A Melancholy Harrisburg Beer Week Post…

For me… truly great beers are defined by their balance. The even application of malt, hops, water, yeast, and technique can elevate a beer beyond the mere sum of their ingredients. Balance is hard to find. It’s delicate, often on seemingly a knife’s edge. Once lost, it can be hard to regain. World-class brewers find the balance and then hone that edge for years, generations… centuries. This is not whale chasing, FOMO releases, trading, or IP theft running ahead of the baited C&D. This is beer as culture.

The culture around beer in Harrisburg got a big step forward when Tierney, Sara, Colleen, Chelsie, and later professional intern Jimi and others started Harrisburg Beer Week. More than half a decade ago a well-documented beer fueled idea took shape and a regular Spring cadence developed around Central PA breweries, bars, outdoor events, and the local culture of Craft Beer. The story of Craft Beer in Pennsylvania has a chapter for this 10 day “week.” But when COVID-19 destroyed the national norm, Harrisburg Beer Week (HBW) naturally went with it; it never had a chance. HBW is a gathering when gathering is the danger.

HBW despite having no 717 Collab Release, no events, and a bar and brewery economy which was as hard hit as anything these days, still managed to raise $25,000 this year for the Harrisburg River Rescue; the long time beneficiary. How the hell did they manage that? Tremendous.

When notice of the generous benefit was made, the PR materials had no mention of the 2021 HBW and its scheduled dates…my heart sank. I knew what was coming. Several days later, the news. HBW was folding its tent and not just for 2020. They thanked everyone and a couple of posts by some of the founders filled in some of the gaps.

I liked HBW… like REALLY liked it. I went to events. I scoped out the breweries dropping unique one-offs. I tried to be the first ticket purchased for Little Big Beer Fest every year. My podcast held a live recording and people paid money to hear us talk with friends and the CTO of Untappd! We raised $500 for HRR and I was over the moon. (Never mind that this is a drop in the nearly $200,000 bucket that HBW raised over the years.) I spied and traded local industry gossip with brewers getting the inside track on each year’s 717 Collab like I was trying to beat and corner the market; sometimes to less than happy responses from folks. I defended their work when I thought it necessary though it was never asked for and probably not needed. I reviewed the 717 Collab beer each year and considered the event one of my few “beats” for this generally fallow blog space.

So what happened? Well, the founders can and did speak to that far more closely than I can but I think the balance was never truly found. Which is not for lack of effort, good intent, or commitment… everyone there had those in droves; at the cost of their own personal time and lives.

HBW was a big event. 11 months of planning. Hundreds of events that would put larger cities to shame. Huge productions for the marquee events (i.e. VIP, LLBF, LBBF, Homebrew Contest, etc…). It lasted 10 days… which sometimes had to feel like a marathon. Governmental support for HBW which would have been reasonable given the contributions of the industry locally and across the state never materialized and instead went to (in my opinion) less worthy causes. The team was small, the work was for a non-profit, the effort was enormous and growing. Events never seemed to be cut… they only were added. 

Looking back, it makes me wonder if the beauty of it as a non-profit, of it being run by volunteers, who were not brewers and therefore not directly seeing the benefits other than good grace, made it more difficult? Can a large beer week be a non-profit? Given the scope, the hours, the effort, and the stress, the answer might be “No.” Which is sad. The founders were idealistic, daring, and really important for Central PA’s beer culture. It ends up being a bit of a loss to the brewers and beer drinkers. Harrisburg and Central PA brewers and beer drinkers owe a debt to them. For that, I raise my glass.

Cheers to HBW… Beer for Good.

Post Script:

While writing this I am slinging back a couple of Lucky Holler by Tröegs. This beer replaces Hop Knife in the Tröegs line up. The limits on the number of SKUs a brewery can reasonably have puts a market limit on their portfolio. It forces a brewery to make changes to certain parts of their line up to keep it fresh. In this case, Hop Knife got cut for Lucky Holler as the fall release for the hop cycle beers. It’s a change that at first left me disappointed but Chris & John Trogner was kind enough to perk my mood by letting us know that Hop Knife will be a brewery-only limited release next Thursday. You will find me in line.

Disclosure: Troegs was kind enough to send me two cans of Lucky Holler. I liked it enough to spend my own hard-earned money on a case of it. I think you will too.

Eventually, a new HBW of some sort will emerge. There are too many great breweries in this area, too many dedicated beer drinkers, and too much pent up demand for one to not reemerge. How, will be tough. This was an event developed and led by women (but for Jimi), in a space that has been white male-dominated for … well forever. How do they hand it off? What if a group of strong women does not step up to take this specific mantle? Therefore, to whom do they hand it off? HBW’s leaders own the IP around the events. You can change names sure, but do you want to? How this gets handed off may be very delicate. In the end, I hope a Central PA Brewer Guild would form and assume the work and effort. It could still be a non-profit, would continue to have brewer investment, and could result in a more welcome transition… at least in my opinion.

What will not and should not happen, is some folks “gauging interest” before the body is even cold and using the same event names. Stop it. Regardless of intent, this was badly handled from the word go.

Can the breweries still do a 717 Collab and keep the proceeds doing good in the area? Because that would be cool and would give me something to write about. The drama around one particular version fueled my blog and Twitter for nearly a year. Also, I liked getting weird beers.

Rumor Report: It is sort of fitting that a very specific apocalyptic beer is returning in non-barrel aged form later this year. When it can feel like 2020 is the end times, maybe the Mayan calendar was just off by about 8 years

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s