Decked out in a “World Beer Tour” hat and a t-shirt reading “I Heart Beer,” Josh Johnson stood among hundreds in Greene Square Park Saturday afternoon, beer in hand, pretzels dangling from a string around his neck.
“We try new beers every time we get a chance,” the 23-year-old said, gesturing toward his brother who wore a t-shirt with “craft beer” on the front.
Johnson, a Des Moines resident who boasts a collection of more than 100 craft beer bottles at home, was one of scores of locals who turned out for the first annual Corridor Beer Fest in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Two native Iowans and former college roommates – Mark Vande Haar and Nick Iversen – organized the new event as a way to expose more Iowans to the “booming industry” of craft beer in the state and celebrate the art of craft beer.
The afternoon in the park offered attendees unlimited samples from an array of more than 60 types of beer from nearly 40 breweries.
For Jim Kosar and his friend Brett Gengler – who says he only drank Miller Lite before Saturday – the event’s variety of beer was a chance to expand their knowledge of the beverage.
“Beer is still kind of new to me,” Kosar said. “It’s definitely interesting to try new stuff.”
However, the event was about more than just the beer list.
The event raised money for several local non-profits by donating $25 for each volunteer as well as donating $1 for every “Best In Show” vote.
Vande Haar, who says he’s very invested in sustainability, wanted the event to reflect that. The organizer said all bottles and cans will be recycled and their goal was to only produce five bags of trash total.
“These shows pump out a ton of waste. Our goal is to take as little trash bags to the dump as possible,” Vande Haar said.
They also partnered with I-Renew, an Iowa non-profit focused on renewable energy education, to pop free popcorn with a solar powered popcorn machine.
“Nothing goes better with beer than popcorn,” I-Renew President Kimberly Dickey said, adding that bringing the 1-kilowat solar powered machine to events helps spread the word about clean energy.
As people munched their solar-popped popcorn and sipped various local beers, funky beats reverberated throughout the park from the festival’s stage. The headliners, Iowa City’s Uniphonics, kept the crowd tapping their feet and nodding their heads as they milled about the beer tent and food vendors.
Augusta Restaurant owner Jeri Halberin traveled all the way from their location in Oxford to provide such specialities as braised pork belly and stout molasses cookies.
According to Halberin, they only serve local craft beers at their restaurant.
“Culture, art, craft. It’s down to earth,” Halberin said of the event, adding that craft beer and the food they make from scratch is about getting back to the art of creation. “People are starting to come back to that now. They’re starting to realize that the mass-produced madness is not the only way.”
A few yards away from the aroma of Augusta’s Boudin Pockets – creole sausage served in puff pastry – a very different smell filled the air at Joseph Williams’ booth as he brewed gluten-free ale.
Williams opened the homebrewing store BIY Homebrew Supply, LLC, in Marion a little over one year ago. On Saturday, he displayed his products and ingredients while providing a brewing demonstration.
“I think the most important thing [about this festival] is that people get to try stuff they would never buy,” Williams said. “They realize there’s more than Budweiser out there.”
Williams, echoing Vande Haar, explained that the craft beer industry is “exploding” in Iowa now that legislation passed in 2010 increased the alcohol limit per bottle of beer from 5 to 12 percent. Though out-of-state brewers were able to sell the higher proof beer in Iowa, the legislation opened the way for more breweries to open within the state.
“It’s a great time to be a beer drinker and an even better time to be a beer maker,” Williams said.
Vande Haar said the second annual beer festival is already in the works for 2014, and they want to keep expanding the event’s offerings.
Patrons had few critiques of the inaugural year. Some suggested expanding food offerings and others suggested spreading the tables out so that the tent didn’t become as clogged with people.
Overall, however, many people said they would definitely return next year for another chance to taste test the long list of beers.
Volunteer Hannah Chamberlin summed up the idea behind the Corridor Beer Festival in two sentences.
“I think a lot of people like craft beer,” she said with a sly smile. “They just don’t know it yet.”