Rumor has it 80,000 people attended Bonnaroo this year. At times, the Manchester, TN festival grounds felt packed with brightly clothed bodies and flocks of music fans, and at other times (early afternoon or late, late at night) it felt oddly empty. In the past three years, my favorite moments have been polar opposites – joining a sea of thousands at headliner shows such as Paul McCartney, Radiohead, and this year’s Elton John performance – or finding myself part of a couple hundred at smaller stages where amazing acts such as the Lone Bellow and Syd Arthur held court.
In both cases, the dancing, singing, and sense of camaraderie was something you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It could have to do with the travel, the communal camping, the lack of sleep, or surviving four 90+ degree days, but it could also be that the kind of person who chooses to roll with these punches is innately good-natured and quick to make friends. Sharing mind-blowing musical experiences at 3 am, swapping stories about amazing set lists, and lamenting the lack of teleportation doesn’t hurt, either. As Derrick Atkinson, bar manager at SweetwaterBrewing Company, replied when I asked him about his first impression of the festival, “From sunup to sundown, there’s something going on, and even in the ten minutes between, there’s still someone playing somewhere. You definitely get your money’s worth.”
As much as I found myself struggling to make difficult choices on the show front (Vampire Weekend or Neutral Milk Hotel? James Blake or Lauryn Hill?), I also had some executive decisions to make when it came to the Broo’ers Festival. With 25 breweries in attendance, bringing two beers each, I had my work cut out for me. Simply circling the pavilion was a head rush. Bonnaroo veterans such as Sweetwater, Brooklyn Brewery, and Sierra Nevada mingled with newcomers Founders Brewing Co., Humboldt Brewing Co., and New Holland Brewing offering porters, IPAs, ales, lagers, shandies, ciders, and more.
Over the three years I’ve attended Bonnaroo, the availability of world-class beers from across the country has been a major draw – and from what I’ve heard via interviews, the brewers themselves feel the same way. Hailing from Grand Rapids, MI, Paso Robles, CA, and Avon, CO, Broo’ers spend 4-5 days camped together, swapping cans, playing music, grilling, and occasionally fishing someone’s RV out of the mud. Sometimes this bonding turns into business. As Evan Sutherland of Superfly Presents [co-creators of the festival] told me, “Asheville and Sierra are doing a program this summer, brewing a beer together, and the synergy was created out here at Bonnaroo. People are mixing it up like crazy onstage in superjams; it’s the same type of stuff in the Broo’ers tent.”
Other times, it’s a chance for brewers to express admiration for colleagues and mentors. When I talked to festival newcomer Mike Thornburg, President and Co-owner of Ole Shed about the craft scene in Tennessee, he shared, “It’s really kind of exciting here in the South; it hasn’t been here and it’s starting to move forward. Back in Nashville, [fellow attendee] Yazoo Brewing Company was one of the first ones, so we all kind of followed their lead, visited their tap rooms and their breweries, and took inspiration from that.”
With so much selection and craft representation, I found myself waffling on whose booth to visit first. Flat 12‘s co-founder and CEO Sean O’Connor summed the dilemma up nicely: “The ones you haven’t had before you want to try, and the ones you have, you want to support.” I was also cautious about getting attached to beers I wouldn’t be able to find back in Boston. My first Broo tent addiction was Flat 12’s Cucumber Kolsch, a delightfully crisp thirst quencher that kept me cool while I wandered the Farm. Visiting from Indianapolis, O’Connor confirmed its popularity with attendees: “Since we’re new down here, we wanted to sample some fun things; since people are spending the money in the tent, they get to try fun stuff. We brought in a porter, which on a hot day like this isn’t the beer of choice but did really well; then we were ready to roll out the Cucumber Kolsch. As soon as that thing tapped, the line just went out the wazoo.”
Word about fan favorites spread quickly in what Sweetwater’s Atkinson dubbed “the circus tent,” causing brewers to swap in new beers quickly – as early as day 2 in the case of Tennessee-based Ole Shed’s Potbelly Porter. As Don Chartier, on-site Events Coordinator for Lagunitas explained (about craft beer and about Bonnaroo), “That’s the beauty, that’s discovery: ‘If you’re going there, you’ve gotta try….’ And the word spreads; it’s so organic. We don’t do billboards, we don’t do posters; we give out a few t-shirts to say thanks. I’d much rather give away a beer than put a billboard up.” When asked about the importance of paying attention to best-sellers and poor performers, he added, “There are very few industries where you can get in front of you consumer and get that instant feedback. If you let that go away, you’re wasting a great opportunity to give the people what they want.”
Based on the sold-out beer booths I saw before departing for Elton John’s standout show on Sunday night, I’ll say the people got what they wanted at Bonnaroo 2014.