HUNTINGTON - The Rails & Ales craft beer festival returns to Harris Riverfront Park in Huntington on Saturday, Aug. 10. The festival, even though it's now in its seventh year, remains extremely popular.
"I don't know if we'll have tickets the day of the festival," said one of the organizers, Jessica Pressman. "Tickets are going pretty fast."
For area craft beer drinkers, Rails & Ales has become an annual summertime event. The festival began as a scheme by a group of like-minded beer fans who were tired of having to drive across state lines to find new and interesting craft beers.
"There just wasn't much of a selection here," Pressman said. "And Jeff (McKay) was planning on opening The Tap House in Huntington."
"Which became the Summit Beer Station," McKay added. "We all came together because we wanted to help create a craft beer culture in Huntington."
So, they formed the Better Beer Coalition and started planning a festival to celebrate brewed beverage diversity.
"We'd all been to different beer festivals," Pressman explained. "We decided having a festival would be a good way to promote the culture."
The first festival, held at Heritage Station, in 2013 was modest - about 700 to 750 people, Pressman said.
"If that," McKay added. "And we only had a handful of craft brewers there."
Beer fans were interested, but it took several weeks for Rails & Ales to sell out.
"We didn't know how well it would go over, but it went really well," Pressman said.
Since year one, the crowd at Rails & Ales has grown, running parallel to - or maybe just ahead of - the area's beer culture.
"There are an amazing number of establishments that offer good beer," Pressman said. "West Virginia breweries are putting out great beers and you no longer have to leave the state to get a craft beer."
It's a far cry from seven years ago, when the members of the Better Beer Coalition began talking about putting together a festival.
This year's festival - offered for just one session - will feature several hundred beers from dozens of breweries and cideries, representing a range of styles and tastes, including stouts, porters, IPAs, Belgian beers and more.
McKay said one of the challenges for putting together a beer festival is trying to balance what devoted craft beer fans want, but also being accessible enough for someone who is new to drinking beers from smaller breweries, maybe someone who is still just figuring out what they really like.
Rails & Ales will have a lot to choose from and many beers to sample, but McKay warned people coming to the festival for the first time to take it slow and to pace yourself.
"Drink some water first," he said. "Then, start with some lighter styles - lagers, some of the seasonal beers, a Belgian wheat or a cider."
Attempting to try all of the beers will end badly, McKay promised.
"I know a lot of people just want to jump in and try as many things as they can for their first festival, but that's when you get into trouble," he said.
Along with the beer, Rails & Ales will have a number of food truck vendors, many of them local, with food for sale. There's also live music throughout the festival, and Rails & Ales has expanded to include over a dozen artisan vendors with wares for sale.
"We just want it to be a fun time outside," Pressman said.
Festival attendees can choose from a VIP or general ticket. VIP tickets offer early admission to the festival for 90 minutes before general admission attendees enter, as well as access to rare and specialty beer samples.
A designated driver ticket is also available for attendees who want to come to the festival but are abstaining from drinking alcohol.
Minors, including babies in strollers, are not allowed entrance into the festival.
Festival tickets may not last all the way up until the day of the event, but whether you can make it to Rails & Ales or not, craft beer fans will have at least one more beer festival to look forward to.
The past couple of years, the Better Beer Coalition has put on a second beer festival called the Wild and Wonderful Winter Beer Festival.
"It's really a boutique festival," Pressman said. "And we've had a theme. The first year, we focused on sour beers. The second year, it was about cider, which was the first time in the state that a festival did that, as far as we knew."
She said they planned to have another winter festival but weren't ready to release information about the theme.
"One beer festival at a time," she said.