Last Saturday was my first Brewgrass Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. This was the 13th year of this event that combines craft beer and bluegrass. This is one of the hottest tickets in beer festivals. Tickets went on sale back in February and it sold out within about two weeks.
About 3,500 people attended this year’s festival, which was held at Martin Luther King Park, a small baseball field downtown. It ran from noon to 7, so we knew we had to prepare and dig deep for 7 hours of beer sampling. Being a rookie, I admit I was a bit nervous.
The weather ended up being perfect for the day. It had been raining in Asheville all week up to Saturday, and it even rained heavily on Sunday, but for 12 miraculous hours on Saturday, it threatened but held off. The cloud cover kept it cool and pleasant.
We arrived about 30 minutes early to stand in line before the gates opened. While I’m not a proponent of waiting in lines, this was for a good reason. Many of the breweries that attended brought some rare goodies, so this is not a time to be fashionably late. Word spreads fast through the crowd where the good finds are, so those rare gems go quickly.
Accompanying us on our beer odyssey was a strong showing from the Upstate Brewtopians, our local homebrew club. A dozen or so of us set up camp just inside the entrance. Many of the Brewtopians were veterans of Brewgrass, so they had a lot of tips for us rookies.
One of the best strategic calls from one of the club vets was to bring the wrought iron poll and carved wooden Brewtopians sign. It can get pretty hectic with 3,500 people on a baseball field, especially after a few hours of beer sampling. If you ever got lost or disoriented, you knew you simply had to find the flag to make it back to home base. That came in handy.
Brewgrass is purely craft beer festival. There was no representation from any of the big breweries. It kept the focus on the beer, rather than the marketing spectacle that the big breweries usually put on. Most of the 40-some-odd tents there were from local and regional breweries. A few national breweries were represented, such as Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Oskar Blues and Kona.
There was a lot of good beer to be had, but the hottest beers, and my favorite selections of the day, were the barrel aged beers. Stored in bourbon barrels, these aged beauties require patience and cunning skill. Drink them too soon, and they won’t have a chance to mellow into the smooth, velvety masterpieces that realize their full potential. We’re talking at least a full year. That’s a long time to wait for a beer.
Three in particular stood out. Coast’s barrel-aged Blackbeerd Imperial Stout, Foothills’ barrel-aged Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout, and Old Hickory’s three Barleywines aged in different bourbon barrels. One was in a Jack Daniels barrel, another in a Pappy barrel, and the other was in an Irish whiskey barrel that I can’t recall the name of.
Me with Jaime and David from Coast
While the Coast and Foothills stouts were so rich and smooth, the Old Hickory barleywines were my favorite of the festival, specifically the Pappy barrel. The three selections were distinguishable from each other, but I felt the Pappy just tasted a little better to me than the others. I don’t believe I’ve had a barrel-aged Barleywine before, so it was a delightfully unique experience.
Aside from those barrel-aged beers, some of my other favorites included Yazoo’s Hop Project, a double IPA made with fresh Amarillo hops, Ham’s Double IPA and Appalachian Craft Brewery’s Witbier. I missed out on the 2006 Rogue Old Crustacean which I heard was excellent. That made me sad for a short time.
Nicole was enthralled with the gnome taps from Heinzelmannchen Brewery
Tips For Novices
Since this was our first time at Brewgrass, we were not very prepared for a full day of sampling. We picked up a few tips for next year. Here is a bit of what we learned:
- Bring a CamelBak. There was plenty of water available at each tent for both rinsing your glass and staying hydrated, but it would have been much more effective to have a gallon or so with me all day.
- Be sure to use sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy. One guy in our party got a burn, despite the cloud cover. Then again, he was as pale as I am, so that might have been a factor.
- Bring folding chairs. I didn’t think to see if they were allowed. Most of the time you’re up wandering around in search of beer, but it’s good to take a break now and again.
- Pretzel necklaces are key.
- Pace yourself. I was experiencing extreme palate fatigue by about 5. You don’t want to run out of steam early.
It was a very fun day and a well-run event. Many of the brewers from the regional breweries were there, so it was cool to be able to meet them and talk to them about their beers. I highly recommend this festival if you have the chance to go. Be on the lookout for tickets next February!
Nicole gets branded by Julie from Bruisin Ales