For 14 years, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has been bringing together pure magic down in Manchester, Tennessee. Though its roots are deep in the jam music scene, part of the joy of the annual event is how it’s branched out to cover fans of all types of genres. Just take a look at this year’s lineup; a bill that boasts headliners in the form of Mumford and Sons, Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, and deadmau5 is clearly an event for everyone.
There’s so much music happening on the Farm at any given moment that it’s easy to get lost in the schedule. But Bonnaroo isn’t only about the live acts. A ton is going on in every corner of Great Stage Park over those four June days, from incredible food, to comedy, to movies, to glassblowing, to art projects of all kind. And whether you go to Roo to cover yourself in glowing objects and dance till dawn or head bang yourself into a sore neck and a sweat-drenched shirt, there’s one other aspect of the festival that bonds nearly every attendee: beer. Good brews and good music go hand and hand, and there’s no better place at Bonnaroo to experience that connection than at the Broo’ers Festival.
Situated under a giant tent at the far end of the field from the Which Stage, Broo’ers Festival has been a part of Bonnaroo for all but its first two incarnations. What started as simply a location for craft brewers to provide libations beyond the beers found at stalls throughout the festival grounds has grown into a unique, multi-faceted feature event in its own right. It’s not just a shady spot to grab a quick cold one; it’s a place to expand your palette, meet interesting people, and even learn something.
Twenty-five breweries fill the space, including six “major” companies like Harpoon, Blue Moon, Lagunitas, and Sierra Nevada, with Angry Orchard Hard Cider thrown in for a bit of variety. Coming from as close as right down the road to as far as Seattle, each brewery provides two pours daily, tapping a total of 50 different drinks in the space. Many even alternate their taps throughout the weekend, providing a wide variety of styles and tastes. You can sample around with 3 oz. pours or go all out with 12 or 24 oz. options. A handful of the breweries are even direct sponsors of Bonnaroo, and you can purchase their suds at some of the festival’s stalls right next to the Miller.
But talk to Superfly’s Broo’ers Festival Curator Evan Sutherland, and he’ll tell you it’s about way, way more than just getting good beer into the hands of festivalgoers. For Sutherland and the Broo’ers team, the educational facet stands out as much as anything. With gruff, rapid-fire passion, Sutherland goes on and on about what they offer in the center of Bonnaroo.
“We connect with consumers who also want to learn,” he says, “even with everything else going on [here].” That’s why they offer Broo’ers University, or BrooU for short. In a small tent off to the side of the main one, daily talks are held with representatives from different breweries, each discussing their company’s mission and the art of brewing. Three of these BrooU sessions are held each day beginning Friday, and they’re not sparsely attended — they’re packed. People will wait in advance to snag a seat and fill in the extra space by standing. They interact, too, asking interesting questions about processes, hops, and all things craft.
Photo by Tom Tomkinson
A young brewer from New Belgium Brewing in Colorado named Kevin Cole coordinates the BrooU sessions, as well as the festival’s “secret” third SuperJam: Brewers SuperJam. Six years ago, there was a scheduling hole on the Solar Stage. Superfly needed something to fill the spot and turned to Sutherland, who in turn looked at Cole. Cole had begun his time with Broo’ers Fest as a volunteer ID checker and ticker seller, but had worked his way up to Sutherland’s right-hand man on site. Together, they came up with the idea of a SuperJam, where a group of brewers get together on the stage not just to hand out samples of their beverages, but also to discuss the ins and outs of their complexities. Again, it’s not just about sharing a good drink; it’s about sharing the knowledge and love of craft brewing.
When you think about it, it all makes pretty good sense. Folks coming to Bonnaroo aren’t usually shy about opening their minds to unfamiliar things, be that bands or beers. The fact that Broo’ers Fest has etched out such a lasting, loving place on the Farm isn’t all that surprising, but it’s very much worth celebrating. This year, I decided to do just that by really taking the time to dig into the craft concoctions the Broo’ers were offering and find out exactly what being there meant to the people and beverages inside that tent in the center of Centeroo.
Brew: Honey Do Golden Ale
Where’s it from?: Tullahoma, TN
Why’s it here?: Because you can’t get more local than seven minutes down the road. At just under four years old, Ole Shed isn’t readily available outside of Coffee County, where it’s featured at a handful of joints and the company’s own taproom. Bonnaroo is an international destination for music, but its connections to the local economy are strong. Featuring artisans from the surrounding community is important to the festival, and having such a nearby brewery present at Broo’ers Fest is just one way to highlight that relationship.
How does it taste?: Brewed with honey farmed just behind the Bonnaroo site, Honey Do has a gentle, floral honey taste. Lighter and crisper than most honey brews, it doesn’t leave you with that mildly unpleasant mouth coating many similar ales do. It’s a solid entry point for someone looking to explore craft beer thanks to a relatively gentle ABV and taste.
At which Bonnaroo act should you enjoy it?: SOJA. It’s not overpowering, but it’s not a boring retread either. “It’s perfect on a warm day to relax and get down with,” says Ryan Ramsey, son of co-owner Mike Ramsey.
Brew: 30th Street Pale Ale
Where’s it from?: San Diego, CA
Why’s it here?: For two reasons, one of which is the company’s strong connection with the craft brewing scene. 30th Street is named after a stretch of road in San Diego famous for its breweries and taprooms, so having the beer at Broo’ers Fest is like bringing the traditions of that street to the Farm. The other part is brand recognition. Green Flash is already available in all 50 states and is one of the sponsor breweries featured at the regular beer stands. Being at Broo’ers is another way “to meet new craft beer fans,” explains Elizabeth Bradshaw. Green Flash definitely had the strongest marketing in the tent, with sunglasses, stickers, tasting journals, and antenna balls to give away, plus sniffing canisters filled with all the varieties of hops found in their beers.
How does it taste?: Like an IPA. Green Flash is known for aggressive, skillful implementation of hops, and it’s evident in this particular brew. They’ve created something that’s as tasty and satisfying as an IPA, but with the lightness and drinkability of a regular Pale Ale.
At which Bonnaroo act should you enjoy it?: Courtney Barnett. 30th Street is a complex brew filled with craft and artistry. If that doesn’t describe the rising Aussie rocker to a T, I don’t know what does.
Brew: Raspberry Hefeweizen
Where’s it from?: St. Louis, MO
Why’s it here?: “Craft beer and this audience just match,” said Schlafly’s Kent Householder. “People are willing to experiment, seek out interesting things.” Schlafly has been bringing their own sense of experimentation to Broo’ers Fest for five years now and brewing it up in St. Louis for the past 22. With a wide selection of draught-only and seasonal selections, Schlafly demonstrates the variety of the craft beer scene right within its own brewery. They also click with Bonnaroo’s clean-eating ethos, staying away from artificial ingredients and keeping things pure and tasty.
How does it taste?: Many fruit beers can fall into the too-sweet category fairly quickly, but Schlafly’s seasonal Hefeweizen has a classic Belgian way of avoiding this. By adding real raspberry puree during the fermentation process, the sugars actually ferment out of the brew, leaving a crisp, dry finish.
At which Bonnaroo act should you enjoy it?: Dawes. With its natural pinkish hue and light, flavorful taste, this beer is perfect for a “hot, sunny, beautiful, great mellow time,” says Householder.
Brew: Super Fuzz Blood Orange Pale Ale
Where’s it from?: Seattle, WA
Why’s it here?: “To represent the North West at ‘Roo is an honor,” says Elyisan’s Dave Chappell. (Chappell and I actually ended up camping next to each other in 2014; full disclosure, I chose to feature Elysian before re-meeting him this year.) Beyond being the only Broo’er from their region, Elysian is a prime example of the relationship between beer and music. They brew an exclusive Pale Ale for Seattle venue The Triple Door and created the Loser Pale Ale originally to be served only backstage at Sub Pop Records’ 20th Anniversary concerts. (It was so good that they started selling it regularly.) And whether they mean to be or not, Elysian is a parallel for the future of Bonnaroo. The company recently sold to Anheuser-Busch, reminiscent of how ‘Roo was just added to Live Nation’s roster. Now, Elysian is proving that going corporate doesn’t mean sacrificing the quality and creativity that attracted so many fans in the first place.
How does it taste?: Like Schlafly’s Hefeweizen, this is a fruit beer that doesn’t taste overly fruity. Blood orange peel is used in the bittering process, with a puree infused during fermentation. The result is a hoppy, medium-bodied brew that’s big on aroma and plays with your taste buds.
At which Bonnaroo act should you enjoy it?: ’80s SuperJam. Super Fuzz is a “funky mix of goodness” that’s “refreshing, but fires on all cylinders,” Chappell says after some thought. Plus, it has the word “super” in its name, so there’s that.