Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
In six short years, the Rails & Ales Festival has grown from a quaint gathering at Heritage Station to West Virginia’s largest craft beer festival—both in terms of attendance and number of beers offered. Held at Huntington’s iconic Harris Riverfront Park, the 2018 installment will be on August 11.
Rails & Ales is West Virginia's largest craft beer festival.
The Rails & Ales craft beer festival was launched in 2013 by Huntington’s Better Beer Coalition to expand the craft beer options in West Virginia and the tri-state.
“The reason we created the Rails & Ales Festival is because we wanted to grow the craft beer culture in Huntington and improve access to craft beer by demonstrating a demand in our area,” Jessica Pressman, one of the festival organizers told the Herald-Dispatch.
“As we continue to grow the festival, so grows the number of craft beer consumers in our area. There are so many exciting things happening in the craft beer scene in Huntington and we are happy to be a part of it.”
The first Rails & Ales sold out in a matter of days.
The Rails & Ales Festival has been a success story from the word go. The first festival in 2013 sold out of its allotted 750 tickets in a matter of days. The next year, when available tickets were doubled to 1,500, the festival sold out in a few hours. By 2017, the official attendance had grown to more than 6,000.
“What started as a small project for a few craft beer lovers has really turned into an economic development opportunity for all of downtown,” Pressman said. “The hotels get filled up with out of town guests, the restaurants are busy. The festival brings a lot of foot traffic downtown and it’s great exposure for the city as a whole.”
While the original location for the festival was Heritage Station, which was a very popular venue, Rails & Ales quickly outgrew that spot. “We made the move to Harris Riverfront Park three years ago and we’re so glad we did,” Pressman continued. “That park is so beautiful and it’s underutilized. There is a ton of useable space, the shade trees are perfect and there’s always a breeze, and the sunsets along the river are gorgeous. It’s turned out to be the perfect setting for the beer fest. We would love to see that park used for more festivals and events.”
Rails & Ales features more than 300 local and international craft beers.
Rails & Ales isn’t just about drinking beer all day. It’s also about food, a local artisan market, and music. So there’s plenty to do, even if you don’t drink, don’t like beer, or are the designated driver.
Still, the beer and the music take center stage at Rails & Ales. Since moving to Riverfont Park, the festival has showcased local and regionally touring bands on the main stage. Past acts have included local favorites Tyler Childers, Ona, The M.F.B., and The Dividends. This year’s entertainment will feature Joslyn & the Sweet Compression, Johnny Conqueroo, and Of The Dell.
And the beer list is thorough. Of the more than 300 beers that will be offered this year, only about 20 will be repeats from 2017. Jeff McKay, owner of Summit Beer Station and another festival organizer, said the selection process begins a half a year before the actual festival. “Building the list to satisfy all preferences is the most difficult aspect,” McKay said. “It takes the better part of 6 months to make sure that both VIPs and general admission attendees have a selection that I’m satisfied with. I always aim to offer a completely new list every year.”
Rails & Ales draws more than 6,000 people from all over the tri-state and beyond.
Drawing 6,000 patrons for a single-day event means that Rails & Ales is the center of beer life in the tri-state for a day, but it also draws visitors from well beyond the Jewel City. “We’ve been wanting to come back and visit anyway, but we heard about this festival and I’m a craft beer lover, so I thought it was a perfect fit to see Huntington again and enjoy this festival,” JD Dooley of North Carolina told WSAZ.
“We hear year after year from visitors how impressed they are with Huntington, especially with the quality of our restaurants and craft beer-centric businesses. We never dreamed we’d draw so many attendees and we love to hear great feedback about our city,” Pressman said.
“The reaction always seems to be positive,” McKay agreed. “If there’s been anything negative said, I haven’t heard it.”
Craft breweries contributed a combined $292 million to the West Virginia state economy last year.
Rails & Ales represents a growing trend in West Virginia as the Mountain State is now home to 28 breweries, which contributed a combined $292 million to the state economy last year according to the Brewer’s Association. West Virginia still lags behind the rest of the country though, as the same organization estimated that West Virginia produced roughly 8,000 barrels of craft beer in 2014, good enough for 49th in the country.
Still, for people who came of age thinking Michelob Amberbock was a fine beer, the times have certainly changed in West Virginia.
“We’ve got things on the shelf now that I’d never thought we’d see. We’ve got Belgian brands, we’ve got Trappist ales and stuff that if you’d said seven years ago that we’d have I’d have laughed at you,” Rob Absten, president of the Kanawha Valley Regional Association of Zymurgy Enthusiasts (KRAZE) told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
McKay reiterated that point, stating that Summit’s beer selection has tripled in the last couple of years with approximately 70 percent being of European origin. “My philosophy for choosing our [beer] lists has been to always offer a few options that aren’t quite as safe and will challenge your palate, as well as offering styles that cater to all beer drinkers,” he said.
McKay said the most popular beers at Rails & Ales tend to be fruit beers, with IPAs (India Pale Ales) coming in a close second. “I’m always amazed at the popularity of the fruit beers,” McKay said. “IPAs are usually well represented. It’s hard to track down stouts and porters in the summer, but I make it a point to pre-order and have the distributors hold kegs to make sure those styles are available.”
While new beers always debut at the festival, it is unknown at this point what or how many those might be. “With new beers it normally comes down to the wire,” McKay said. “The list doesn’t really solidify until a day or two before the festival.”