The Highlands Beer Festival was a hit as soon as it began in 2009. I was one of several people who showed up at the then-indoor fest at Mid City Mall, saw the line for tickets and crowded aisles, and simply turned and went back home.
But the festival’s promoters soon moved the event outdoors, and it continues to grow not just in popularity but in scope, as evidenced by the more than 220 beers and 87 breweries on tap for the 2017 version, which takes place Saturday, May 20. That includes 22 local and regional breweries, from Monnik and Old Louisville Brewery to Paducah’s Dry Ground Brewing and Bowling Green’s White Squirrel Brewery.
Sponsor breweries are West Sixth, Sweetwater and Deschutes, so expect plenty of options from those, and the list of breweries from around the U.S. is long, ranging from California-based The Bruery to New York’s Brooklyn Brewery.
This kind of variety is not new to the Highlands Beer Fest, however, per co-founder John Bizzell, who also is store manager and beer buyer at ValuMarket in Mid City Mall.
In fact, while some less ambitious festivals tend to lean on a lot of been-there-done-that basics, Highlands wants to bring in as much variety as possible. Bizzell says there has never been fewer than 160 beers at the festival.
“It was a little tight,” he says of the first installment, “but we were so deep into the variety on our first one.”
That one happened when a Heidelberg Distributing representative came to Bizzell with the idea for a beer festival, and he hasn’t looked back since. In fact, there were two the second year, including one in December. That one was the first time Bizzell tried the concept of advance ticket sales.
“It went pitiful,” he says.
But that concept returned this year, and it brings perks — in a straightforward way. Buy your tickets in advance, and you pay the same price, $20, but you get in an hour early, plus you get five extra drink tickets, meaning 20 samples instead of 15. Also, you’re assured one of the commemorative beer glasses given to the first 500 people through the gate.
This year, the advance sales are going much better, after a slow start.
“People are used to walking up, paying and coming in,” Bizzell says. “But pre-sales are just starting to really move,” with the help of more advertising, promotional pint nights around town and the like.
In fact, heightened interest as the festival has matured naturally means attendance has grown, and more of that is expected. The highest mark so far has been about 2,000 attendees, and it won’t shock anyone involved if that number is eclipsed.
“Our beer list this year is really good,” Bizzell says. “I never thought we’d get here.”
This year, Bizzell’s favorite “get” is a presence from Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewing, which will serve six beers at the festival, including Sunlight, Wee Mac, Osiris, Bourbon Barrel Timmie and more. Sun King cans also will be available at ValuMarket after the festival, while supplies last.
It’s sort of inevitable the event has climbed to where it has. Between the connection to Heidelberg and Bizzell’s enthusiasm for — and knowledge of — craft beer, it makes sense that the Highlands Beer Festival is a success.
Bizzell has basically spent his entire adult life working for ValuMarket, culminating in becoming store manager at the Highlands location in 2005. He had been beer buyer and manager at other locations, so when he came to the Highlands, it was assumed he also would take on those duties. If you love the taps and beer cave at the store today, you can thank Bizzell.
“I came in,” he says, “and there was no beer cooler. It was mostly domestics.”
Within a year, the store was remodeled, the selection expanded, and the current beer cave was installed. Since then, taps and growler sales have been added. Now, it’s a go-to in the neighborhood for beer lovers.
In tandem, the festival has been a go-to event. All proceeds benefit the Bluegrass Center for Autism, with last year’s donation being $4,500. This year, live music will be provided by Hot Iron Skillet and A Dram in the Attic.
Advance tickets remain on sale through May 19. The gates (in the Mid City Mall parking lot) open at 3 p.m. for general admission attendees and at 2 p.m. for advance ticket holders. The festival concludes at 7 p.m.