By: Steve Cook
I’m not suggesting that drinking or brewing beer is the answer to the world’s problems, but my visit to the Virginia Craft Brewers Festival was somewhat eye opening. As I parked my car and wended my way through Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall towards IX Art Park, the site of the fest, it was almost impossible to imagine that just one week previously, this had been the site of so much mayhem and violence.
People of all ethnicities were strolling through the mall, enjoying a beautiful, if somewhat sweltering, Saturday afternoon. Since I had never been to the park, I was unsure of which direction I needed go. I stopped a black woman and asked for directions. She smiled and took the time to walk me towards the street that I needed to take and gave me the directions that would help me find my way to the site.
When I arrived at the park, I was again impressed with the demographics of the gathering. There were young and old, beer enthusiasts of all ethnicities, smiling, laughing and greeting one another as we all jostled our way through the crowds. Folks were relishing the day, sharing their own tasting notes with anyone who happened to be standing nearby. It was certainly refreshing to see people from all walks of life coming together to share their passion for great craft beer. I spoke with several of the brewers and others who were working the seemingly endless booths. No one asked me whether I leaned to the left or to the right. “What do you think of this beer,” was as about as controversial as it got.
It all made for a delightful afternoon. I wasn’t able to stop and taste at every vendor’s tent or otherwise, I probably would have been leaning both left and right. The first tent I visited was that of Dirt Farm Brewing (http://www.dirtfarmbrewing.com) a farm brewery from Loudon County. Janelle Zurschmeide, owner and co-founder of the brewery, tells me that the both the brewery and the farm are 100 percent family-owned and operated. “My nephews are my brewers,” she told me.
Because it was a very hot day, the idea of a cherry-infused beer seemed appealing. The only thing more appealing than the name, Tart 31 Cherry Ale, was the taste of this fruit-forward brew. What a refreshing way to begin my day. The clear red color of the beer comes from the Montmorency cherries, which are grown on the farm. “We harvested 10,000 pounds this year,” Zurschmeide. “We store them in a freezer and, knock on wood, we haven’t run out…yet.”
Inspired by the farm brewery concept, I stopped by to visit with friends at Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery (http://www.lickingholecreek.com/). Farris Loutfi, the brewery’s co-founder, poured me a taste of Secretariat’s Meadow, their delicious red imperial. The Mosaic hops give this beer some really complex flavors. After the festival, Loutfi told me that this was their most popular beer at the Brewers Fest. “We blew the keg by three in the afternoon,” he said. Reflecting on the happy crowd at the festival and the stark contrast from the previous week, Loutfi observed, “Craft beer tends to be universally inclusive.”
Mark Benusa, co-owner of the recently opened Fine Creek Brewery Company, (http://www.finecreekbrewing.com/) in Powhatan County, actually lives in Charlottesville. He agreed, saying, “Obviously, it (the previous week’s events) was in my mind as I walked by the same sites where there had been rioting. This (the Brewers Fest) was the very antithesis. People were there to have a good time.” Benusa said that the fact that the festival featured Virginia craft brewers exclusively, contributed to the strong community feel of the event. His beautiful countryside brewery has only been open a short time and I asked him what the response was from visitors to his tent. “We were thrilled,” he said. “Everyone was very welcoming, both other brewers as well as guests.” I sampled both beers that he was offering, I am a lover of Thai cuisine, and my favorite was the Thai Tea Milk Stout. This brew is a must try for any beer lover and well worth the trip on its own! However, Benusa said that the overwhelming favorite with the crowd was his House Mixed Culture Grissette. The combination of yeasts, he said, gives the Saison a “wild ale” flavor.” Many told us this was their favorite beer at the event,” he added. Of his new brewery and new tasting room, Benusa said that the reception has been greater than expected. “We sell out of our beer every weekend. Folks are keeping Gabe (head brewer Gabe Slagle) very busy.”
Another beer that I heard a lot of visitors raving about was the Orange Whip IPA from Mad Fox Brewing Company (http://madfoxbrewing.com/) in Falls Church. “The Orange Whip is a very balanced beer,” lead brewer Matt Ryan told me. “It tends to be one our most popular beers.” Ryan said that all of the hops are Citra, which gives the beer its orange character. “It’s been called a ‘gateway IPA,” Ryan laughed. “Folks who say they don’t like IPAs will tell me that they are surprised at how much they like this beer. It has a nice balance of citrusy hops and lots of malt.” I asked Ryan about the difference between the welcoming, all-inclusive atmosphere at the Brewer Fest and the anger and disunity, which had been prominently aired, virtually non-stop, since the events of the week before. “It seemed like everyone was in a really good mood,” he said. “They had come together to have a good time. They had come together as one.”
Janell Zurschmeide, from Dirt Farm Brewing, summed it up beautifully. After acknowledging that the rioting in Charlottesville had definitely been in her thoughts, she added, “I’m not from that area, I just kind of rolled in with an open heart. I thought the day went great. There was nothing but love being felt and experienced.”
As I was returning to my car afterwards, while crossing the pedestrian mall, I came upon David Reid. Reid, a 60-something retiree, was standing in the mall, blindfolded, holding his arms out wide in front of him. He had a sign that read: “I’ll Trust You. Will You Trust Me? It doesn’t matter what you look like…Why You’re here. Share a hug.” Reid told me that he had been doing this on the mall since the riots in Ferguson Missouri, three years ago. The blindfold, he explained, was to demonstrate the trust he placed in whomever he happened to meet. Personally, I’m not a hugger. But I hugged him. And as I continued to my car, it dawned on me, if the world had a little more beer and a lot more hugs, wouldn’t we all be much happier?