Local chef Brannon Florie caught the beer bug three years ago when he put together a five-course dinner of wild game dishes paired with domestic and imported ales. It was a heavy-duty challenge that turned into a memorable feast. Since then, he's put beer on the top of his priorities list.
This weekend, Florie and his staff at 17 North Roadside Kitchen in Mt. Pleasant will host the first-ever Lowcountry Beer Festival, an outdoor/indoor beer bash designed to showcase area breweries and local cuisine.
"I never do anything half-assed," Florie says. "If I decide to do something, I'm going to put everything I have into it and push it. If it doesn't work, then I'll learn a lesson. I've been talking about doing a big beer event like this for years. Using beer is a big part of how we decided to run the restaurant, and it's really coming around."
One of Florie's 17 North colleagues, bartender Will Cook, is even more fanatical about high-quality craft beer, and he jumped at the chance to help produce the beer fest.
"Will and I started getting together and brainstorming last fall," Florie says. "We quizzed all of our employees and our regular customers, and we came up with some great ideas for dinners and big outdoor parties, oyster roasts, and cookouts for 2012."
The two decided that a large-scale beer tasting in April would be a nice kick-off to the spring season. They discussed their plans with Chris Winn, a beer rep at Palmetto Brewing Co., and Winn encouraged them to meet with local homebrewers as well as craft breweries.
Florie and Winn attended a monthly meeting of Lowcountry Libations, a homebrew club that hosts sanctioned beer competitions and special events throughout the year. Several of the club's award-winning homebrewers will be on hand at the festival along with a few special guests. Florie expects 14 presenters, serving top-notch, unpasteurized homebrew from bottles, growlers, and mini kegs.
"We pitched the idea of the festival to the homebrew guys, and they seemed kind of interested at first, but we didn't quite have things planned out yet," Florie says. "At that point, we weren't sure if a festival like this would be a big draw. Then we started going to local breweries like Holy City and Westbrook, and things started rolling. We eventually developed a specific game plan."
Unlike most beer festivals, the breweries and vendors are not being charged fees to participate, and Florie offered to share an unusually high percentage of ticket sales with the vendors. The official roster includes three of Charleston's four microbreweries — Holy City, Westbrook, and Palmetto.
"It's really about support and celebrating an all-local approach," Florie says. "It's about getting people involved and tasting new stuff. We reached out to everybody. Once the big three got involved, the more people wanted to get into it."
Florie adds that they invited COAST Brewing Co., but they couldn't solidify any plans. "They have a lot going on, and the demand for their beer is so high that they have a tough time keeping beer on the shelves and on tap around town, so we didn't press them too hard," he says.
The Frothy Beard Brewing Company — a local "nano-brewery" (a small-scale micro resembling a large-scale homebrew set-up) founded by Michael Biondi, Steve McCauley, and Joseph Siconolfi — will have some full-flavored seasonals on tap. Several S.C. breweries outside of the Charleston area will be serving lagers and ales at the bash as well. Heirloom Brewing Company, a newly opened micro in Bluffton, will have an IPA, an imperial stout, and a witbier on hand. Myrtle Beach-based contract microbrewery New South Brewing regularly supplies beer to restaurants and bars in South and North Carolina, including T-Bonz and Pearlz here in town. They'll be serving their American-style pale ales and lagers along with a new spring seasonal white ale.
Live music at the tented main stage will start at 12 p.m. with guitarist John Stockdale and his band, followed by traditional Bavarian oompah ensemble the Hans Schmidt Band and funk/soul quartet the Louie D. Project. Experimental indie-rock band Firework Show closes the evening at the main stage at 5:15 p.m. On the other side of the building, the patio stage will host two house favorites, classic rock singer/guitarist Justin Mackie at 6:30 p.m. and country/rock singer/guitarist Craig Lathey at 8:30 p.m.
Along with a full menu of slow-cooked meats and side dishes at the buffet, Florie plans to use certain local beers in different recipes of housemade sausage to be paired with the beer. 17 North will also utilize the 10 main beer taps at their two bars, which will expand the selection of local beer considerably. On top of what the brewers bring to their booths, the restaurant will sell additional beers from each of the three local breweries.
"We'll participate as a restaurant and feature some of the stuff each brewery sells in the local market," Florie says. "If someone loves what they try from a booth outside, they can find even more styles from that same brewery inside."
With Florie's newfound flair for beer and such strong support from the local beer community, this festival could become an annual highlight of the spring season.