Blog by Ethan Gates, ACCVB Intern
Ohio Brew Week began in 2005 with a vision from Jon Sparhawk to capitalize on the rapidly-expanding Ohio craft brewing scene. He worked with my father, Dan Gates, along with other members of the Independent Restaurant Association, to create the nation’s first week-long celebration of craft beers. My dad ran with the idea and continually expanded on it as the executive director.
The festival grew tremendously each year with the addition of more events and hundreds of different breweries showcasing new craft beers.
With the help of the community and our board of directors, my family ran the festival for eight impressive years before finally stepping down in 2013. We had the help of both of my brothers, my aunts, several cousins and my parents, Dan Gates and Melody Sands. During that time, we established Ohio Brew Week as a hallmark of the city that brings in thousands of visitors and creates much needed summertime revenue for the businesses of Athens.
The Early Years
I was 8 years old and the youngest of my entire family during the inaugural Brew Week but that didn’t stop my parents from “employing” me for help. No, I wasn’t out making cold calls for sponsorships or putting flags up in front of bars like in my later years of working; I was primarily there just so my parents could keep an eye on me.
I remember being in Toscano’s Restaurant during the official keg-tapping ceremony, sitting in our first merchandise store in the private rental room with the sun baking the inside of the space, with a strong smell of peanuts emanating from the other room as I could hear the muffled sound of our first keynote speaker, Alan Eames. Anyone that ventured into the store would be greeted eagerly by me as I tried to persuade them to buy as much of our merch as possible—and it worked too because who could say no to an 8-year-old salesman?
That’s my first true memory of Brew Week and it’s the one that helped solidify my role in the merchandise stores for years to come.
Over the years, we set up traveling stores for events, with our stationary stores primarily in the Acorn Room of the Oak Room and the basement of the Red Brick. By the time I turned 13, I would be left alone to run the store by myself, getting to know all the employees of both bars.
I preferred the Oak Room—mostly because of the pool table in the same room but also because their burgers were second to none. I also held every high score on the iTouch machine at the bar—a proud personal achievement. It’s safe to say I had some downtime while I ran the store.
We endured loads of stress to create and maintain the festival but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun with it too. Above is a picture of myself and a good friend, Nathan Rickey (we employed friends, too) dressed in Green Men suits as walking advertisements for our signature shirt for that year. That was at the Rock n’ Roast kick-off event held at the Ohio University Inn. As far as I’m concerned, our walking advertisements helped us sell way more shirts that night.
Our second to last year, we faced the storm of the century in Athens—the North American Derecho on June 29th, 2012. Brew Week took place in June that year and the storm hit during our Friday night event: The Brew BQ. The winds moved so fast, it took four of us to hold down our EZ Up but that didn’t stop the bars from bending and the top cover from blowing off. Dirt cycled through the air, blinding anyone who didn’t cover their eyes.
Then came the torrential downpour. Within seconds, everyone was soaked to their bones. We had to rush to clean up everything in our reach as debris was hurtling toward us in 85-mile/hour winds. Probably the most dangerous experience in my life to date. Luckily, we quickly packed up our merch store and moved it into the Oak Room before the worst of it.
The aftermath of the storm left over a million people in Ohio without power, including all of Athens. That was troublesome considering our finale event, Brews on the Block (now the Last Call), was set to take place on Union Street. In the wake of the storm, we were left without power in the blistering heat and humidity but that didn’t stop people from coming to the event.
People called my mom to ask about the event’s status and she would reply, “It’s happening so long as you bring some ice!” And people did! One family drove down from Findlay with eight bags of ice in their car. The event raged on and it was glimmer of hope for the town who wouldn’t see power for at least three days, with some places out for weeks.
In 2005, Athens did not have nearly the same number of hotels as we do now. Every hotel reached capacity quickly and sometimes that left out brewers and speakers who traveled for the week, so we would set up tents on our property and created a makeshift B&B for the week. That was just one of the extra steps my family was always willing to do to accommodate everyone we could. It also helped that we have the land to sustain a small commune if we needed.
