It might seem strange to say, but the annual Brewvival craft beer event can be an overwhelming and grueling experience—especially for the beer fanatics obsessed with sampling everything on their personal "gotta try 'em" lists. For most attendees, the laid-back approach with a positive attitude, a bit of open mindedness, and an appreciation for surprises can lead to a terrific day under the big tents.
Well-organized festivals like Brewvival are celebrations of the art, science, craft, and mutually supportive community of fine beers. Fortunately, most of the attendees on Saturday's (Feb. 28) slightly cloudy/chilly event in the Noisette of ol' North Charleston were in the right mindset and mood, eager to casually sample and fully enjoy some extraordinary (and rare) ales and lagers.
Already in its sixth year, Brewvival has quickly evolved into one of the premier craft beer events in the Lowcountry, if not in the entire state. Organized by COAST Brewing Co.'s David Merritt and Jaime Tenny and entrepreneurs Scott Shor and Rich Carley (of the Charleston Beer Exchange shop and Edmund's Oast brewpub), the event was thoroughly and thoughtfully planned out and calmly and expertly executed, from dealing with large lines at the gate during the noon opening to maintaining the serving booths, music stage, shuttles, and restroom facilities.
From noon to 5:00 p.m., the festival drew hundreds of cheerful and orderly beer enthusiasts, young and old, local and visiting. The festival grounds were at full capacity by early afternoon—and comfortably so, thanks to the organizers' decision to cap ticket sales around 1,500.
Admission included all beer samples and live music. Food was available for purchase from local vendors Diggity Doughnuts, Big Boned BBQ, D'Allesandro's Pizza, Ted's Butcherblock, AutoBanh Food Truck, and Coleman Public House.
The layout worked well, with breweries' stations arranged in alphabetical order. It was easy to dash in and out of lines at the majority of the serving booths. Local and regional brewers, distribution agents, and volunteers worked side by side with folks in town from national breweries. There was nothing chaotic about it.
The live and DJ'd music complemented the scene, too, if not with a bit too much loud low-end bass guitar from local reggae groovers Mystic Vibrations during the first hour or two. Performing at the entrance side of the grounds, Mystic Vibrations jammed and sang with mellow confidence, followed by New Orleans folk/Americana/rock combo The Deslondes (formerly known as the Tumbleweeds). There was plenty of twang, raw soulfulness, and lonesome melodies in their music. The bluesy Delta vibes may have helped to keep some revelers calm and cool during the boisterous final hours of the fest.
In the thick of things, it's always difficult to be in a hurry at Brewvival. You can't really rush it. Those who looked the happiest were the ones strolling casually from line to line, conversing with both friends and total strangers along the way. I noticed a few friendly debates breaking out here and there over the characteristics and technical details of the numerous beers on hand, of which there was no shortage at all.
Brewvival boasted nearly 200 beers from 50 microbreweries on this year's official beer list, and even more selections popped up through the day as some breweries announced additional one-offs, extra barrel-aged stuff, and a wide variety of limited editions. That's nearly triple the size of the offerings at the inaugural Brewvival in 2009.
At least a third of the breweries on hand came in from all corners of the Carolinas and Georgia. Among them, Peach state neighbors Terrapin (Athens) and Sweetwater (Atlanta) stood out alongside some biggies from North Carolina—Foothills (Winston-Salem), Oskar Blues (Brevard), Duck-Rabbit (Farmville), Fullsteam (Durham), Highland (Asheville), and Sierra Nevada's newly opened facility in Mills River (near Asheville).
The S.C. Upstate and Midlands were well represented by a mix of well-established micros and younger up-and-comers: RJ Rockers (Spartanburg), River Dog (Ridgeland), Thomas Creek (Greenville), Quest (Greenville), River Rat (Columbia), and Conquest (Columbia).
Nearly all of the Charleston-area craft breweries were present, including the hosting company COAST, Mt. Pleasant's Westbrook, James Island's Tradesman, downtown's Palmetto (just turning 21, the oldest microbrewery on town) and Revelry (one of the newest on the Peninsula), and North Charleston's Frothy Beard, Freehouse, and Holy City.
