THE Savannah Craft Brew Festival has grown from humble beginnings into one of the Southeast’s premier such events.
Red Mountain Entertainment, of Birmingham, AL, took over the Brew Fest several years ago, and during that time the festival has seen its biggest growth.
What started out as an attempt to get tourists to come to Savannah over Labor Day weekend has grown into a draw in and of itself, with thousands of patrons attending at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island.
“We’ve been doing craft beer festivals for nine years now, all over the Southeast. When we took over the Savannah Craft Brew Festival several years ago, it was one of the biggest we had been introduced to. Not so much in attendance, but in the physical footprint,” says Alex Colee of Red Mountain Entertainment.
“Most festivals we do are basically in one room. When we first came to Savannah and saw that at the time it was an indoor/outdoor festival, it was a challenge because you then have to split the beer up, and also split the staff up,” Colee says.
And then came Tropical Storm Hermine.
With bad weather approaching on Labor Day weekend 2016 – but a crowd still ready to enjoy the festival – organizers decided to bring all the kegs inside the sprawling Trade Center facility, rather than some beer tables being outside.
It was a serendipitous positive result.
“The year the hurricane hit and we had to move everything indoors, it was frankly better for us. And all our partners really liked it as well,” Colee says.
“But since we’ve introduced food trucks to the festival, you can still go outside and enjoy yourself whenever you want.”
Colee herself is the final judge of the extensive beer list – though she doesn’t do it all alone by any means.
“We work closely with the distributors, they help us understand what’s out there in the market. In Savannah there are a lot of distributors – some markets we’re in there are only two or three, but in Savannah we work with five different distributors,” she says.
“I pick all the beers, but I work closely with distributors and with breweries to come up with the list. We do put a lot of trust in the distributors, especially with the beers on the VIP side,” Colee says.
“It’s a real collaborative event between us, the brewers, and the distributors.”
This year, regular festival-goers won’t see anything dramatically new – but there have been some important tweaks to make the experience more enjoyable.
“We’ve brought in several new meaderies and breweries, and rearranged some things. We’ve broken out some things so the crowd will flow better,” Colee says.
“There are a lot of the favorite things – the cornhole tournament, the silent disco, things like that. But the beer is the main show — beer is the rock star.”
A new addition this year for users of the UnTapp’d app is a specific event check-in, rather than just a location check-in.
Planning a craft beer festival isn’t something you can do at the last minute. While you might be tempted to think planning begins for the next year’s edition right after the festival ends, Colee says there’s as much art to it as science.
“We start planning more like about 6 or 7 months out. In the beer world, you’re dealing with craft and micro breweries who often work in small batches. A lot of things can change,” she says.
“So you don’t’ want to get too far ahead of yourself. The process of actually picking the beers is only about three months prior.”
The Savannah Craft Brew Festival of course coincides with one of the High Holy Days of the Savannah calendar: The first day of college football.
The University of Georgia Bulldogs, in fact, play at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday – right in the middle of the festival.
What’s a self-respecting Dawg fan who loves their craft beer to do?
“There are lots of questions about college football. Luckily our friends at Terrapin and Foothills breweries will provide opportunities to watch the games, including the Georgia game,” Colee says.
“We’re based in the Southeast, and we’re never going to overlook the fact that this festival happens on the first weekend of college football.”