New Albany Beer Week, Part One: Long live Keg Liquors Fest of Ale, an indisputable annual beer institution.

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Fest of Ale home page

Fest of Ale ticket information here.

I celebrated my 14th birthday on August 3, 1974 — in Wyoming, perhaps, or maybe Montana. We were on vacation, headed toward Washington state and a reunion with one of my dad’s World War II buddies. On August 9 at the Mount Rainier National Park lodge we joined a crowd gathered downstairs in the lobby, standing around a lone radio atop a chair by the fireplace.

The occasion was Richard Nixon’s resignation speech.

A couple months later my beloved Oakland A’s won a third consecutive World Series against the Dodgers. Nixon quit, then the A’s won. My favorite album was Deep Purple’s Burn. I can remember little else about 1974, the year I celebrated my 14th birthday.

Returning to the here and now, the 14th edition of Keg Liquors Fest of Ale will take place at New Albany’s Riverfront Amphitheater on Saturday, June 1. It will be the fourth iteration of the festival in New Albany. Last year was a sellout, with somewhere around 2,000 area beer fans in attendance.

This might sound like a crush of humanity, but it isn’t. The major regional stops on the beer festival tour sometimes host as many as 8,000 guests, with Port-A-Lets extending around the entire perimeter like Donald Trump’s walled-in Marred-Ameri-Lago.

Festival founder and package store owner Todd Antz has grown Fest of Ale slowly and organically, from the parking lot adjacent to his original Clarksville store to St. Anthony’s lawn, and now along the banks of the Ohio. It’s an urban area, and yet still presents a pastoral scene of greenery, passing barges and the rising sun architectural imagery of the amphitheater itself.

We pause now for a misty-eyed flashback to the halcyon days of my youth in Southern Indiana — say, during the James Earl Carter administration — when men were men, beer was beer and craft was a mail order do-it-yourself birdhouse.

Summertime invariably inspired a profusion of outdoor beer festivals, as did fall, winter and spring.

At 17 years of age, looking more like 12, living at home, ducking prying eyes and requiring divine intervention to get served at rarely obliging package stores like the one Todd’s father ran (in fact we never went to Keg because they ALWAYS carded), natural settings constantly beckoned as an alternative.

Priority was placed on those patches of isolated farmland belonging to folks who didn’t know or care that we’d found someone older to procure the cheapest swill possible, borrow a steel tub otherwise used to hydrate future beefsteak, buy ice, and await the grapevine-laden onslaught of teenagers who’d learned without the benefit of social media that a field party was in progress.

When it rained, we got soaked; not the worst conceivable outcome in hot weather, especially if any girls bothered to come — which was seldom.

Every now and then, a measure of transcendence was achieved, and an enterprising reader might insert one of Bob Seger’s nostalgic AM radio hits to accompany this narrative, although I never liked his music very much after “Katmandu,” which I heard for the first time – where else? – at a summertime outdoor beer festival in the Knobs, with any style of beer you wanted for thoughtful sampling so long as it was Sterling or Falls Shitty, and with tunes like Seger’s blaring from the crackly sub-par radio of a car stuck axle-deep in a muddy field littered with cigarette butts and spent plastic cups.

Decades have passed, and nowadays, lying about one’s age generally implies a downward revision of chronological information on Facebook. Falls City, our illicitly old-fashioned lunch pail lager, went away – and then reappeared with a craft nouveau makeover. It’s not an expletive any longer, thank heavens.

Outdoor beer festivals have evolved considerably, too, bearing little resemblance to the midsummer’s night screams we staged during Carter’s presidency. Billy’s brother legalized homebrewing, but he probably never experienced the welcoming nuzzle of a well-turned beer bong in the steamy July drizzle.

As befits the era of “craft” beer’s ascendancy, today’s outdoor beer festivals are devoted to the exaltation of contemporary brewing, and follow a common template.

Ideally visiting breweries and wholesalers provide a diverse selection of beers, and when possible, brewers and beer sales representatives are on hand to answer questions and provide insights. A festival entry fee covers numerous, if not always truly unlimited, wee tastes of these many beers.

