack Full O’ Honey from Allen Brown and Steve’s Hard Mango Lemonade from Steve Kent. We tried both, and want more.

It was a great, energetic crowd at the 3rd Annual Meadful Things. image credit: Walter

But maybe the most innovative and intriguing beverage at Meadful Things (of those we tried there were so many that getting to them all would have been impossible), was Nobody’s Poet, a coconut mead from Missbeehavin’ Meads in Valparaiso. Served only from bottles since this mead has a tendency to clog draft lines, Nobody’s Poet was pure white and full of coconut and coconut oil – when you open the bottle and pour it for a while your hands and forearms end up looking like glazed donuts.

Misbeehavin’ has only been pouring Nobody’s Poet at festivals because of the logistics of trying to put it on draft, and they have had it the last three weekends – Oak Park Microbrew Review, Beers Across the Wabash, and this past Saturday at Meadful Things. If you doubt how good it was, go look at the scores on Untappd. On the international front, Etienne Domaine Dupont from France brought a very nice calvados, and Makana Meadery from South Africa had a coffee mead that used some boldly roasted African coffee beans.

We tended toward tasting the meads on Saturday, but as these happen to have a bigger ABV punch, our tastings were rather limited. This, and the huge number of different samples means that we are going to have to attend again next year, just to extend our sampling experiment. It’s good to taste these at a festival dedicated only to ciders and meads, as it helps to do your comparisons head to head rather than from a couple at one festival and couple of different ones at another festival – that’s just an additional reason specialized festivals work, they gather lots of examples in a small space for comparison and learning. Look for this type of event to gain popularity in the coming months and years; it’s a good way to differentiate a particular festival in the midst of a hundreds of craft beverage events.

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