Photography by Brandon Dill
When a group of dedicated volunteers started the Cooper-Young Beerfest in 2009, we didn’t know exactly what we were doing.
At the time, it was the dark ages of beer in Memphis, with only Ghost River and Boscos shedding any local light. People said Memphis wasn’t a good beer town, and there wasn’t much being done to change that.
We decided our beer festival would be a step in the right direction.
That first year we put a few standards in place that we still hold to today. First, the festival, originally called the Cooper-Young Regional Beerfest, features only craft breweries within a day’s drive of Memphis.
This ensures that smaller regional breweries have a chance to attend and be seen.
Second, each participating brewery has to send someone from their brewery to work the event. While many beer festivals have well-meaning volunteers, we want attendees to get more information when talking to a brewer, sales rep or even an owner from a smaller brewery.
Third, brewers are generous by nature, and knowing that their time and effort (and 100 percent of the festival profits) go to the Cooper-Young Community Association, a nonprofit organization, helps recruitment. We also strive to take care of visiting brewers, giving them lodging, free meals, gift bags, rideshares and a dedicated ABC-certified volunteer. Since they are driving a good distance, sometimes to talk about beer in a market in which they aren’t selling beer, we try our best to be good hosts and show them Memphis hospitality.
Finally, although the festival has sold out almost every year ahead of time, we’ve limited the number of attendees to around 1,000. We could move to a larger space and sell more tickets, but we like to keep the lines short so that people have time to enjoy and learn about what they’re drinking.
Mark Morrison, the festival chairman, has been part of the organizing committee since the beginning.
“It’s been fun to see this annual event grow from a ‘crazy idea’ to the 10th anniversary this year,” he said.
“The volunteers on the organizing committee work for about five months each year to produce the event, and the smiles and great reviews we get from both the attendees and the brewers make it totally worth it.”
An altar call and a resurrection
The Cooper-Young Beerfest has had its history-setting moments for the local beer scene as well.
Ghost River Brewing Co. brought some of the first bottles of their Golden Ale to the festival in 2011. This was the first locally-brewed bottled beer Memphis had seen in years.
The festival, then being held in a parking lot south of Galloway United Methodist Church, was going b already on that Saturday. Ghost River founding partner Chuck Skypeck was in the beer education tent when word spread through the festival that Ghost River had some of its long-anticipated bottles ready.
Chuck quickly found some inspiration, turning the bottle debut into an “altar call” straight out of a tent revival.
The spirit seized Chuck as he lined the attendees up the middle aisle, Beerfest mugs in hands. Chuck filled the glasses of the craft beer adherents. Boscos bartenders opened fresh bottles as the cases were quickly drained. There was much rejoicing at the Cooper-Young Beerfest that day.
That was not the only beer debut in the festival’s history. In 2014, the festival saw another first taste of brewing history.
The Tennessee Brewing Company of Memphis had brewed Goldcrest 51 for years in Memphis before finally shutting down in 1954. Kenn Flemmons helped bring the beer back to life.
The Arkansas author had found a recipe for Goldcrest 51 while researching his book Finest Beer You Ever Tasted, a paperback about the Tennessee Brewing Company.
Flemmons got in touch with Bill Riffle, then the head brewer at Vino’s brewpub in Little Rock. They brewed up a small batch of the Goldcrest 51 and served it to festival attendees. Memphis brewing history was brought back to life that day, followed by the brand being reestablished in 2015.
People over beer
While beer has always been important at the festival, the real reason for the event is people.
Beerfest committee member Stephanie Gonzalez and her husband, Carlos, got to know their neighborhood better because of it.
The couple moved to Cooper-Young in 2015, and two of the things they were most excited about were that Memphis Made Brewing Company was within walking distance and that the neighborhood had its very own beer festival.
“We made Friday nights at Memphis Made a regular occurrence and got friendly with one of the bartenders, Adam Frank,” Gonzalez said. “He and Carlos are both from Minnesota, so we’d chat about that or beer or just anything. That fall, we ran into Adam at the Beerfest and met Kate, who is now his wife and was one of the organizers.”
The couples became good friends and that led to Stephanie joining the committee.
It’s a textbook example of how the festival has brought people together through its 10 years of existence.
When Adam and Kate moved back to Minnesota, Kate handed the reins of volunteer coordinator to Stephanie.
Former committee member Trevor Kearney remembers a lot of porch beers shared in the early years with Drew Barton, Mark Morrison, Josh Spickler and Toby Sells, planning the event and wondering how we were going to pull it off.
“It’s not rocket science, of course, and you don’t have to twist anyone’s arm to put on such an event,” he said. “The committee meetings were always fun (sometimes too fun) and we missed a deadline or two, but when things needed to get done, they got done. What has always impressed me, from when I was taking orders as a member of the committee to someone watching from afar, is that it’s stayed true to the intent:
It’s all about the beer and the people that make the beer great, and it’s as much fun for a brewer as it is for a volunteer as it is for a neighbor who bought a ticket.”
Kearney remembers cold calling a brewery one time and getting an answer on the 15th ring. The brewer had just finished a batch and got to the phone. After a rambling conversation, Country Boy Brewing attended the festival in 2011 and was a big hit.
Not all of Kearney’s memories are so happy. He recalls how, in its third year, the festival ran out of beer. They learned their lesson, and it’s never happened again.
New for this year
Now, with new members such as Doug Carriker and Bryan Hamilton, the festival is changing a little each year, with new ideas, new brewers and new beers. Though it will never be the same each time, the constant will be a focus on beers and making more memories. Doug has been recruiting Alabama breweries while Bryan is calling on Kentucky breweries.
Finally, to celebrate our 10th year, the Cooper-Young Beerfest is offering a special High Gravity Anniversary Package, presented by Orion Federal Credit Union.
Only available until September 20, the package offers a special steel carabiner mug, a Beerfest T-shirt, a coozie and a tote for only $65.
The 10th Annual Cooper-Young Beer Festival will be 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday, October 19, at the Midtown Autowerks parking lot at 795 South Cooper Street. Tickets are available at www.cybeerfest.org. Tickets are $45 until October 1, when the price increases to $50.
The Cooper-Young Community Association is teaming up with Compost Fairy to make its events zero waste. Compost Fairy will be on site at the Cooper-Young Beerfest to help separate trash, recyclables and compostable items.
Over the Years:
Here are five ways to fully enjoy the Cooper-Young Beerfest:
- Pace yourself. We limit the tickets so that you have time to talk with brewers and learn about beer. It’s a four-hour beer festival, so you have plenty of time to make the rounds.
- Buy your tickets early. Tickets are $45 until Oct. 1; then the price rises to $50. Also, the festival sells out every year so you want to make sure you get yours early.
- Think about how you’re getting home after a four-hour beer festival. Designated drivers are admitted free, but still must be over 21 and have a valid photo ID.
- Drink plenty of water. There is free water, and you get a commemorative mug when you walk in. Take advantage of both.
- Make sure to eat before drinking. This slows down the alcohol’s effects. We have food vendors on site with lots of good grub to go with your beers.
Andy Ashby, co-founder and sales manager at Memphis Made Brewing Co., helped start the Cooper-Young Beerfest. A reformed journalist, he worked at the Memphis Business Journal, the Memphis Daily News and the DeSoto County Tribune. He has also done freelance reporting for American Brewer magazine and the Southern Brew News, among other publications.
Brandon Dill has found a home in Memphis. When not planning road trips with his wife, or building blanket forts with his two daughters, he likes to take pictures. His photos have appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and others.