Some 11 years ago Exeter Parks and Recreation’s Greg Bisson was tasked with coming up with some new adult programming for the department. While the obvious route might have been to add an ultimate Frisbee league or a new class on the latest yoga trend, luckily for beer lovers across the Seacoast, Bisson thought out of the box and followed his love for all things frothy.
“With the popularity of craft beer we were like, ‘Let’s start a beer festival,'” Bisson recalled of the first seeds of the annual Powder Keg and Chili Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Oct. 1 at scenic Swasey Parkway in Exeter.
Looking to simply piggyback on an existing fall festival run by the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce, Bisson and the department’s expectations for that first festival were modest.
“We were like, ‘Just give us this little space and we will see how it comes out,’ and lo and behold we sold 1,200 tickets the first year,” recalled Bisson, 47, who now serves as the director of Exeter’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The growth curve from there was a quick one, topping out with over 84 breweries and more than 4,000 beer lovers spilling over the banks of the Squamscott River. COVID shelved the festival, and virtually everything else, in 2020. But the Powder Keg – sans chili – made a triumphant return last year. While Bisson was able to once again bring one of the most robust selection of fine craft brewers from all over New England to the Swasey Parkway, the lack of a food element was pronounced.
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“It wasn’t the same, people weren’t enjoying themselves,” said Bisson of last year’s event which was 21-plus only. “We heard last year loud and clear to bring back chili, which obviously was a no-brainer and we also heard to make it family friendly.”
Chili, food trucks and family fun added to Exeter’s Powder Keg
Along with the return of nine confirmed restaurants serving chili this year, Bisson said this year’s festival will stress the family fun aspect with a new kids’ zone, which should allow parents to head off to sample some of their favorite breweries. The brew fest will be broken up into two sessions, noon to 2 pm and 3 to 5 pm, and tickets are available for both.
Along with chili, Lexie’s burger bus, Seacoast Pretzel, and Exeter’s Friends 4 Oba will all be on hand as well. Along with the onsite food offerings, Bisson expects local restaurants to benefit from the two separate waves of patrons.
A craft beer aficionado, Bisson admits he did plenty of “research” at other beer festivals before launching the Powder Keg which annually helps subsidize the department’s free programming from the Halloween parade to the town’s music series.
“I kind of picked the good, the bad and the ugly from all of them and said how can we do it better,” Bisson noted. “I think what makes it special is pairing it with chili.”
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One of the most stressful aspects of those early years was getting the buy-in from the breweries, Bisson noted.
“I think what made us different from the others was that we were not asking for handouts,” he said. “We were like we will buy the beer off you, you just need to come and serve it.”
“It has gotten easier over the years because I know the nuances of what to do.”
Like ordering enough ice. For this year’s event, he will order six tons of ice from the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative in Seabrook – a far cry from his order of just one ton in his first year.
“We were like there will be plenty, two bags per keg,” he recalled with a laugh. “We have learned these little things.”
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Seacoast breweries like Stoneface and Earth Eagle have been involved since the early days and will be on hand again this year as part of a well-rounded lineup that includes several breweries from Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont (Lawson’s Fine Liquids).
The prolific collection of brewers, an idyllic backdrop, and just the right dash of spicy chili has proven to be the perfect recipe for a decade now and likely many years to come.
“It’s one of the most picturesque places to have a brew fest along the river,” enthused Bisson. “We’re not in a parking lot or tucked away behind some building. It’s a perfect scenario for us.”
For tickets visit: https://events.beerfests.com/e/powderkegbeerfest/tickets
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Something is brewing in the orchard in Lee
A relatively new fall beer festival that appears to be on the same trajectory as the Powder Keg kicks off this Saturday in the sprawling apple orchard at DeMeritt Hill Farm in Lee.
“Who doesn’t like a beer fest in an apple orchard in the fall?” asked Stripe Nine Brewing Co.’s Sean Kelly, who is putting on “Brew Fest in the Orchard” for a second straight year. After welcoming 600 to his inaugural event, Kelly has gotten the go-ahead from the Lee Fire Department to go as high as 2,500 people for this year’s event which runs from 1 to 5 pm, or noon to 5 pm with a VIP ticket.
Kelly has 38 breweries from all over the state as well as a couple from Southern Maine on board to go along with a pair of bands and a handful of food trucks.
“The goal here was to get brewers to the coast that people on the coast might not have a shot at,” said Kelly, who is excited to see breweries like The Copper Pig make the substantial trek down to Lee from Lancaster. Also making long trips to pour in the orchard will be Bethlehem’s Rek’-Lis Brewing, Plymouth’s Last Chair Brewery, Keene’s Modestman Brewing and Branch and Blade Brewing Co., and Tilton’s Kettlehead Brewing.
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The event kicks off a busy fall at the farm which hosts the very popular Haunted Overload throughout October, but festival goers may get an unexpected sneak peek this week. The headless horseman pranced through the event last year and to express his gratitude to all the brewers Kelly has arranged a sneak peek of the Overload after the festival.
“A lot of these events if you are the brewer it’s just work so anything you can do to make it more fun for them they just get excited to come,” said Kelly.
After doing all the food in-house last year, Kelly expects at least half a dozen food trucks to be on hand. Just like having enough patrons to support all the breweries, having the right number of food vendors can be tricky.
“It’s a fine line,” said Kelly. “They spend a lot of time preparing and the last thing you want to do is to go home with a truck full of food because there are too many food trucks.”
Matty and the Penders, a ’90s cover band, will provide the music. Kelly says ticket sales have been brisk and a crowd of 1,000 or more would not be a surprise.
“Not to toot our own horn, but the setting is awesome,” Kelly reiterated of DeMeritt Hill Farm which has been Kelly’s pumpkin supplier for his annual pumpkin ale, fittingly named “Haunted Overload.”
“You’re in an apple orchard on a beautiful farm in late September drinking great beer. What could be better?
For tickets, visit eventbrite.com/e/stripe-nines-2022-brew-fest-in-the-orchard-september-24-2022-tickets-385171647767.
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More beer festivals
Northwoods Brewing will be holding its second annual Fall Festival this Sunday, Sept. 25, in Northwood. The 14th annual New Hampshire BrewFest is slated for Saturday, Oct. 8 at Cisco Brewing in Portsmouth with a long list of breweries scheduled to attend. If great beer and country music is more of your thing, the Smuttynose Full Strum Music Festival is Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 8-9 featuring country stars Jordan Davis and Locash in Hampton.
Full Pours covers the craft beer scene on the Seacoast. Follow on Instagram @full_pours. Email Bob at [email protected]