This review originally appeared on the My Wine Education blog and is reprinted with permission. Thanks, Michelle!
It must be said that Tom and I are travelers. And if the travel destination includes the chance for great beer or wine, so much the better! One of our favorite spots for combining great beer and travel is Big River Grille and Brew Works on Disney’s Boardwalk at Walt Disney World. We go there often enough that we have our favorite server (Ursula), and the brewer there (Evan) knows us as the “smoked porter” couple.
Our most recent beer trip is thanks to a heads up from Evan. Big River is based out of Chattanooga and in June, we did a long weekend trip there doing the touristy things like checking out the Tennessee Aquarium and also trying both Big River locations. We had a great time and quickly decided to go back for the big event this past weekend: the 14th annual Southern Brewers Festival, a one-day event that celebrates beer and raises money for Kids on the Block, a Chattanooga-based group that uses puppets to educate children on diversity and other social concerns.
Big River is part of the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group and it seemed that representatives from the entire group were at the festival, including A1A Ale Works from St. Augustine, FL and the two Rock Bottom Breweries in Atlanta that are owned by Gordon Biersch. The other breweries and microbreweries weren’t all from the South (though that region was definitely well represented). The list included Abita, Atlanta Brewing Company, Barley Mob (a group of home brewers from Chattanooga), Foothills, Good People, Heiner Brau, Highland, Magic Hat, Moccasin Bend, Moon River, New Belgium, SweetWater, Terrapin, Yazoo and Yuengling.
The festival ran from 2:00 pm to midnight on Saturday, August 23rd and was held on the riverfront in Ross Landing Park which is just west of the Aquarium. General admission tickets were $15.00 each and included a white plastic commerative mug and your first beer token. Additional tokens were $3 each. Something new this year was the Party on the Pier VIP pass. This ticket also got you admission to the VIP section on a pier out on the river where complimentary food and beer from Big River and other Gordon Biersch breweries were available. There were also lots of tables and seating for watching the bands. These tickets were $60 a person or $110 a couple in advance, but later went up to $75 a person or $140 a couple. The Party on the Pier ticket holders were given an orange mug and a lanyard for access to the private area.
Since part of the reason we were making this trip was to celebrate our new home, we splurged on the Party on the Pier passes and were very glad we did. The food on the pier included grilled chicken and steak for make your own tacos or nachos, bratwurst, beer cheese with bread, fresh fruit and grilled pineapple with a beer creme fraiche. Besides the beer, soft drinks and bottled water were available. Off the pier, the food leaned towards the typical festival fare though the Big River booth did offer Gordon Biersch’s signature garlic fries.
The first bit of entertainment on the stage was actually the Krystal Square Off Qualifying Tour for the World Hamburger Eating Championship which will be held in Chattanooga on September 28th. If you are not familiar with Krystal, it’s the southern version of White Castle (or White Castle is the northern version of Krystal – take your pick). Like Big River, Krystal is also based in Chattanooga.
After the competitive eating was over, the music started with several local cover bands whose names we never caught. The main entertainment was provided by the Stratoblasters out of Dallas, Texas; Pat McLaughlin of Franklin, Tennessee; and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies of Eugene, Oregon. You probably remember the Daddies from their song “Zoot Suit Riot” which made the Billboard charts in 1997.
When we got to the Pier, there were three bars set up with two beers on draft at each one. Bottles of Big River’s Vienna-style lager, pilsner and red ale were also available in tubs of ice. The first beer I tried was A1A’s Orange Blossom Honey Ale which was a bit disappointing. You got a nice hint of orange at the beginning but then the taste sort of faded into blandness. Or as our table decided, there was no there there.
Next was Big River’s Toasted Oat Pale Ale which was brewed especially for the festival. We liked this one better than the honey ale, but Tom thought the oats were toasted a bit too much which overwhelmed the hoppiness of the pale ale. It may have been better named Toasted Oat Ale so you wouldn’t be expecting the higher level of hops you usually get with a pale ale. Big River also had an espresso stout that was brewed just for the festival, but we somehow never managed to get that one.
As we moved to the next two beers, we were offered Rock Bottom Atlanta’s Kolsch and Gordon Biersch’s Blond Bock. The kolsch was a fine example of this beer type and was really nice on this hot day. When we were served the blond bock, we were warned to not let that beer deceive us since its alcohol content was much higher than a typical blond beer. We had a mix of hop lovers and malt lovers at our table and this beer was one that we all agreed on.
Now it was time to actually leave the pier and try some of the other beers available. We were lucky enough to visit Moon River Brewery at their Savannah, GA, location this past January so we were anxious to try them again. I’m not usually a big fan of wheat beers, but their Wild Wacky Wit is so damn good. It’s spiced with Curacao bitter orange peel and coriander… lots of coriander. I had a terrible cold when I first tried this beer in January and I swear it almost cured it. Tom went with Moon River’s Slow-vannah Pale Ale. This one made his hop head taste buds very, very happy.
Other beers we tried included Foothills’ Hoppyum IPA (big thumbs up), Atlanta Brewing Company’s Red Brick Ale (okay, but not great), Boulevard’s Lunar Ale (another hop fest in your mouth) and Good People’s American Pale Ale (not as hoppy, but very, very good. A nice well balanced beer.).
Back on the pier, the beer offerings had changed. There was a Keller Bier we think was a special offering from Gordon Biersch. It was heavy on the malty side so hop heads like Tom and I didn’t care for it, but the malt fans at our table loved it. The Gordon Biersch Marzen was a much more popular choice. It was very smooth with just a little sweetness at the end. But, I saved the best for last… Big River’s Rocket Red Ale. A hoppy red, this is my all-time favorite beer. Normally, you can only get this on draft at Big River’s Walt Disney World location or in bottles in the Chattanooga area. It was such a lovely surprise to see it available on draft at this festival.
Big River Grille & Brewing Works, Chatanooga, TN. Photo © Carla Gesell-Streeter, 2008
The Southern Brewers Festival is going to become a new annual tradition for us. I’ll be buying our Party on the Pier passes as soon as they are available and hope to get some friends to join us next year. The festival seems to be thought of as a local Chattanooga event rather than a regional draw. Everyone we talked to who heard we had driven down from Cincinnati seemed amazed though Tom and I know the appeal of great beer in a great setting. The festival web site provides lots of information on getting there and helps you find the closest lodging to the park. The main Big River location is also just half a block away from the Aquarium and was the perfect Friday night kick-off to a truly lovely beer weekend.