As craft brewing has exploded in New Mexico, so have the size and popularity of our beer festivals.
Look no further than Albuquerque Hopfest, which kicks off its sixth annual run this Saturday at Isleta Casino. Thousands of beer lovers will descend upon the festival to try beers from over 60 breweries from New Mexico and points far beyond.
Considering Hopfest’s humble beginnings, that is a remarkable amount of growth in a short time. For those who do not remember, or didn’t attend, or didn’t live in this state at the time, the first Hopfest was barely a blip on the local radar. It featured just 12 breweries offering up samples inside the cozy confines of J.C.’s New York Pizza Department downtown back in 2008.
“I believe it was February 2008 I got a phone call from J.C.’s New York Pizza Department and they were talking to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company about doing the first beer festival in Albuquerque,” said Marne Gaston, who is now the festival producer. “They wanted to do it for charity. They said I should be involved. It was kind of luck that they thought of me.
“The first year I was just recruiting volunteers and the charity side of it. I worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the time. It was really cool, everyone really liked it, but the marketing wasn’t done to the extreme that it’s done now. I think everybody thought since there was no beer festival in Albuquerque it would take care of itself to a certain degree.”
Since the festival was held inside NYPD’s restaurant, there was not room for a large crowd anyway, Marne said. There were about 250 people that came, served by a dozen breweries, with one band playing on a Friday night.
“The next year there was no Sierra Nevada rep at the time we were trying to plan it again, so we weren’t really sure what was happening,” Marne said. “But New York Pizza Department said they would be the venue again so we just started working on it. I took over a lot more parts of the festival, the marketing, I contracted the brewers … well, National Distributing was still the main sponsor, but they let us bring in a couple. The first year was all National Distributing beers. The second year we brought in a couple local ones, Chama and Marble.”
The second Hopfest in 2009 featured 16 breweries, three bands, and about 650 customers stuffed into the restaurant, the side parking lot near Central and 2nd Street, and in the space that is now occupied by Back Alley Draft House behind NYPD.
“So we decided we had to find a bigger venue,” Marne said. “We looked into obviously things like Balloon Fiesta Park, but you have to pay for fencing, you have to fence everything in, and there’s a lot of obstacles. O’Niell’s approached me and they said they had one acre in their parking lot. I didn’t realize how big it was. It was really large compared to where we had been.”
Marne and her staff, now fully in charge, opened up the third Hopfest (the first I attended, it should be noted) to any and all breweries and beer distribution companies. A total of 39 breweries took part, serving 1,800 thirsty people on a hot summer afternoon.
“That was a huge jump up and we learned a lot about the (liquor) laws in New Mexico,” Marne said. “They were a lot more lenient with us when we were smaller. When we got bigger the City was not going to let us get away with anything. So we found that to be complicated. I got an e-mail from Hard Rock Casino saying they wanted me to create a beer festival for them, but instead I decided to just go park us out there for the fourth year.”
The Hard Rock, which has since reverted back to being the Isleta Casino, has been Hopfest’s home since 2011.
“It’s a lot, lot more space,” Marne said, noting that the number of breweries participating keeps going up, from 50 in 2011 to 55 in 2012 to 63 (and counting) this year.
“We’ve stayed in the same location and sold the same number of tickets because we don’t have any extra space, but we keep trying to add new breweries, different breweries, new bands, just all the fun stuff we get to do.”
Nowadays Marne and her staff have largely streamlined the process of setting up Hopfest, though there are still some difficulties that never figure to go away.
“Just trying to get information from 63 breweries is interesting,” she said. “I really like to have banners at each both saying what they’re pouring. When people are standing in line they can see that. And we have event programs with all the listings so you can download it and kind of make a plan for people that are proactive.”
We can relate to that one since we have always had fun getting info from just the 20 or so breweries in New Mexico for other smaller events.
Hopfest last year was held in August, but this year’s event was pushed back to the end of October. Marne said it had nothing to do with the staff at the casino, but instead was due in part to an all-new tribal council that just took office and was unable to approve everything soon enough to keep Hopfest in its original slot.
The good news is just about everything else is still in place, including our favorite little feature from last year. If you take the Rail Runner to the Isleta stop, there will again be a free shuttle to take you to and from the event.
Tickets are still available to Hopfest online. The Crew will be out there for full event coverage (as of this moment, a whopping four of us are going!) and we will have our brewery-by-brewery guide to what to drink due out this Friday.
Until then, start prepping your palates, make your pretzel necklaces, and dig your comfiest pair of shoes out of the closet. Because Saturday at 3 p.m. (or 2 if you have extra hoppy hour tix), it’s go time!