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June 12, 2020

Craft brew fans drink up Kennebec Valley Chamber's at-home brewfest

Many people sitting at picnic tables on a pavilion in a park Courtesy / Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Beer lovers pack the pavilion at the 2018 Kennebec River Brewfest, sponsored by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce. This year's brewfest was changed to the at-home Brewfest in a Box, which sold out in three hours.

Since the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce introduced its Kennebec River Brewfest three years ago, it's grown in size and this year's was going to be the biggest yet.

But, like so many other things, the plans came to a crashing halt as precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 took effect. Tickets went on sale April 1 for the Aug. 1 event, but were soon shut down.

"The chamber transitioned our monthly and quarterly events to virtual, and began planning ahead for our future events," said Katie Doherty, CEO of the chamber. "I knew we needed to transform it from a live event to something else. We wanted to give our community something to look forward to in participating in this summer instead of canceling it."

The result was the Brewfest in a Box: 100 boxes that include 12 local Maine brews from 12 different breweries, two Maine ciders, two Maine wine samples, one Maine-made seltzer, a vintage Kennebec River Brewfest T-shirt, other swag from breweries, and extras like pretzels. The cost was $50. The boxes all have the same content, and 16 businesses contributed.

"Some brewers, when we first talked to them, thought we were a little crazy, but once we told them more about it they came around and really wanted to be a part of the first Kennebec River Brewfest in a Box," Doherty said.

Brewfest in a Box was first announced on June 3 on the Kennebec Valley Chamber's Facebook page. Craft brew fans drank it up. A week later, on Wednesday, the event launched on Facebook at  2:30 p.m. It was sold out by 5:30.

"We had an unbelievable, and fast, response," Doherty said. "The response far exceeded our expectations."

"This shows our great our community is in supporting this event and the chamber, and that people want something to do and this is a great option for them," she said. 

She said, since the idea worked so well, it may inspire other organizations around the state. "Maybe now we'll see other Brewfests in a Box as an option instead of canceling the events this year."

Helping out small businesses

The at-home brewfest was sponsored by Highbrow, a cannabis company that has locations in Manchester, Topsham and Waldoboro. Other sponsors were Skowhegan Savings Bank, Pine State Beverage (the box sponsor), Valley Beverage (the distributor sponsor) and Kennebec Valley Explorer (the marketing sponsor). 

Doherty said that sponsoring businesses, too, stepped up. "They were excited to a part of the new and innovative approach to it," she said, as well as jumping at the chance to support local businesses.

Those who bought a box of brew will pick it up between July 27 and July 31 at the chamber office on Western Avenue in Augusta. Doherty said that she hopes this year's virtual event, aside from helping out the local businesses that participating, will also give the city some of the boost that the physical event has.

"One of the reasons we started the brewfest was because we knew it was a niche market that people traveled around to participate in, to try all the different craft beers around the state," she said. "We thought it was a great idea to get people to come to Augusta to see all that Kennebec Valley had to offer.

"We have had a great response from around to state for attendees in the past years, so even though we can’t hold it this year in person, people will still be coming to Augusta to pick up the boxes, so hopefully they will still stop in for lunch at a local restaurant or support a local retailer to support our small businesses."

Adapting to challenging times

The first Kennebec River Brewfest was in 2018, featuring 11 brewers and drawing hundreds. The second year, distilleries were added and the number of vendors was up to 30.

Before the decision in April to make it an at-home event, plans for this year were for "the biggest yet," Doherty said. There was going to be a wider selection of beer, cider, spirits and wine, food trucks and two stages of entertainment.

When it became clear that the event wouldn't happen this year, the chamber immediately got to work on figuring out an alternative, she said.

"We were happy that when we came up with the idea our board and sponsors were on board, and loved that we adapted to be able to offer something," she said. The whole chamber team was a big part of it, too. "I have some amazing employees who are always up to my crazy ideas and helping adapting in these challenge times," she said.

The brewfest is one of many efforts the chamber, which represents 23 towns and cities in Kennebec, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, have undertaken in the past couple months. As businesses shut down, it immediately launched a business support Facebook page, where businesses offering curbside and other options could post. It also has kept a running updated list of what businesses in the region are open and what they're offering.

She said the brewfest not only helped local brewers and other involved businesses generate some income, it also offers them exposure they might not have otherwise gotten.

A chance to try it out

The ultimate goal was to help businesses hurting during the shut down, and getting the community involved in the solution.

"While people are enjoying their Kennebec River Brewfest box, they will take a tasty tour of Maine beverages, they can feel good knowing their purchase is helping Maine businesses," she said. "The products were purchased directly from local businesses, keeping money here."

A residual benefit is that some brewers were not able to attend the live event, but could take part in the at-home one. The same goes for beer-lovers.

"We have heard from people who said they haven’t been to our brewfest in the past because they didn’t know if they were really a craft brew drinker, or it wasn’t really their scene to hang out at a brewfest," she said. "They liked the fact that this gave them the chance to try it out in the comfort of their home. So, this definitely grew our audience and will hopefully get them hooked to come back next year and experience it in person."

She said that they are considering offering the Brewfest in a Box as an option next year. She said she also hopes other brewfests will consider the option instead of canceling their event this year.

The 2021 Kennebec River brewfest is set for Saturday, Aug. 7, at Mill Park in Augusta.

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