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Beer Me

Beer Me

Screen shot 2013-04-05 at 3.08.40 PMTiny River Brewing Co.’s Old Town Porter, Tall Grass Brewing Co.’s Buffalo Sweat and even Shocktop’s Wheat IPA have, for now, made it on Tom Bradley’s elusive list. For the organizer of the Missouri Beer Festival, playing favorites is impossible. The Shocktop was a surprise that knocked Bradley “on his keister” at last year’s festival.

“I bought a six-pack of that the very next day,” Bradley says. “It’s funny because I didn’t like the original Shocktop, but that one, I liked.” In his upstairs refrigerator, he has Four Hands Brew Co.’s Divided Sky Rye IPA. Downstairs, there are five of a six-pack of Founder Brew Co.’s Imperial Stout, Shocktop’s End of the World Midnight Wheat and Budweiser, “which is and always will be in my top 10.”

“There’s constantly an open-door policy for my top 10,” he says with a laugh. “And I seldom drink the same beer twice in the same session; if I do my family starts asking questions.”

For such a serious beer lover, the fact that Columbia didn’t have a beer festival —despite its central location and Missouri’s “many wonderful beers” — was all it took to take the task upon himself. “I floated the idea past a couple of people who might have been interested: 44 Stone, 1839 Taphouse, Broadway Brewery…” When they all expressed interest, Bradley went to N.H. Scheppers Distributing Co.

“The timing was perfect,” Bradley says. When InBev bought Anheuser Busch, Scheppers’ distribution obligations changed, and the company was allowed to bring some craft beers into its portfolio. At the same time, a movement toward craft beers was happening across the country. With more than 2,000 craft breweries in the United States, there are more small, independent and traditional breweries today than there have been since 1890. In Columbia, a new brewery, Rock Bridge Brewery, has opened, and Bradley says there’s another new brewery in the works.

“People like a more natural way of life,” Bradley says. “They’d rather drink a beer from down the street just like they want to buy their eggs from down the street.” He says people are starting to experience their taste buds like never before.

Room to grow
Three months after his revelation that mid-Missouri was lacking a beer festival, Bradley found some brewers to provide 25 samples, and 400 people went to his event. By the second year, the number of beers to sample, as well as attendance, doubled, and more than 100 people had to be turned away at the door. This year, he’s expecting more than 1,000 people to attend.

To make room for growing interest, Bradley chose to move the festival from the Stoney Creek Inn to the Parkade Plaza, where he hopes it’ll take the festival at least a few years to outgrow.

According to a survey from last year’s online ticket sales, about 75 percent of attendees come from Columbia’s immediate surrounding area, and the majority of the rest are from outlying regions of Missouri. A few come from other states: Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio and even Oregon.

Although the majority of attendees come from Missouri, the beer and brewers come from all over. There’s Goose Island out of Chicago, Sierra Nevada — the granddaddy of craft beers that made dark, pungent brews before it was cool — from Chico, Calif.

For Bradley, 49, craft beers have only been part of his alcohol repertoire since his late 20s, so when we began to plan the festival, he expected a late-bloomer attendance. What he found was a lot of younger people who are growing easily and simultaneously into drinking age and craft brews.

“When I first planned it, I was afraid with Columbia being a college town that it would turn into a frat house beer drinking party,” Bradley says. “But [the young people] really knew their craft beer. … I felt like some granddaddy.

A beer community
Bradley’s favorite part of the festival — other than when the entrance is closed down, and he gets to join the tasting — is simply watching the interaction between novice craft beer aficionados and master brewers. “They can say what they like, if they like more citrusy beer or their flavor preferences and really learn something,” he says. “The event really is a beer community. Sometimes we can get a little snobby, but generally we like to have other people exploring what we love.”

He says a lot of times neophyte beer drinkers need handholding and guidance into the world of craft beers. Bradley, too, needed a bit of libation leadership. His brother-in-law, Michael Maclady, was the first to show him all the aspects of beer.

“When he became of drinking age, his father, Terry, helped him to understand his options: not just the light lagers but that there were more deeper influences in beer,” Bradley says. “He taught Michael that there’s a deeper and more robust flavor from hundreds of years ago.”

So when Michelob came out with its darker beer (slogan: Don’t be afraid of the dark) and Bradley didn’t hate it, Maclady began to lead him on a path of “more robust flavors,” Bradley says. Eventually, Michelob came out with Amber Bock, and it became a staple for Bradley. He even tried Fat Tire before the days it graced every Columbia liquor store.

He also noticed that by beginning a love for beer, he began to drink less beer. Rather than buying 24-packs of pale beer, he might only have one or two craft beers. “Although this might be because craft beers range from $3.50 to $7.50 each,” he laughs.

As Bradley got smarter with his cervezas, the brews he enjoyed most began to come from smaller and smaller breweries, until he began home brewing. “None of those were wonderful, and a lot of them were terrible…but some were good,” Bradley says. It’s a love he’s selflessly decided to share with his fellow citizens.

“It’s not like it’s some sort of philanthropy, but I believe in enjoying someone else’s experience with a good beer,” Bradley says. “Even when people don’t like the beer they try, I think they’re generally happy they tried something new.”

This year, the Missouri Beer Festival plans to have a people’s choice award and, in the future, might have a judging panel. “But that’s very, very serious and a hell of a statement to make…so we won’t go down that path until we’re very, very serious,” Bradley says.

“Can you tell by now how ridiculously seriously I take my craft beer?”

No, not at all, Tom.

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