Worcester, Massachusetts. Portland, Maine. Los Angeles, California. St. Petersburg, Florida. Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a weird back-of-the-T-shirt if you’re a rock band on tour, but for Shelton Brothers Inc., it works.
Shelton Brothers, the importer of global beer, wine and spirits, is headquartered in Massachusetts and handles over 130 brewers alone. For the last five years, it has hosted a beer festival confidently named The Festival, and it has been held in those five cities I mentioned. This year’s Festival, at Copper & Kings Distillery in Louisville, was close enough for an easy drive, so my wife and I decided to go.
It’s actually that simple. With other beer events, you have to plan around chance. Will I get the ticket? Will I even win the lottery to get the opportunity to buy the ticket? Will the website crash? With the Festival, weirdly, tickets have typically remained available up to the day of the party.
There are three sessions of Festival festivities over two days; on the advice of the Festival-experienced crew at Brasserie V, we took it easy and only bought tickets for one. (The all-weekend VIP tickets that get you into all three sessions for a cheaper rate plus an hour of early access on Friday, those sell out.) This gave us some time to experience a little more of Louisville.
It’s a city that’s on the come, with big sections of urban renewal in the downtown area. Against the Grain Brewing has a popular brewpub attached to Louisville Slugger Field — home of the Triple-A Louisville Bats, get it? — and Louisville has its own celebrity chef in former Top Chef standout Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. My wife and I had a fun meal at 610 Magnolia on Friday night, with exceptionally warm service and some fine bourbon.
But the Saturday midday Festival session was what we were in town to experience. The thing about the Festival is that it’s the intimate brewer experience of a festival like Great Taste of the Midwest, but with exceptional brewers from across the country and around the world. Wait in the long but quick-moving Cantillon line, for example, and get a mini-lesson on all the beers being poured by owner and brewmaster Jean Van Roy himself. Or have your Side Project Bleuet du Fermier poured by certified American beer celebrity, Perennial head brewer, and Side Project mastermind Cory King.
So when I say that tickets are still available, and not second-hand, you have to understand that American beer fans just don’t get this kind of access at every old event, even the massive ones like Great Taste or Great American Beer Festival. Belgian breweries like Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen, American standouts like Sante Adairius, Trillium and Hill Farmstead — there isn’t one roof big enough to cover all these guys.
Well, maybe the sky’s big enough. While one section of the Copper & Kings grounds was under a tent, the larger space was open to the elements. Those elements cooperated spectacularly, with sunny skies and an above-average temperature near 80. It was good sour-drinkin’ weather, and the brewers complied. The heavily apricotty West Ashley from Sante Adairius was a standout, outperforming even the lauded Cantillon Fou’ Foune that afternoon. Drie Fonteinen’s Cuvée Armand and Gaston — a blend named after current brewery head Armand Debelder and his late father, Gaston was spectacular, both complex and crushable.
Other top marks went to the expected, like Hill Farmstead’s Anna saison, Jackie O’s Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground coffee stout, and Cantillon’s three-year lambic aged in Meursault barrels, but also to the unexpected. Florida’s J. Wakefield has become a leader in the fruit-heavy “Florida weisse” style; its bright green lemon-lime Berliner weisse named Troll So Hard was more than a whisper-goes-through-the-crowd conversation starter, but a barely-alcoholic quencher too. Trillium is famous for its IPAs, but dialed in a richly fruity black currant version of its Wild Sinister Kid sour dark strong ale.
We ran into friends from Chicago, St. Louis, and the Brasserie V crew too, but maybe nothing warmed the cockles of my Wisconsinite heart quite like the in-house concession business, B-Town Pie Co., offering a brandy old fashioned ice cream cone. I’d love to see Shelton Brothers move the party even closer to the Midwest in 2017. St. Louis would be a natural fit. But taking a road trip to the near South for this Festival was a no-brainer. Keep it on your radar come next April, when the upcoming location is likely to be announced.