Local purveyors vend food, and musical entertainment typically deriving from the rock, pop, blues and bluegrass spectrum is offered, although just once I’d love to hear a string quartet performing modern chamber compositions, or a rollicking Klezmer band covering the Ramones.

As billed, “craft” beer festivals enhance the genre’s visibility through heightened consciousness and increased recognition. They also give back to the community by supporting chosen charities – and if they don’t, suspicion is fully warranted.

Reduced entry prices for designated drivers and the encouragement of moderation illustrate that beer consciousness and social conscience go together like espresso beans and imperial stout.

The template might be common, but the execution separates the pros from the amateurs. In Louisville, the collegiate scrum known as Brew at the Zoo probably remains the largest outdoor “craft” beer festival, although perhaps it has been eclipsed by Tailspin Ale Fest, held at Bowman Field.

In terms of organization, there is no comparison. Unlike the zoo free-for-all, Tailspin is a class act conceived and organized by Tisha Gainey, Todd’s cousin; as you can see, good taste and attention to detail runs in the family. Tailspin is tops in Louisville, and Fest of Ale has no competition in Southern Indiana.

(Speaking personally, my favorite festive rite of summertime beer held in an outdoor setting takes place each year on the second Saturday in August: It’s the Great Taste of the Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re a beer nut, you owe it to yourself to install the Great Taste in one of your bucket list slots.)

Let’s close with a flashback to Saturday, June 2, 2007. It was the second Fest of Ale, held behind the store on Highway 131 — had it yet been renamed Lewis & Clark Parkway? – and what I’ll never forget is what happened when a brief thunderstorm slammed the fest site.

Instead of running for cover, everyone grabbed the tent framework’s steel rods with one arm to keep it from blowing to Oz.

The other arm?

Priorities, my friend, because there’s no “here, hold my beer” for the truly pure of heart.

I reported on the 2007 event.

“Yesterday was the second annual Fest of Ales at Keg Liquors in Clarksville, and store owner and beer enthusiast Todd Antz surely must be happy with the results.

“After last year’s inaugural event, Todd did some necessary tweaking. He moved the date back six weeks, brought in even more breweries and wholesalers, and relentlessly advertised. I’d guess that attendance was triple that of 2006, and in spite of an hour of stormy gusts and hard rain (given the steaminess of the day, this may have helped entertain the crowd rather than hurt), those present seemed to be having a wonderful time throughout.

“The Curmudgeon’s picks of the litter?

“Upland Brewing’s Eileen Martin brought a 750 ml bottle of experimental strawberry lambic; sorry there wasn’t enough for everyone. I’m trying to score some for sampling at the annual Lambic by the Glass on June 30 at NABC.

“World Class Beverage had New Holland’s Existential on hand. It is another creative excursion into crossover territory, with the gravity and heft of a barley wine, but with an overt hoppiness that derives from ten hop additions. It has a clear, well defined balance between the malt and the hops. Who says one can’t enjoy gravity beers like this and Ol’ Shag, a barley wine from Browning’s Brewery, on a hot, sultry day? Not the Curmudgeon, for he did enjoy them.

“Another surprise for me was the complex and tasty Shmaltz He’Brew Origin Pomegranate Ale, brewed with (duh) pomegranate juice. It’s handled in Indiana by Cavalier.

“Louisville-area breweries were well represented, too, and all the styles I tasted were quite good, and to conclude, who doesn’t like fresh-fried, Elector-battered grouper from Bistro New Albany’s Dave Clancy?

“Fest of Ale is sure to grow next year. Try not to miss it.”

Mighty prescient of me, wasn’t it?

Fest of Ale has grown tremendously during the past decade, and one way to look at it is by calculating the number of beers available for sampling (an estimated 250 from 100 breweries in 2018), although an even better indication of the fest’s success is Todd’s justifiable pride at having topped the $100,000 mark in donations to the Crusade for Children ($16,000 in 2018 alone).

That’s doing it the right way.

In 2019, a committee of downtown food and drink purveyors is organizing a calendar of events during the week preceding Fest of Ale (beginning on May 25). This loosely structured celebration on all things beery is to be known as New Albany Beer Week, and in part two I’ll be charting the dimensions.

Part two here.

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