Charleston’s annual Brewvival beer festival has been the juggernaut of craft beer gatherings in the Palmetto State since its inception four years ago. Each fall, beer geeks across the Southeast anxiously await to see what rare and unique beers will be on tap for the following year’s gathering.
But in the past couple of years, the attention has shifted somewhat from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, which is home to South Carolina’s other burgeoning beer city: Greenville. With a slew of the city’s craft beer-centric establishments going strong, new and unique festivals have begun to pop up recently. This year saw the second annual Biggest Little Beer Festival at Barely’s and The Trappe Door, a three-level festival focusing on craft beer in all forms: draft, bottle, cask and randalized.
The sold-out festival will feature a bevy of “small batch beers, funky seasonals and one-off selections” from 36 local and national breweries. The festival will offer everything from solid standards such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to unique and rare ones, like the Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Barrel Aged Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout and Southern Tier Pumking aged in Dark Corner Distillery Lewis Redmond Carolina Bourbon Whiskey Barrels to name a few. South Carolina breweries will also be well represented: Quest will be pouring its entire core lineup, the new Holy City/RJ Rockers collaboration will be on tap, and Westbrook’s Mexican Coffee Cake will make its triumphant return.
But one of the unique aspects of the festival is its intimacy. There were just 400 tickets sold for the event, meaning it’ll be much smaller – and likely less muddy – than a festival such as Brewvival. And with this being the first year, that’s just the vibe Community Tap co-owner Mike Okupinski was going for: small, but rememberable.
I recently got in touch with Okupinski about the run up to this weekend’s festival, what it was like for a first-time festival organizer and what he’s hoping people get out of it.
First and foremost, why did you decide to throw a beer festival?
Honestly, we’ve always wanted to put on a full-scale craft beer festival since we opened our doors. The time just seemed right and we were confident that we could build something special. We also didn’t find it necessary for Greenville to rely on a nationally run outfit for a beer festival that could be run, in our opinion, by passionate locally owned and operated businesses. Rule No. 1: Craft beer festivals are first and foremost a celebration of the breweries and the hand-crafted beers manufactured by each respective brewery. Rule No. 2: Breweries should never have to pay sponsorship money or supply product for free in order to be a part of a festival that isn’t associated with a charity or charities. A brewery logo should be payment enough. Now with Barley’s “The Biggest Little Beer Fest” and The Community Tap Craft Beer Festival, the Upstate, surrounding areas and South Carolina as a whole have two more top-notch beer festivals to put on the calendar every year.
Was there a certain vibe or appeal you were going for while planning it?
We were definitely going for the celebratory vibe with the communal feel that only the craft beer industry can provide at a festival. We as a retail store are able to do what we do because of the breweries. End of story. When we travel to festivals it’s always to celebrate the beers being produced by each brewery, and not only the relationships developed but also the friendships that have been created.
Talk about the process of putting together the beer list. What kind of selection were you looking to compile?
For us to see the brewery willingness to be a part of our first festival was an eye opener to say the least. Once things started rolling we decided on the following: Seasonality played a major role in the beer list selection. Leaving winter and entering spring allowed us to hold back some heavier options while a fresh batch of spring seasonals were just hitting the market. We’ve included some back-dated selections, year-round favorites with a bit of a twist, some cask-conditioned beers, new releases that haven’t been tasted by the masses and just some beers that are tried and true that we thought should be included.
Without playing favorites – or ticking off any particular brewery – what beers or breweries are you most excited to have featured?
That’s the beauty about the craft beer industry: I’m pretty sure that feelings won’t get hurt if I mention one brewery table and not the other. We just figured out the beer list layout, and to look at all of the beers on paper is just a great feeling to know what we have in store on the 13th! OK, I’ve starting typing which tables I’m dying to hit up and I just wind up thinking of 10 more tables so this may be a tough question to answer. (Damn you, Nick!) Let’s just say that I can’t make it past the breweries beginning with the letter “A” before salivating.
With a beer festival being thrown by a popular beer store and featuring unique and rare craft beers, there are obviously going to be comparisons to Brewvival. Have you heard anything like that, and if so, do you find it intimidating or a sign you’re doing something right?
Of course we’ve heard the comparisons, and frankly it’s pretty flattering. We’ve been to a lot of beer festivals all over the country and Brewvival is not only one of the best beer festivals in the Southeastern United States, but in the entire United States! Coast and the Charleston Beer Exchange deserve every bit of recognition that they receive for Brewvival, because it is nothing short of fantastic! We’re definitely excited about our first festival, and to add our spin on the craft beer festival scene.
How do you think the festival differs from other beer festivals in South Carolina?
We decided very early on that we were either going to fall flat on our face putting this festival together without any sponsorship or take our knocks and have it be successful. Not really saying that this is necessarily any different from what someone else is doing but for us it was extremely important, and served as a measuring stick. Probably the main difference is the intimacy of the festival (only 400 tickets). I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a sold-out craft beer festival with 400 people or less. I’m sure they’re out there; I just have never attended one.
Talk a little about Larkin’s Saw Mill. Why’d you pick them as the host?
The Sawmill is an event space owned by Larkin’s (a downtown restaurant) that many Greenvillians have never heard of, and this is probably due to its location. Located at the very northern end of Main Street, it sits behind a warehouse facility and fire station. But not to worry, the space is fantastic and we’re very excited to have our first festival in this space! Ed (Buffington, Community Tap co-owner) and I have worked private events for Larkin’s in the past so the relationship has already existed prior to booking the space.
What were the challenges of putting everything together?
It’s always a challenge getting 38 of anything on the same page, let alone breweries and reps that have crazy travel schedules, especially during festival season. We have the advantage of having an actual event planner on staff (my wife, Anna), so the planning, organization and execution has been put in place some 10-11 months ago, and we expect nothing less than a very streamlined festival on the 13th. Financially trying to organize what will run at the shop and be put on the shelves all while festival kegs are coming in can be a bit stressful, but we’ve learned many lessons going through this process.
Anything you wish you could have done that you didn’t get to do this time around?
We’re so built up with nervous excitement right now that I’m just going to let that question ride until post festival. I will say that the after party at Barley’s seems to be coming along nicely and we appreciate Josh and Drew taking the time to work with us.
Assuming this becomes an annual thing, what do you hope to do differently or better next year and in the future?
We’re already working on next year’s festival which will take place on April 12th, 2014. We’ll let you know after the 13th what we’d do differently. At this point, we’re pretty comfortable with how everything is rolling along.