As the craft beer industry quietly simmered, Beerfest cooked up a plan to connect a passionate brewing community

This year's 10th-annual event expects a crowd of 17,000 — its biggest ever — at the Duke Energy Convention Center.

Feb 15, 2017 at 10:35 am

click to enlarge Cincy Beerfest founders Matt King (left) and Craig Johnson - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Cincy Beerfest founders Matt King (left) and Craig Johnson
Craft beer is everywhere these days, from the taprooms serving rarities to grocery stores selling out of the local stuff first.

But that wasn’t always the case. If you wanted a Cincinnati craft beer 10 years ago, you could grab a bottle of Christian Morlein, which was contract-brewed at the time outside the city limits. Or you could try a draft from the Rock Bottom Brewery chain located at Fountain Square, or a growler from Anderson Township’s Mt. Carmel Brewery. 

For those who weren’t hip to Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewery, an early go-to craft brew in the Cincinnati market, the options for non-Bud drinkers were scarce: Sam Adams, Newcastle and the like. 

Even so, this was around the time Craig Johnson and Matt King set their Beerfest empire in motion. This year’s 10th-annual Cincy Beerfest expects a crowd of 17,000, its biggest ever. And the company has expanded the Beerfest concept into five other markets since those early days. 

In the decade since Beerfest started, the interest in craft beer has exploded. Terms like IPA, porter, pilsner and dunkel summon memories of these flavors instead of run to a dictionary. Cincinnati itself has more than 20 local breweries, a number rising with every nano brewery and multi-million-dollar expansion. 

The 2007 Beerfest sold out, drawing 600 attendees to sample the handful of local, commercial craft beers available. Now one of the five largest beer festivals in the U.S., the company’s growth has paralleled the industry as a whole. But that’s not exactly what the plan was. 

Riding the Wave

Johnson and King rode the front of the craft beer wave, but they’re not clairvoyant. They’re actually businessmen who had their sights set on launching a successful festival and flew a variety of flags until they found one the crowds saluted. 

Johnson says besides Beerfest, they tried out a fireworks party on the Purple People Bridge and a Halloween event at Roebling Point during the 2000s. But Beerfest was the one that worked.

“It really becomes a celebration of the local breweries, which then host the out of town breweries,” Johnson says. 

Johnson and King began the festival for fun as much as it was a gamble on the future of craft beer. They spent about $20,000 of their own money to launch the first version in 2007.

Johnson had owned and operated bars in Northern Kentucky and had started and headed up the MainStrasse Mardi Gras festival from 1996 to 1999. King, a longtime friend of Johnson’s, was managing a retail store at the time. Johnson describes King as the Yin to his Yang, more conservative and an expert with numbers and bookkeeping. Johnson’s spark was creativity.

“We had some other events that we were doing in 2009 that once we focused on the beer festivals we kind of dropped,” King says. “I think we’re risk takers. We realized it was kind of like a gold rush and we needed to get to these big cities that didn’t have large festivals before they did. That’s why the early expansion paid off so much. We knew we had lightning in a bottle in Cincinnati.”

Flushed with a sold-out Cincinnati Beerfest in 2007, the pair went on to initiate clones in Columbus in 2010, Pittsburgh in 2013, Cleveland in 2014, Philadelphia in 2015 and the newest Beerfest in Tampa in 2016.

The umbrella company running the events is called Festivals Unlimited. Beerfest events are meant to introduce the public to new craft beers and to help enthusiasts get to know what’s new in the industry. You can meet with insiders to discover new brews and trends. 

Craft beer lovers pay a flat fee for admission and to sample food from local restaurants and 25 of the hundreds of beers offered at the event. About 20 local breweries are typically represented, with 75 to 100 local beers. 

Mixing with Pro Brewers

Craft beer enthusiasts are a lot like foodies. These aren’t drinkers that chug down beer during ballgames. They’re drinkers who discuss aromas and notes, flavors and aftertastes. And the brewers discuss their inventions like chefs.

“We’ll have brewers behind their tables,” King says. “It allows brewers to have a conversation about ingredients, about the brewery. This year we’ll have a couple of owners of breweries and will have discussions in a separate room to talk a bit about their brands.”

MadTree co-founder Brady Duncan is one of the local brewery owners who will attend Beerfest. He describes the sense of camaraderie among the brewers as almost a family reunion.

“I think the cool thing is you go to Beerfest and everyone’s happy,” Duncan says. “Certainly there’s your fair share of people trying to drink beers as fast as they can so they can get drunk, and that’s a very small percentage. Most people are coming there because they want to talk to the people who make the beer, they want to try a lot of different beer, and they want to see what new breweries are out there. That’s kind of the whole intent behind Beerfest.”

