Over the last 15 or so years, the American beer market has evolved from an industry dominated by watery domestic brew to one in which a thousand flowers have bloomed from microbreweries across the country and high quality imports are widely available. For evidence of this beer Renaissance, just go to Colonial Liquor and gaze longingly at the seemingly endless selection of craft beers of every sort.
In roughly that same span of time, the Arthritis Foundation's Foam Fest has also progressed. This year, the 15th annual celebration of suds has a new name — the Food and Foam Fest — and a new location: Dickey-Stephens Park. Previous incarnations, at the River Market pavilions, did include food, though it was more along the lines of what you'd chow on at the Cineplex while slurping Dr. Pepper and watching "Transformers 7" than anything worthy of pairing with a nice Belgian ale or an IPA.
"They used to have boiled hotdogs and popcorn, and last year they had nachos and popcorn, but this year they're actually getting true restaurant food tastings," said Angela Harris, development and services director for the Arthritis Foundation's southeast region.
That will no doubt be a welcome development for the hundreds of folks who'll be sampling from among 130 different beers on Friday, May 11. Several restaurants from the area will provide eats, including Boscos Restaurant & Brewing Co., Flying Saucer, Crush Wine Bar, Cheers in the Heights, Party Girl Catering and more, Harris said.
In 2008, Times editor Lindsey Millar wrote, "The four keys to maximizing your Foam Fest experience: Eat a big lunch, make sure you're hydrated, recruit 10 friends and line up a sober bus." That's all still great advice, but this year the festivities are from 6-9 p.m. as opposed to the daylong affair of years past.
"When we started 15 years ago it was $10 to get in and it was an all-day event down by the river," Harris said. "And it was always hot in the summer and you had to trek all along the river and they had keg tossing contests and all kinds of things like that."
This year, the quality food offerings and new digs will make the festival a classier affair. And the venue is also "a nice open area," said John Rogers, a sales rep for local brewery Diamond Bear and a member of the Central Arkansas Fermenters homebrew club. "It's not hot. The wind blows through nicely there and the way the foyer is set up at Dickey-Stephens, even if it does rain, you're protected from the elements."
Rogers — also known by his nickname, "Bones" — said that like many Americans, his beer preferences have broadened greatly in recent years. "I'm one of those that used to be of the lite beer persuasion, we'll say. And I learned one day about a really good beer called an amber and I really liked it and fell in love with beer."
He's definitely not alone in that regard. Foam Fest has grown significantly, which was a big reason for the move to Dickey-Stephens, Harris said. There are usually between 800 and 1,000 attendees, and the event has typically raised in the neighborhood of $30,000 a year, she said. But this year, the Arthritis Foundation is aiming for greater attendance and is hoping to raise about $50,000.
There are far too many beers on offer to list here, but some of the highlights include: homebrews from members of the Central Arkansas Fermenters (including Rogers' jalapeno amber ale), local brews from Vino's and Boscos, six different beers from Diamond Bear, several varieties from Tallgrass Brewing Co., New Belgium Brewing Co., Widmer Brothers Brewing, Shock Top Brewing Co., Goose Island Beer Co., Samuel Adams, imports from Anheuser-Busch InBev and many, many more.
The festival is offering discounted tickets to designated drivers, who'll receive a special wristband that entitles them to sample all the food and drink sodas and bottled water. There will be cabs standing by outside and discounts available on hotel rooms, Harris said.
"It's a fun event," Harris said. "We always have a police presence, so we've never had any problems. It grows each year, and the distributors are generous in bringing more beers and more wines to taste each year, so we've been able to increase the size."