Saturday started with pouring rain, but by afternoon, the only thing pouring in Hickory was hundreds of gallons of craft brews under clear blue skies.
Union Square played host to the ninth annual Hickory Hops Brew Festival and was brimming with beer enthusiasts who lined up to fill their cups long before the 1 p.m. start.
With 49 brewers and distributors from four states pouring unlimited samples of their unique recipes, and a 35 percent increase in online ticket presales, Hickory Hops became one of the most popular brew festivals in the Southeast. This year, organizers had to turn away brewers because of limited space and estimated more than 2,700 people to be in attendance.
The event also serves to showcase beers entered in the Carolinas Championship of Beer and announce the best of show winners.
“The competition is just what these brewers love to participate in,” said Connie Kincaid, a festival organizer and executive director of the Hickory Downtown Development Association. “Then, the festival is just icing on the cake.”
Festival organizer Bobby Bush presented Natty Greene’s Brewing Co., of Greensboro, with first place for the brewery’s wood and barrel-aged sour ale, while Old Hickory Brewery, Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery and Foothills Brewing received second, third and an honorable mention award, respectively.
At the heart of the event are Olde Hickory Brewery and its owners Steven Lyerly and Jason Yates, whose involvement in the craft brew trade led them to start the festival to focus on local and Southeastern beers. Now, their whole team is committed to keeping fellow brewers happy and returning.
“We’re competing against each other, but at the same time, it’s a small industry,” said Olde Hickory brewer Jake Gee. “We’re all friends, everybody knows everybody, and we help each other out when we can. It’s a tight-knit community, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Kincaid agrees it’s the hospitality that has the festival growing.
“They all keep coming back because they know these guys really know their stuff,” she said.
Billy Klingel, of Asheville’s Oyster House Brewing Company, said, with a small operation and little product to give away, Hickory Hops is the only out-of-town festival where he showcases his brews.
“It’s just a great festival, great turnout, great community response,” he said. “Plus, we have a blast hearing bands and introducing people to our unique brew.”
His Moonstone Oyster Stout, brewed with oysters to harden the water and add salty undertones, got many drinkers talking.
“People’s tastes are changing,” Gee said. “People are learning that there’s more than just Bud, Miller, Coors, not that there’s anything wrong with those, but there’s a lot more flavors out there, and people find them at these festivals. I think it’s really helping to grow the whole industry, and brewers are taking a lot more risks than they used to with their flavors.”
One beer connoisseur, Randy Rhodes of Winston-Salem, was the first in line for the festival. He and his friends attended beer festivals in Portland, Chicago, Wisconsin and even several World Beer Festivals.
“This one is close to home and is smaller, more intimate, meaning more beer for us,” Rhodes said grinning. “It’s nice because some bigger festivals just turn into a big drunk-fest. We’ll still get drunk here, but enjoy the low-key atmosphere. We take beer seriously.”
Though the brews were regional, many of the other revelers like, Michall Holmes of Lee’s Summit, Mo., and Perry Depew of Kansas City, Mo., flocked from far away states. Both men took careful notes in their festival programs as they tasted, saying the travel is well worth it to find blends they never tried.
Kincaid said the festival’s $305,000 total economic impact last year was because of a large influx out-of-town guests. Local hotels, like Crowne Plaza and Park Inn, provide shuttle to visitors, which Kincaid said puts drinkers from out of town at ease to enjoy the experience.
Anyone who missed this year’s Hickory Hops doesn't need to worry. Bush confirmed there will be a 10th festival, and Kincaid said space has been identified for expansion.
To comment on this story, visit observernewsonline.com.