Duncan says he can’t quantify the impact participating in the festival has on his business, but he is confident it makes a difference.

“What other opportunity do you have to put your beer in front of 15,000 people who are already your target consumers? They are already interested in craft beers,” Duncan says. “That’s pretty tough to do.”

Rhinegeist, Taft’s Ale House, MadTree and Fifty West have all introduced new beers at the festivals. Columbus brewers like Seventh Son, Four String and Actual have debuted new beers in Cincinnati. Johnson describes the festivals as a marketing tour for product launches and new breweries.

Taft’s Ale House general manager Keith Malloy has been involved in Beerfest in one way or another since it started.

“It’s really put a highlight on craft beer and made it cool and fun and has shown what it could be,” Malloy says. “I feel like that has a lot to do with where Cincinnati is now. It really exposes you to a lot of varieties of stuff that you might not otherwise try. You have a chance to try beers outside your normal wheelhouse. I love doing that.”

But it’s not only professional brewers that flock to the event. There’s also a judged homebrew competition organized by the Cincinnati Malt Infusers, a club for aspiring brewers and beer hobbyists. 

Competition coordinator Tim McKee set up the judged tasting at Beerfest. He says Beerfest provides his group with the venue for their largest annual event.

“This competition will be among about 350 beers,” McKee says. “We’ll have from 50 to 70 judges. From the 350 entries, it’s a pretty wide range. Some of the beers are fantastic, as good or better than what they’re drinking downstairs (at the main Beerfest tasting room) and they run the gamut down to beers that have some issues. If a brewer is new or inexperienced, we’ll give him some advice on how to improve things and address his issues or flaws.”

McKee says at least two judges taste each beer and the brewer is given a detailed score sheet with an explanation of what worked and what didn’t. Being fastidiously clean when making the beer is one of the most important aspects to brewing to avoid the introduction of wild bacteria to the batch.

“I like to do the competitions, but others are in it just to meet people,” McKee says. “Back when there weren’t 500 craft brews to choose from, when there were just a few at a given bar, it was a lot easier to make a beer that stood out as a homebrewer. Now you can go into Kroger and find many beers that are all wonderful and it’s a lot harder to convince people to go to the trouble to brew their own.”

The folks who do take up the hobby are in it for the gourmet aspect, McKee says.

“Some people like to make a cake from scratch and other people want to do it quick and buy a box of ingredients,” he says. “I feel like I can make exactly the beer I want. It’s maybe my competitive nature. I try and brew an exact style and compare it with commercial examples out there. It takes a little more care, a little more time, but then you get a homemade product that you can share and have people enjoy.”

The Biggest Tap Room Ever

Johnson says the growth industry they’ve tapped into has a long way to go before it peaks. This year’s Beerfest is bigger than ever and includes many new smaller brew pubs, a trend that Johnson says he expects to continue. 

Business dynamos, like MadTree, which is now available even in groceries and corporate chains like BW3s, were part of the first wave of the craft beer trend. Johnson doesn’t expect to see such explosive expansions of a single brewer in the future. Instead, he expects smaller enterprises to find success, people content with just having a brew pub that makes beer for their own building with minimal distribution.

“You’ll see a lot more small things,” Johnson says. “Which is great, because you’ll see more diversity. And I think craft cocktail distilleries, we’re going to see those here in ever greater numbers as well.”

Johnson explains that there is a limit to the number of beers, local or otherwise, a grocery store can sell, and the retail market is becoming saturated. The future is in one-off brewpubs that carry their own blends, he says.

“(Gov. John) Kasich signed a law to allow breweries to have tap rooms a few years ago,” Johnson says. “That really was the fuel the fire needed to have the boom of new breweries in Ohio.”

That was Ohio Senate Bill 48, passed in 2013, which reduced the annual licensing fee for microbreweries by almost 75 percent and allows brewers to open tasting rooms within a half-mile of their facilities. 

Johnson says the future of craft brewing is bright — if people want it to grow, the best thing they can do is support quality breweries, both local and out-of-town. Festivals Unlimited expects to continue to grow, expanding into new markets and launching new festivals to slake the public’s thirsts. 

“We are also looking to diversify into cocktail festivals, like our PROOF Cocktail Festival (launched locally last October),” Johnson says. 

The secret to Beerfest’s success is simple, Johnson says. “We did two things. We were converters of people that were domestic drinkers, that were having craft beer for the first time. For years and years that’s why the breweries loved us. We were converting people into craft beers. Then it became the mass offering of different beers. We are always evolving and we try and stay on top of it.” 

The 10th-annual CINCY BEERFEST takes place Friday and Saturday at the Duke Energy Convention Center. Tickets and more info: