The Rapids & Grass Beer Festival brought lovers of music, beer and whitewater to Buena Vista this past weekend for the third year, and all three were flowing.
Festival director Sarah Stewart gave an early estimate of 1,200 tickets sold for the event.
Stewart said that she was looking to cap total tickets for the event at 1,500.
“I think it went really well. The feedback has been really positive,” she said.
While Colorado was heavily represented in the 50 breweries that encircled South Main’s Square, the festival also brought in out-of-staters like California brewers Firestone Walker from Paso Robles, Beachwood Brewing from Long Beach and Sierra Nevada from Chico.
Also there were Jester King from Austin, Texas; Cigar City Brewing from Tampa, Fla.; Joseph James from Henderson, Nev.; La Cumbre Brewing from Albuquerque, N.M.; Ninkasi Brewing from Eugene, Ore.; Melvin from Alpine, Wyo.; and Two Roads from Stratford, Conn.
Locals like Eddyline Brewery, Elevation and Soulcraft Brewing, as well as Deerhammer Distillery, were also represented.
“It’s a selection of the best breweries that there are, hands down, not only in Colorado,” said Alex Liberati, the head brewer at Liberati Oenobeers. “You can see that it’s really picked well and done well, the selection here. It’s really thought through. It’s not like someone just called up a bunch of breweries and made a festival.”
Liberati opened his brewery in Denver last year after moving from Rome, Italy. He thought that Colorado drinkers would be adventurous enough for his unique concept, in which nearly half of the fermentable material being converted into alcohol by the yeast is wine grapes, creating a fusion of wine and beer.
Saturday on the tasting grounds, members of Rapidgrass circled around one another for a quick warm-up jam, quickly assembling a Yonder Mountain String Band cover to honor the group’s mandolin player Jeff Austin, who died last week.
Rapidgrass played that song in their headlining set later that night, debuting for their hometown crowd the group’s new bassist, Charlie Parker Mertens.
Before that, Westcliffe’s KneeOn sisters brought a pleasing array of southern rock and Roundhouse Assembly played music inspired by classic jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers.
Friday night, Fort Collins bluegrass group Head for the Hills kicked things off at the Beach.
On Sunday, raft after raft took off from the Adventure Hub at South Main for an early afternoon trip through the lush banks of the Arkansas River above Browns Canyon, taking out at River Runners in Nathrop, where music continued at the outfitter’s beachfront stage.
“The river raft was super fun, splashy high water,” Stewart said. “It was a lot more intense than last year.”
Thunder rumbled around Asheville- and Nashville-based Lover’s Leap’s set and rain began to fall as singer Mary Lucey performed a soft, sweet and incredibly well-timed cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
The stage at River Runners is minimalist – a raised platform covered by a white tent with a pair of PA speakers and some monitoring wedges – all you really need with a backdrop of vibrant riparian bushes and the towering Collegiate Peaks in the background.
As the rain came down, the audience was undaunted, sitting under the beach’s canopies on picnic tables or beach towels, enjoying food and drinks from the River Runner’s Grill.
Children built sandcastles in the beach’s lapping waves.
After the soothing sounds of Lover’s Leap, the tempo picked up with Gypsy Cattle Drive, a western swing outfit formed of many members of festival headliners Rapidgrass.
The audiences in Colorado “just want to dance to the music all the time,” said Christopher Howard-Williams, who runs a mountain bluegrass festival of his own, the La Roche Bluegrass Festival in a town in the French Alps near Chamonix. “They don’t do that in France. Or California, really.”
Rafters, including many brewers reps who were pouring the day before, floated down the river one by one, raising their beers in victory as their beached themselves at the venue.
“(It’s) the scene, the architecture, the persona, the people around here, the culture for beer,” said Chris Jensen, the representative for Firestone Walker. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone is really happy to be out here in the best weather, water, music. Whatever you want to do.”
The U.S. Geologic Survey reported from its Nathrop station that the flow rate for the Arkansas, fed by a historic snowpack, was consistently above 3,500 cfs Sunday, peaking at 4,030 cfs a little after noon.
While the Freedom Float took rafters down the docile Milk Run, they were still jostled by whitewater early in their trip – as soon as they pushed off, crashing through Beaver Falls, then later with the Boat Chute.
The surface of the river was so high at River Runner’s that rafters had to duck down to make it under Fisherman’s Bridge.