We would have fires for our guests at the end of our long days and sit around listening to each brewer’s unique stories. Hosting guests enabled us to build important and meaningful relationships with brewers from around the state. Garin Wright from Buckeye Brewing Company quickly became a family friend, staying with us year in and year out for the fest. He fell in love with the town and would come down a couple times a year for other events like the PawPaw Festival. Luke Purcell from Great Lakes would come for the fun, along with Greg Hardman, owner of Christian Moerlein. My parents still hold a strong relationship with both today.
I toured countless breweries with my families, meeting and having lunch with brewers and owners and the likes. We would visit them on hockey trips between games and sometimes even plan mini-vacations around a facility tour. I met John Najeway and toured Thirsty Dog in Akron, Garin’s Buckeye Brewing in Lakewood, Great Lakes in Cleveland alongside Luke Purcell, Fat Head’s in Cleveland with Matt Cole, and Mount Carmel in Cincinnati with owners Mike and Kathleen Dewey.
It was awe-inspiring to see the sheer size of all those breweries—especially Great Lakes, which had two walkway levels just to see the top of the silos. The smells of breweries always struck me oddly; I wondered how could a place that smells this repugnant produce such sweet-smelling beers. But all these trips and tours were made possible through my parents’ personable traits and drive to learn more and build relationships.
The Stress Behind the Scenes
Our house looked like a war room in the weeks leading up to the festival. My mom would be organizing the program with articles scattered all over her office, boxes of shirts would sit on our kitchen table waiting to be moved, beer lists and brewery numbers in the living room as we made calls to confirm their participation. It was stressful at times; we put hundreds of hours into just the preparation of the festival—let alone how long we worked during the actual week.
During the week of the festival, our days would begin at 7 a.m. and continue till at least midnight, oftentimes as late as 2 a.m. It was exhausting work. We tried to accommodate everyone to the best of our ability, even though it was impossible to please all of our attendees. I remember customers constantly complaining for things out of our control; an outdoor event getting rained out or a tour bus breaking down on the way to pick up patrons. Those were the only times that made me question why we cared so much. But my parents persevered and kept chugging along.
The work didn’t stop for us when the festival did, either. From driving empty kegs back to breweries all over the state with my dad, to inventory counts before packing the merchandise up for storage, we were never truly done until the end of July; sometimes beyond that.
The satisfaction we got from knowing we organized something meaningful to the town always made every late night and early morning worth it.More to Offer
There are hundreds of different types of beers that exist now that just were not as popular then. I.P.A.’s, pale ales, lagers and stouts comprised most of beers we showcased. I.P.A.’s and pale ales even overshadowed lagers and stouts—that’s what everyone craved at that time.
By year three, there was a revolution in taste and an explosion of creativity. We were seeing the Peanut Butter Coffee Stout from Willoughby Brewing, Peanut Butter and Jelly from Listermann Brewing, Bumble Berry and Fuzzy Wuzzy from Fat Head’s, Holey Moses Whit Ale from Great Lakes and Old Leghumper Lager from Thirsty Dog Brewing.
My family helped organize the bars so that every bar had something unique on tap to help funnel business to each one individually. The influx of business from Brew Week enabled the bars to keep student employees for the summer with worthwhile revenue.
Now, Brew Week boasts over 300 different beers from hoards of unique breweries. With so many different styles and options, Ohio Brew Week is the quintessential craft beer experience for everyone.
Leaving Ohio Brew Week
We stepped down from the festival in 2013 after 8 long years. This was in part a personal family decision. My brothers and I were growing up; Nick was playing hockey in Wooster and Alex was attending West Virginia University. It became more taxing on us, so we figured it was time to let the festival grow without us; we had done our part. I was 16 after our last year of involvement.
I never had the chance to experience the festival as it truly should. I am finally 21 and now have the chance to sample all the beers I worked alongside with for years. It’s exciting for me to be a stress-free patron sampling so many of the beers I merely worked alongside for years. I know for a start, the Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter from Willoughby Brewing is one of the better Porter’s I’ve ever had. And the Hazy Eye I.P.A from Christain Moerlein is fantastically smooth without the bitter aftertaste that sours so many people on I.P.A.’s.
The wisdom and experience I gained from working the event for so long continues to influence me today. The transferable real-world skills I acquired from my time will stick with me through any professional career I embark on and for that I will always be grateful for Ohio Brew Week.
A comprehensive list of all events, venues and brews can be found at www.ohiobrewweek.com