The overall selection was quite overwhelming. It would have been difficult to properly sample every single beer from each South Carolina brewery, let alone samples from all the rest of the participants. I did my best to make it all the way around the big tent, though.
There seemed to be plenty of sour, smoked, chocolate-accented, and high gravity barrel-aged selections among the classic styles and specialties on hand. Persimmons and cherries stood out among the fruit beers. It was a dense and eclectic mix of stuff from booth to booth. Here are just 10 of the main standouts of the festival from my notes, in no particular order.
• Oskar Blues Brewery's Bulleit Bourbon Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy Imperial Stout (10.5 % alcohol by volume) — An intensely malty, jet-black stout with strong oak, dark chocolate, toffee, pumpernickel flavors and aromas. Just a touch of that bourbon in the finish. One of the biggest, tastiest stouts of the day.
• Terrapin Beer Company's Hop Selection (8.6% a.b.v.) — A truly cask-conditioned, hand-pulled pale ale, billed as an American Double IPA. Featuring the Australian-born, floral/spicy Ella hop variety, from start to finish. The low carbonation of the cask pour allowed for the full flavor of the hops to accent the grainy, yeasty, freshness of the pale malts. Old fellas would love this in London.
• The Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales' Smoked Gose (no a.b.v. listed) — A delicately smoky, lemony, pale/hazy ale based on the unique German style. Thankfully, not too salty for my personal taste. I'd love to revisit this one in the middle of the summer.
• Highland Brewing Company's Whiskey Barrel-Aged McRooney's Scotch Ale (8.3 % a.b.v.) — Leaning toward the dark caramel/burnt sugary side of the Scotch Ale style with warm, rich whiskey flavors, a touch of butterscotch, and a lingering nuttiness at the end. A fantastic twist on a classic U.K. style.
• Palmetto Brewing Company's "Dark 'n' Slappy" — Charleston's granddaddy brewery had a few standards on tap as well as three special releases, like the Col. Rathburn Farmhouse Ale (7.8% a.b.v.), the cask-conditioned A.M. Wood American Pale Ale (6.4% a.b.v.), and one of my favorite of their latest experimental beers: the Ginger Slap (6% a.b.v.). The amber-colored Ginger Slap is spicy and exotic, fermented with large doses of fresh ginger and cardamom. They served a "black & tan" combination of their popular Espresso Porter (6% a.b.v.) and the Ginger Slap in which the aromas and flavors blended perfectly.
• Anderson Valley Brewing Company's Brother David’s Double Abbey-Style Ale Vintage 2013 (9% a.b.v.) — A dark-brown, malty, slightly spicy California version of the classic Belgian Dubbel style. Robust, fruity, and a little wine-like. One of the more complex and warming ales of the day.
• Smuttynose Brewing Company's Smuttlabs Ol' Grundy Humper (10.8% a.b.v.) — An unusually pale, very strong, full-bodied barleywine with a rich, vanilla-caramel flavor. Aged on oak chips, there's a nutty hint of Cabernet Sauvignon and whiskey in the finish. Another great winter beer of the day.
• Cigar City Brewing's Cherry Berliner Weisse (2.7 % a.b.v.) — Nowhere to be found on the program online list, Tampa's Cigar City seems to show up unexpectedly each time. Their low-gravity, hazy, wheaty, super-tart 'n' sour reworking of the traditional Berliner-style Weisse was a total palate cleanser and eye-opening pick-me-up (we heard that they'd done similar versions from passionfruit and dragonfruit as well).
• Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's Barrel-Aged Imperial Smoked Porter (10% a.b.v.) — Roasty, rich, and scotch-like, this full-bodied, very alcoholic strong-style porter hit the spot. Subtle smokiness in the aroma and flavor alongside a zesty blend of dark malts, strong coffee, bitter chocolate, and blackberry pie. Slight whiskey/oak in the finish.
• Holy City Brewing Company's Mucho Muy Amigo (7.5% a.b.v.) — One of the weirdest and most refreshing pale ales of the fest; the local brewery's Overly Friendly IPA amped up with a blend of cilantro, jalapeño, and pineapple and aged in tequila barrels for four months. The hops at the end are bold enough to balance the fruit, pepper, and spice.
Slideshow photos by T. Ballard Lesemann.