HUNTINGTON — The beer gods smiled on Huntington on Saturday, gracing the riverfront with perfect weather for the seventh annual Rails and Ales craft beer festival.
The sounds of funk fusion band Black Garlic, out of Fayetteville, West Virginia, wafted down 10th Street as the festival kicked off Saturday evening at Harris Riverfront Park, back to just one session after testing out two sessions the past couple of years. By 6 p.m., more than 600 people had passed through the gates of Huntington's premier beer festival.
"When we started this seven years ago, it was the very first true craft beer festival in West Virginia, so the imperative was to create that culture in West Virginia," said Jeff McKay, co-organizer of the festival and owner of Summit Beer Station. "We, for the past three or four years, have realized that. We've gotten to the point that we've reached our end game of what we've accomplished, and we want to continue to foster that craft beer culture."
This year boasted the largest selection of beer with 300 different brews from more than 100 breweries. Among the breweries was Flensburger, a German brewery dating back to 1888.
Distributed by Atomic Distributing in Huntington, this was the first year Flensburger had been poured at any beer festival in West Virginia. Though it is a classic German beer, it has only shown up for purchase in West Virginia in the past few years, said Emily Erler, regional sales manager for Global Beer Network, which imports the beer.
"Germans and Belgians are the founders of a lot of beer styles," Erler said. "Germans invented pilsner style. If you go back and do some research on the German purity laws of 1516, they basically were the people that said there are only four ingredients that are allowed in beer - water, malt, which was originally barely, yeast and hops. You couldn't put anything else in it or it wasn't beer."
Flensburger still uses that purity law recipe today. Erler said the style inspires her in her own brewing.
"I sell a lot of Belgium beer, but German beer is really where I take my inspiration because they don't add anything," she said. "It's really difficult - if you ever brew beer, like an IPA, if you screw it up, you can always keep adding hops to it and mask any off flavors. With pilsner beers, German beers, you don't have any wiggle room for mistakes because you only have four ingredients in the brewing process. The quality is second to none. This is really where all the craft breweries get their inspiration."
Erler said she's made it a priority to get more beers like Flensburger into West Virginia. It's her fourth year flying in from Florida for Rails and Ales.
"The dedication with Atomic and the organizers of the festival to get good beers in this market is something," she said.
Flensburger can be found on tap at Bahnhof WVrsthaus and Biergarten in Huntington.
Whether they were tasting original German pilsners or new root beer cider, the crowd was having fun. Tammy Cunningham, of Wayne, and Benita Adkins, of Chesapeake, Ohio, were out for their third or fourth time at the festival - complete with homemade pretzel necklaces. They said the good beer paired with the good atmosphere is what keeps them coming back.
"There's no violence. There's no anger," Adkins said. "Everyone is just happy and having a good time."
"Everyone can be themselves," Cunningham said.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.