Last Friday’s in-your-face sour beer festival in Huntington gave local beer fans all they could ask for. If you need evidence that West Virginia’s beer festival scene is maturing, this is it.
As the state’s first festival featuring primarily sour and funky brews, Wild & Wonderful Winter Beer Festival seemed a bit of a risk, but it turned out to be a good one. It was not dominated by the big national and regional craft beer breweries. In fact, they were a tiny minority. Most offerings were from smaller breweries, here and abroad.
Festival organizer Jeff McKay, of Huntington’s Better Beer Coalition, appears to have proven that a festival featuring the more rare and unusual sour and wild beer styles can make a go of it financially in West Virginia.
“I’m pleased that we sold out,” said McKay.
The festival attracted roughly 600 people in total. We estimate that about 500 tickets were sold, with the rest of those in attendance being split among volunteer beer pourers, brewers, distributor and importer personnel, festival staff, and security.
The festival size was limited because McKay needed a sufficient lead time to allow distributors, who were ordering the limited-availability specialty beers just for him, to get the beer in-house from their suppliers. Ticket sales had to be balanced to the amount of beer available. When that amount o tickets were sold, sales had to be cut off. Fortunately, the cutoff did not occur until the day before the festival, so McKay’s estimates turned out pretty good.
For those who got tickets, the festival offered approximately 70 beers, with 55 of those being sour or wild ales. About half the festival offerings came from European breweries, and most of those were from Belgium. Several invited West Virginia breweries also brought some very tasty specialties. (Partial beer list here)
“We have some great new items that are brand spanking new to West Virginia,” McKay said. “The one I’m most excited about is the De Cam Oude Lembiek (a Top 50 beer on RateBeer.com). De Cam makes some really, really great lambic.”
The De Cam Lembiek is a beer that McKay has been trying to secure for some time, without luck. Working with North Central Distributors, he was finally able to get it just prior to the festival. McKay also highlighted new-to-WV beers from Elgoods (England) and from Global Beer Network (mostly Belgians).
“There’s probably 15 beers that I’ve never even had before,” said McKay.
(You’ll likely find some of the De Cam lambic offered at Summit Beer Station, since we hear McKay ordered a few extra for his bar.)
Looking back at all the preparation work that had to be done to pull these beers together, you can’t help but admire McKay’s dedication and the cooperation of the local beer distributors who brought in the European beers. The products provided by Atomic Distributing (Global Beer Nework), Capitol Beverage Company (Artisanal Imports), North Central Distributors (Merchant du Vin and Total Beverage Solution), Spriggs Distributing, and Mountain State Beverage were excellent.
West Virginia breweries brought some beauties
Abolitionist Ale Works – Mike Vance, the deft, experimental brewer for Abolitionist Ale Works in Charles Town, made a rare appearance in the western part of the state. He brought with him several exceptional brews.
“I’m excited to be at this smaller, intimate festival,” he said. “I’m looking forward to trying some new stuff. It’s exciting to see it here in West Virginia.”
He highlighted his West Funkin’ Virginia beer, which was fermented with wild West Virginia yeast in a wine barrel. It rested about 10 months in the barrel, where some brettanomyces also went to work on it.
“I want people to see what that nice brett flavor and the wild yeast brings to the table,” he said. “I get nice peach notes in it.”
Since opening last summer, he says business at their downtown Charles Town taproom has been very strong.
“That area definitely needed something, and people are letting us know that,” he said.
Bad Shepherd Beer Company – Ross Williams, brewer at Bad Shepherd Beer Co., said sour beers are a pretty recent thing for most people in the state, but he has embraced them as one of his brewery’s trademarks.
Williams says he was able to obtain 10 brett-infected red wine barrels about a year ago with the help of Mike Vance. That got his sour program going as he filled these barrels with Bad Shepherd beer.
“Starting out I just kind of used whatever beer I had on hand,” he said. “I used cream ale, brown ale, amber ale, different things just to keep those barrels full.”
He highlighted his Biere de Jouett, which is a single-barrel brew in the French Biere de Garde style that has been in a red wine barrel for about nine months that had tart cherries added.
“It’s a really rich, dark golden ale,” he said. “It’s 9.8% rich, big body, a lot of complexity from the red wine barrel.”
Weathered Ground Brewery – Sam Fonda, brewer at Weathered Ground Brewery in Cool Ridge, thinks the festival was a great place for folks, who are not so experienced in sour and funky beer styles, to learn about them. He says he also enjoyed the camaraderie among the brewers in attendance, who shared their experiences in and ideas on making sour beer styles.
Fonda brought some beers that he described as “all shapes and sizes.” The beer he highlighted for us was Forever Grapeful. It began as a golden ale soured with lactobacillus and brett. Next, part of it was re-fermented with an addition of Norton grape juice from Daniel Vineyard in Raleigh County. The other part was re-fermented with an addition of Concord grape juice from Weathered Ground’s own property. The two beers were then blended to produce Forever Grapeful.
“It’s a very sour beer,” he said. “It’s a little shocking at first taste, but once you have your second and third taste of it, your palate becomes adjusted and you start tasting the grape flavor.”
Also at the fest were a few beers from The Peddler in Huntington, Parkersburg Brewing, and Bridge Brew Works in Fayetteville.
Looking toward next year
When asked if Huntington can expect another sour beer festival next year, McKay answered, he doesn’t see why not.
“I would love to do it,” he said. “I mean, this time next year we will have even more available to us.”
With the expected arrival of the Shelton Brothers line later this year, next year’s sour fest should turn out to be a doozie. Sour and wild fans, watch for this one.