The summer of 2013, it seems, is shaping up to be the summer of the beerfest.
In Benson, at Stinson Park, at the parking lot at Crescent Moon Ale House, at the Bourbon Theater in Lincoln and in many, many other places, craft beer lovers have been able to plunk down $30 or so in exchange for access to different craft beers, which they can sample to their heart's content.
They can shoot the breeze with the brewers who made the beers and sample experimental and sometimes weird brews — carrot cake, for example — from local homebrewers.
Sometimes entry buys access to a few dozen beers; sometimes to several hundred. Sometimes the beers are early releases of seasonal brews, or kegs brewed specially for the event.
“Omaha has really gotten into the craft beer thing,” said Alex Diimig, manager at Jake's Cigars and Spirits in Benson and one of the organizers of both Benson Beerfest and Omaha Beer Week.
Both of those events, like many local celebrations of craft beer, are relatively new. The second annual Benson Beer Fest took place in June. Omaha Beer Week, also in its second year, was back in February. Most — but not all — are organized by craft beer bars like Jake's and the Crescent Moon Ale House and other, newer craft beer bars that have also popped up over the past few years. Crescent Moon threw it's seventh annual Sunfest last month. The Nebraska Brewing Co.'s Great Nebraska Beerfest, in its fifth year, is coming up in August.
And in Diimig's opinion, Omaha is home to enough craft beer fans to support all of these, and maybe a few more, too.
“I don't think there's much more to it than Omaha wants more,” he said.
And more Omaha shall receive.
This weekend, the Omaha Jaycees and the Old Mattress Factory are throwing the first ever Beer and Bacon Festival — an opportunity for craft beer lovers to sample more than 40 craft beers while also tasting bacon-laden foods from six different Omaha restaurants.
Not a big beer drinker? Saturday is also the Riverfront Wine Festival, the second major wine festival in Omaha this summer. Wine festivals haven't taken off in Omaha quite like their beer counterparts have, but they, too, are drawing increasingly large crowds of wine drinkers looking to expand their horizons, said Jen Kocher, who is organizing Saturday's festival, where about 200 wines from around the world will be available both for sampling and for sale. Many of the featured wines aren't normally available in Nebraska.
Whether they're celebrating beer or wine, the festivals give patrons a chance to try things before they shell out $10 for a six pack or upwards of $20 for a bottle of wine that they may or may not enjoy, said Kocher, who also organizes the Nebraska Beer Fest, which was held in June in Stinson Park.
“It's kind of an nonthreatening way to try different things,” she said.
Many such events also feature foods intended to complement the spirits being served. The Riverfront Wine Fest will offer classes on pairing wine and cheese and, less conventionally, wine and cupcakes. The Benson Beer Fest featured slow-cooked pulled-pork sandwiches, among other treats, and the Beer and Bacon Festival will feature, obviously, lots of bacon.
“I think that people are looking for gastronomic experiences,” Kocher said.
They're also looking for novelty, said Maggie McGlade, who along with Elliott Bassett is directing Saturday's Beer and Bacon Festival.
A Des Moines celebration McGlade described as “an Aksarben Ball of bacon” spurred the idea to do something similar in Omaha. McGlade, too, had noticed the increasing number of craft beer bars and events in Omaha and figured it couldn't hurt to combine Omaha's affinity for fine beer with America's current fixation on bacon.
The event immediately began to attract sponsors and volunteers — and to sell tickets, she said. For $30, those who attend can sample all the beer and bacon they want from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. After 7 p.m., the free drinks will give way to drink specials inside the Old Mattress Factory. A panel of judges, including one of the winners of the most recent season of “The Amazing Race” as well as a yet-to-be-determined hunk from a show in CBS's fall lineup, will crown one of the bacon dishes the night's winner, McGlade said.
The entire thing is a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House, which is another reason McGlade thinks tickets are selling.
“Omaha is a town that is so giving and so philanthropic,” she said.
The Riverfront Wine Festival is a fundraiser, as well, in this case for A Book of My Own, the Junior League of Omaha's literacy program.
But many of those who attend have other, more selfish reasons for going.
Some craft beer fans are collectors at heart, Diimig said. They want to sample as many craft beers as they can, to cross difficult-to-find beers off their bucket list.
He believes craft beer also fosters a spirit of camaraderie — brewers, home brewers and beer drinkers are all passionate about the same thing. They all like to swap stories of beers they loved and beers they didn't, things they tried that worked and things that weren't so successful.
“What's really valuable is to get a chance to talk to your fans,” said Jason Payne, president of Lucky Bucket Brewery and a familiar face at local and regional beer festivals. “We know them on a first name basis. That interaction is huge. You can meet the people who make the beer you buy at the grocery store.”