Charleston Beer Garden Second annual event aims for educational fun in the sun

The 2012 Charleston Beer Garden at Brittlebank Park.

There may not be any lederhosen-clad Bavarian types strolling the grounds at this weekend’s Charleston Beer Garden, but there will be a variety of local beer lovers who appreciate high-quality ales and lagers in a beautiful park setting.

“The whole idea was built around being a beer garden, which for us is the quintessential way of communing with friends,” said festival organizer Hillary Jones of the Gusto Group.

Last spring, the inaugural Charleston Beer Garden drew a strong crowd of beer enthusiasts and novices to Brittlebank Park on Lockwood Drive. Attendees of “the largest pop-up beer garden Charleston has experienced” enjoyed the tree-covered setting by the Ashley River, taking advantage of the VIP areas, growler stations, cornhole lanes, beer classes, food trucks and live music.

This year, the festival returns to the park with a full roster of craft-brewed ales, lagers and seasonal beers. A few major breweries are on the list, but the majority of the lineup comprises popular national microbreweries and locals.

Presented by the Gusto Group and the Craft Beer Exchange at Sunoco, the Charleston Beer Garden joined the ranks of two prominent local annual beer festivals, the Ballpark Festival of Beers at Riley Park and Brewvival at Coast Brewing in North Charleston. All three events feature a variety of craft-brewed ales and lagers; if the Ballpark Festival of Beers is a casual keg party and Brewvival is a super-intensive tasting session, the Charleston Beer Garden has found its way into a spot right in the middle as an interactive riverside party with beer as the central theme.

“The Festival of Beer and Brewvival are great events that do an amazing job of opening people’s eyes to a mass amount of craft beers with sampling opportunities,” Jones said. “They’re very well-done. With Charleston Beer Garden, we like to think of it as a celebration of beer where people can come and sample specific beers, but they also can hang out, play games, enjoy a day by the Ashley River, kick back and do what we believe beer is built on.

“It’s all about camaraderie, hanging out and enjoying beer in a space that you don’t normally get to do that,” Jones said. “We love for that to be the core of the event. That builds a foundation for it.”

Jones has spent years working for wine and beer companies and distributors, and she embraces the fun side of those industries. “Both beer and wine have their special fun aspects,” she said.

While Jones admits she’s never spent time in Bavarian biergartens, she loved the inner-city beer gardens and patio hangouts of Chicago.

“For me, the love came out of the merging of two different things. In Chicago, there were beer gardens everywhere. They were open-air, wedged in all over the city within brick walls in really unique spaces. The pop-up event culture kicked up a few years ago, too. People started putting on one-day events in great outdoor spaces. For me, it’s exciting to see a lot of beer gardens popping up all over.”

Admission to the first Charleston Beer Garden included a commemorative festival pint glass and koozie, a “sampling passport” with information about the participating breweries and a bag of beer swag. At the peak of the afternoon, some found lines for samples and pints to be very long and running slowly.

Jones and her team were well-aware of what worked and what didn’t in the first year, so they’ve addressed the issues and adjusted their approach for Year Two.

“We thought a lot about some of the things we could do slightly differently this year,” she said. “There were a few things that didn’t totally work out, so we listened carefully for feedback from people who attended last year. We took it all into account and added more beers, more classes and more events.

“We don’t want anyone to have the experience of waiting all day in beer lines, so that was one of the first issues we addressed,” Jones adds. “In addition to the beer locations around the festival, we had brewers set up in their tents in one place. People were eager to get what was included in the ticket, so they wound up on one side of the festival trying to get samples. That was something we wanted to fix, so we adopted a slightly different way. They’ll have more of a choice to do what they want, whether it’s getting 3-ounce samples or full pints.

The new pint glass “steins” will have 3-ounce pour lines marked on the side, making it easier for servers to pour proper samples, while small handout festival maps will chart where each class, game and performance will be held. In addition to the beer tickets in the sampling passport, tickets for extra samples or pints of beer will be available for purchase.

Dozens of craft beers will be pouring throughout the day.

Charleston’s Holy City Brewing and Palmetto Brewing Co. will be on hand with some of their standard and seasonal offerings. Greenville’s Thomas Creek and Spartanburg’s RJ Rockers each will have several flagship and seasonal selections.

Other featured craft brewers include Sweetwater, Founders, Goose Island, Lagunitas, Brooklyn, Terrapin, Dogfish Head, Foothills, Leinenkugel and Sierra Nevada.

Master brewers and staffers from many of the participating breweries will be there to serve their beers.

Last year, popular Americana duo Shovels & Rope (Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent) co-headlined the Beer Garden’s main stage with support from Southwood, Megan Jean and the KFB, Long Miles and oompah group the Hans Schmidt German Band. Situated on the opposite side of the park from the beer vendors, the live music stage seemed far away from the beer action, according to attendees.

This year, the musical lineup will include Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern rock band A Thousand Horses, country/indie quintet the Royal Tinfoil, funk group Wadata, twangy songwriter Jordan Igoe and singer/guitarist Will Hastings.

Jones and her crew altered the layout of the festival to create a better flow from the vendors’ side to the music stage side. “The stage is in the same open area that’s kind of central to the festival, but we’ll have four additional breweries spread out near the music area,” she said. “It puts breweries closer to the music, games and classes.”

This year’s Beer Olympics competition will feature the Keg Toss, Grain Sack Race, Growler Ring Toss and other lively activities. Players can win a one-year membership to East Shore Athletic Club, a charter fishing trip with Lowcountry Drifter Charters, commemorative cornhole boards and other prizes.

On the more academic side, the Earth Fare Beer School will offer eight classes and seminars throughout the day, including a class on the vital ingredients of beer hosted by Sierra Nevada, several home-brewing sessions with the local home-brewing club Lowcountry Libations, a question-and-answer session with local brewmaster Chris Brown of Holy City Brewing, and two food-and-beer pairing sessions hosted by Brooklyn Brewery and Lagunitas Brewing Co.

The Homebrewers’ Village will be an area where local home brewers can offer samples of their own specialty ales and lagers as well as information on home-brewing equipment, ingredients, procedures and competitions.

“If you’re in the experimental phases and really want to approach it as an opportunity to learn about beer, go and try the beers, meet the brewers, play the games, and take the classes,” Jones said. “If you’re more into the idea of having fun and chilling out, go and grab a pint or growler and check out the games.”