By Christopher Boan
A stacked lineup of craft brewers and beer aficionados will flock to Steele Indian School Park in early February for a special event.
The 20th annual Strong Beer Festival, hosted by the Arizona Craft Brewer’s Guild from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, February 8, will bring more than 130 breweries and over 500 craft beers to the Valley.
The event has become the centerpiece of the guild’s annual events calendar, according to ACBG Executive Director Rob Fullmer.
Fullmer, who has served in his role since 2013, says the annual festival is crucial to the guild’s existence, serving as its main fundraiser and outreach opportunity.
“The festival has a 20-year legacy. And there are older festivals, but this was sort of the fundraiser, the coming together of the handful of breweries,” Fullmer says. “It was a fundraiser and sort of a spotlight on what the beer culture was at that time.”
Fullmer remembers when the Strong Beer Festival had to bring in out-of-state breweries decades ago because of the lack of local outposts from which to choose.
Now, his main task is to whittle down the list of potential entrants, to maintain order on the park’s 9-acre plot.
Fullmer recalled how far the festival has come, from its inception in the former Papago Brewing Company’s parking lot to various parks in Mesa and Phoenix, growing in tandem with the craft brewing scene.
“It does have an out-of-state component. Even as little as seven years ago, there was only 45 to 50 breweries taking place,” Fullmer says. “This year, we will fight to keep it under 150, but 75 of them will be local to Arizona.”
The main theme at this year’s 20th anniversary edition will be collaboration between entrants, with a goal of reaching 20 beers by the February event.
One such collaboration comes from Tempe powerhouse Huss Brewing, which will release two beers with Odell’s and Avery brewing companies of Colorado.
The collaborations at this year’s event are kept close to the brewer’s vest. The brewery’s area sales manager—he legally goes by one name, Burke—says fans of the company’s beers will love what they have to offer.
Burke believes the Strong Beer Festival provides local brewers from all over to reach a wider audience, while making an impression on potential buyers at the same time.
“These festivals are really fantastic because it allows brands to really showcase not only the beer that we make, but also our personality and the setup,” Burke says. “But it also allows the general public to not only sample local beers that they haven’t had, but also to get in touch with some of the national brands as well that also live in our space.”
The festival’s name does not mean all beers will contain high percentages of alcohol, as many outposts will feature their mainstays and unique lines of craft beer come February 8.
Fullmer says the original Strong Beer Festival featured an array of high-alcohol beer, but their offerings have evolved as craft brewing has.
“I think we all can agree that the flavor palate of craft beer drinkers and the brewers’ ability to deliver that has changed drastically,” Fullmer says. “And it doesn’t require a lot of extra malt and alcohol to make things work. So, in the last five years we’ve been saying, ‘Strong in flavor. Strong in tradition. Strong in character.’
“To me, it symbolizes how we’ve shifted from a small number of Arizona breweries relying on national breweries to really making ourselves strong and this industry strong.”
Burke and the Huss Brewing team continue to bring an assortment of brews each year, in part because of the festival’s focus on those who work tirelessly to produce the suds.
“I think this event is really fun, because it is a chance to not only showcase ourselves and the beers that we produce, but it’s also an opportunity for our brewers, the people who really make this beer,” Burke says.
“They’re actually the real heroes. And they actually work the event, they go out and see the reactions from the general population, which they don’t see on a day-by-day basis, because they’re in here at 5 a.m., sometimes 4 a.m., and sometimes leaving at 7 p.m.
“So, I think it’s really awesome to get them out there, get them out in the field. This year, I’m super excited about the entire collaboration program that the guild is putting on.”
This year’s event will feature other drinks, such as kombuchas and nonmalted beer, along with the stouts, porters, IPAs and pale ales. Fullmer says breweries are smart enough to bring what sells.
“You might decide you’re going to try all of the porters or all of the stouts, but rest assured, you’re going to have choices,” Fullmer says.
Above all, Fullmer adds the Strong Beer Festival is the guild’s main fundraiser. The financial success of the February event will determine how much Fullmer and his team can do to grow craft brewing in the Grand Canyon State. This is his passion.
“This is how we fund our operation, in both promoting breweries and protecting them,” Fullmer says.
“There’s a lot of infrastructural things going on with that. Our festival’s continued to improve because we continue to invest in the process of it. And again, you’re going to see people and you’re going to meet people and you’re going to have a good time.”
Arizona Strong Beer Festival, Steele Indian School Park, 300 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix, chooseazbrews.com, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, February 8, $15-$100.