As its many enthusiasts already know, craft beer creates community. Drinkers swap stories about their favorite brands, always on the hunt for new brews to try. They sample, they review, they connect, they drink together.
“I wear a lot of different alcohol hats in this town,” Jacob Halls says. That’s true. Under one hat, he’s the president of Convergence Consulting, which provides legal help to new breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Under another hat, he’s the high-end brands manager at N.H. Scheppers Distributing. This month, though, he’s mostly wearing the hat of festival director, preparing for the South East Craft Beer Festival, which will take place October 15.
Halls started developing the idea for a new beer festival in 2013, recruiting the help of Anne Churchill, owner of AnnaBelle Events; Logboat Brewing Co., one of his clients; and Caraker Law Firm, his former business partner. “I kind of thought that Columbia could use something that was unique,” he says. “I always wanted to do something different.”
Halls wanted to distinguish SEC Beer Fest by its selection, purposefully recruiting breweries that didn’t distribute in Columbia, giving local drinkers a chance to try something new. It was a hard sell the first time around. “We did a lot of things that were so unique that it was hard to convince people that it was legal,” Halls says. “That was the fun part.”
The first SEC Beer Fest, held at Logboat in 2014, was a success – despite triple digit temperatures, the event sold out. Among the attendees was Columbia radio host Tom Bradley. Halls already knew Bradley through his work with the Missouri Beer Festival, and the two had talked about Halls’ own festival, which Bradley enthusiastically supported. “I think one of the biggest things that Jacob brought in was that he showcased the brewers themselves,” says Bradley, who is now helping with SEC Beer Fest’s marketing. “He not only brought in the audience, he also treated the brewers like, if not royalty, like very, very special guests.”
The brewers, part of the close-knit craft beer community, spread the word. At the 2014 fest, 11 breweries participated. This October, there will be over 75. They’re expecting around 1,500 attendees this year, with a minimum of 140 beers to try (the actual number will probably be closer to 350).
To accommodate, this year’s SEC Beer Fest will be held at N.H. Scheppers, which has plenty of space to set up tents and unload trucks. Ultramax Sports will begin the festival with a “beer mile.” (“A beer mile!” Bradley says. “So we’re not sure if you’re drinking as you run, or you drink and then you run, or you run and then you drink, but there’s beer involved and there’s running involved.”) Food trucks will drive in; yard games will be strewn about.
Marketing leading up to the festival included the “Pint for a Pint” blood drive with the Red Cross, where attendees got free beer at International Tap House for donating blood (the beer couldn’t be redeemed for a couple days, in deference to blood donation’s alcohol rules). This year’s event will also benefit Unchained Melodies Dog Rescue.
“With a lot of beer festivals, [the town] gets hit up with people asking, ‘What can you give me? What can you give me for the beer festival?’ So it kind of saturates the community,” Halls says. “We want to help the community and we want to get people to help the community.”
The bigger mission of SEC Beer Fest is also about building community — helping to make Columbia more than just the town that beer drinkers pass through on their way from St. Louis to Kansas City. Halls hopes the festival can generate new interest in the local craft beer scene, even among people who aren’t regular beer drinkers. As Churchill says, “It’s a day to just come out and enjoy the fall in Columbia and enjoy some craft beer and talk in-person to the people who are hands-on with the beer.”
Although they don’t plan too far in advance, the festival team does have ideas for growth. They could add events to the existing festival; they could keep adding more breweries; they could bring in more local partners — with the kind of growth the event has seen so far, anything seems possible.
“That’s the kind of response we want, not just for the festival but for Columbia,” Halls says. “And we’re getting there. It’s good.”
With reporting by Abigail Wade.