It seems almost funny given the current huge volume of tourist traffic in Savannah, but the Savannah Craft Brew Festival, now in its fifth year, actually started out as an attempt to jump start the then–moribund scene here over the long Labor Day weekend.
Visit Savannah Executive Director Joe Marinelli, whose organization conceived the event, recalls how it all went down:
Marinelli, who arrived in Savannah in January 2007, says by the time September of his first year rolled around “I was a little surprised at how nothing was going on on Labor Day weekend. I’m from up north, where on Labor Day you have rib burnoffs and all kinds of things going on. Not only was not much going on but tourism traffic was mediocre — I didn’t feel much of a pulse that weekend.”
Marinelli says he “challenged his staff to do some research” to find an event that might fit into the Labor Day weekend slot. Aiding him in his efforts was the fact that a portion of the Chatham County hotel/motel tax is designated to fund events for slower times of the year for tourism.
“We came back with the notion that the craft brew industry was growing, emerging and developing and might be something to take a look at. The irony is I don’t drink beer at all — I was like, couldn’t you have come back with Italian wines?” Marinelli laughs.
With the event now in year five, Marinelli says the goal is to “tinker” with it a little each year to get visitors to stay in town for longer than a normal three–day weekend.
“The average length of stay here is 2.5 nights. We’ve tried to add events on Friday night, and this year have something more substantial on Sunday with hopes that some people come in Thursday and maybe stay through Sunday.”
That “something more substantial” is of course the big “Rhythm and Brews” concert (see coverage this issue) next to the Westin Savannah Harbor, which is a premier partner in the entire Craft Brew Festival as well.
“The Westin has really picked up on the momentum and grown into the event,“ says Marinelli. “They host the international craft brew tasting on Friday night, and from there people can enjoy seeing the fireworks from the River.”
After the international component Friday evening, Saturday is given over to the grand tasting keynote event, intended to “really appeal to the craft brew aficionado and taster,” Marinelli says. “We’ve been very careful over the years to not let this event become a beer–guzzling event. Our goal is to get people who are really into the notion of tasting craft brews to get in their car or get on an airplane and come from other places.”
A highlight of Saturday’s festivities will include giving the annual Craft Brew Pioneer Award to Moon River Brewmaster John Pinkerton.
“We’ve given this award the past couple of years, and this year for first time we’re recognizing a local name,” Marinelli says. “John has built quite a business over there.”
While Marinelli doesn’t claim full credit for the Craft Brew Festival’s success, he does say the proof is in the pudding.
“We can measure our success: In 2007 hotel occupancy in the historic district during the Labor Day weekend hovered in the low 60 percent mark that first year of the Festival,” he says. “Last year, hotel occupancies during that weekend were at basically 98–99 percent both Friday and Saturday night.”
“I won’t say that the Craft Brew Fest is solely responsible — hotels are full because we live in a very popular city. But last year we did have 4200 people come to the Festival, and even if we just take ten percent of that and say they’re staying in local hotels, that’s a sizable number of rooms being filled,” says Marinelli.
Savannah Craft Brew Fest Main Events
Fri. Aug. 31 — International Grand Tasting from 6 – 9 p.m. at Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa
Sat. Sept. 1 — Grand Tasting Festival, Esplanade at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center Noon to 5 p.m. More than 45 breweries and live music.
Sun., Sept. 2 — Savannah Rhythm & Brews concert with Heavy Pets, Stokeswood and Jason D. Williams, Sister Hazel and the North Mississippi Allstars. Gates open 2 p.m., music 3–10 p.m.
Brew Fest tix $40-$75
Rhythm & Brews tix $40 adults, $10 ages 11–16
Go to savannahcraftbrewfest.com