Beer Man

Sierra Nevada Beer Camp was the best festival of the summer that nobody went to

Sierra Nevada Brewing didn't provide the double rainbow that arched across the sky above Civic Center Park last Friday. But the Chico, California-based brewery certainly took care of all the other details at Beer Camp Across America, a roving seven-city festival that will end in Mills River, North Carolina, on August 3.

There were celebrity brewers pouring their own creations, beers from more than 100 breweries, a mesmerizing circus-like marching band, tables, artwork, tulip glasses for tasting cups, a plethora of food trucks and restrooms -- all in Civic Center's stately, stunning setting between the State Capitol and the City & County Building.

As a result, Beer Camp may have been the best Colorado beer fest of the summer. But it was also fantastic for another, stranger reason: Hardly anyone came.

See also: Photos: Denver drinkers go to Beer Camp with Sierra Nevada

"Our Chico kickoff had about 5,000 people, which was a lot. But as we moved east, the attendance has been a little lower," says Sierra Nevada spokesman Ryan Arnold. "The Denver attendance was lower, too, but we are thrilled that people walked out feeling like it was one of the better beer festivals they've been to."

Sierra Nevada had room for 5,000 people, but ended up admitting only about 1,600.

That meant no line at the entrance, no lines for beers -- the longest was about five people at the Russian River booth, where brewery co-owner Natalie Cilurzo was pouring two highly sought-after beers, Supplication and Pliny the Elder -- and no lines at the bathrooms. It meant there was no jostling through herd-like drunken crowds.

Instead, attendees had their choice of several hundred beers, many rare or special ones, which they could sip from tulip glasses in the spacious park. It was a welcome relief in a state where craft-beer fests are often packed into such tight spaces and with so many people that they become uncomfortable and unwieldy.

The low attendance could have been the result of several factors. Sierra Nevada didn't do much advertising, relying primarily on social media; there was also confusion about which breweries would be there. In addition, Beer Camp was competing against the annual Summer Brew Fest, which took place at Mile High Station on the same night. And Beer Camp carried a higher price tag ($65) than most beer festivals.

"The ticket prices -- we felt like there was a lot of value in there," Arnold says, who pointed out how wide the variety of beers was. "There was also a great concert woven into the mix. This wasn't just a beer fest, and we thought there was value in that."

The music was provided by the MarchFourth Marching Band, which is traveling with Sierra Nevada and performing at all seven festivals. The band is made up of costumed acrobats, a stilt-walker and musicians, including a six-part brass section and a five-part percussion corps, who all danced throughout the show.

Sierra Nevada, the nation's second-largest craft brewer, is opening a second major production facility in Mills River next month. The goal of the touring festival wasn't just to highlight that fact, however; it was also to bring attention to the craft brewing industry as a whole, Arnold says. To do that, Sierra Nevada invited every brewery in the nation to attend one of the fests and brewed twelve different collaboration beers with twelve other breweries, including Longmont's Oskar Blues.

"Considering the complexities of making this happen in seven cities, we knew this wasn't going to be a money maker," Arnold says. And while Sierra Nevada would have liked to see more people at Beer Camp, the company isn't complaining.

The final three stops on the tour take place this weekend in Portland, Maine; Philadelphia; and Mills River.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes