What goes into making a great beer tasting experience? High quality hops and yeast help, sugar and spice will go a long way, and a brewmaster’s love of their craft is necessary. For Tim Brady, there’s one more ingredient that needs to be considered. “We live in a beautiful place. It’s gorgeous outside,” said Brady, “There are great mountains, quality of life is really high. That makes the beer taste better.” I’m chatting with Brady in the tap room of Pale Fire Brewery where he is co-owner. Across the street is the Turner Pavilion where Brady, his partner Aaron Ludwig, and the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance are in their fifth year of hosting the Rocktown Beer and Music Festival. Farther beyond in the distance are the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley, witness to the history of beer in Harrisonburg that led to the festival.
“Harrisonburg is such a great craft beer town,” said Brady, whose Pale Fire is the third brewery to open in Harrisonburg since 2012 (plus a fourth will be opening soon). “The idea came around with Aaron and I having a beer together and saying ‘We should do a beer festival, there should be a beer festival in town.’ The idea was very much rooted in Harrisonburg. ” Ludwig, co-owner of Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint, helped to popularize the craft beer explosion in Harrisonburg by focusing on a large and perpetually rotating selection of mircobrews right as the shift in drinking culture from domestics to craft beers swept across the country.
“From the beginning, we’ve looked at the festival as streamlined and super high quality,” said Brady. “We don’t want to do a million things, we want to do what we do do really well, and I think you see that philosophy with Aaron and his restaurant. We focus on three things: Craft beer first, and we do that as well as we possibly can. Then music, where we want somebody we’re excited about who has some good buzz; and the food, where we always have downtown restaurants.”
This year the festival – which has sold out every year since it began in 2011 and maintains a capacity of 3,800 people to avoid overcrowding – features 32 breweries including locals such as Brothers and Three Notch’d as well as nationally distributed brands. Attendees are given a four-ounce cup and are allowed ten pours during the event. This year’s musical lineup includes Harrisonburg locals Dead Professional, Sleepwalkers out of Richmond, and the fiercely original Man Man from Philadelphia.
“We put a lot of thought into it,” said Jeremiah Jenkins, who has booked all of Rocktown’s festivals. “Just like Harrisonburg is special in its own way and does things in its own way, we wanted this festival to do the same. We wanted to bring good music as opposed to some regular cover band or the typical band in the background. We wanted to bring good music to the forefront.”
Tim’s wife, Kelly, and well as former Jack’s Browns beer buyer Susan Keeler have also been involved with the festival since it began. They are joined by more than a hundred volunteers who help make everything run smoothly. “We have awesome people that come and help us out,” said Jenkins, noting that many of those who volunteer come back year after year. “We know what we’re doing, we know we can improve things here and there and we do, but we can also do it by muscle memory.”
While the focus of Rocktown is on the beer, food, and music, the festival’s organizers are mindful to create a space in which not only revellers but also families and children can enjoy. Rocktown was intended as a celebration of community just as much as it is the beer that community enjoys. “We use the amount of kids as a metric on whether or not the quality of the event is good for the guests,” said Brady. “If people are too boisterous or packed in, if the environment isn’t comfortable, the first thing people are going to do is take their kids home. When we look out and see a bunch of kids dancing and having a blast, we know we’ve put on a good event.”
Jenkins admits that the festival is put on primarily for and by residents of the Harrisonburg community, but adds that the dual focus on quality beer and nationally known musical acts (The War on Drugs played the David Letterman Show three days after they performed at Rocktown in 2012) make the festival a unique experience for guests visiting from outside the Shenandoah Valley. “We would love for people to come visit, stay downtown and have a blast at our festival, then go hang out downtown and check out an after show at the Golden Pony or Clementine,” said Jenkins. “We love it when that happens.”
The popularity of the festival confirms not only the viability of Harrisonburg’s beer market, but the continued growth and expansion of craft beer culture in the country as a whole. “You don’t just say one day that ‘I love IPAs, but I think I’m gonna go back to drinking domestic,’” said Brady. But Rocktown, now in its second year of operating both spring and falls events due to high demand, will remain rooted in the town’s history of beer and community, though perhaps not quite as frequently as some true believers would hope for. “There have been some guests who have suggested we do a festival every month, but that would make me prematurely grey,” Brady said with a smile.
This year’s fall edition of the Rocktown Beer & Music Festival takes place on Saturday, September 26 from 3:00-8:30 PM. Full schedule and tickets are available online at rocktownfestival.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers