Saturday’s new Beer Fest looks to carry on Rocktown’s spirit

people in an outdoor space listening to a person playing guitar
The first Friendly City Beer Fest on Saturday, April 27, will feature live music and beverages from 12 breweries, three cideries and a sake brewery. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Moon)

After the Rocktown Beer and Music Festival announced its event in 2023 would be its last, two downtown businesses paired up to inherit that festival’s legacy.

The Friendly City Beer Fest this Saturday—which Restless Moons Brewing Company and Sagebird Ciderworks are cosponsoring—will feature 12 breweries, three cideries, and one sake brewery. The festival at Restless Moons will also feature live music from Holy Rollers, Paracosm and Bloo Lagoon. 

Jeff Moon, owner of Restless Moons, said losing Rocktown felt like a loss to the community and local craft beer producers. He reached out to Sagebird in January about putting on a similar event of their own — one he hopes will be a “spiritual successor” to Rocktown.

Amberlee Carlson, co-owner of Sagebird, said it was important they received a “blessing” from Rocktown co-founders Tim Brady and Aaron Ludwig and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, which put on 15 festivals between 2010-2023. A “smooth transition” between the two festivals is important, she said, and the Friendly City Beer Fest isn’t meant to be Rocktown, but more of a “revamping and revitalization” of an event loved by the city for so long.

“We didn’t want, and we don’t want it to look like we’re taking this event making it our own,” Carlson said.

Moon and Carlson started planning the event in January, leaving less than four months to coordinate the entire festival. This was quite ambitious, considering neither Moon or Carlson have put on an event this large before. Carlson said she’s put on some events for a couple hundred people, but nothing compared to the 500 people they’re expecting for the Beer Fest. Tickets are still available

Carlson said that although daunting, this quick turnaround was necessary because they wanted to keep the momentum going and meet the expectations people have for a spring beer festival.

“We were worried that if we waited another year that all of the expectation that people have in April of going to the [Rocktown] Beer Fest would dissipate,” Carlson said.

Moon said he recognizes the time and effort that goes into planning events like this played into the end of Rocktown, but it’s important that the city still has a festival to highlight local producers.

“We’re hoping that by doing this it can continue to be a really community, local-driven event that we can keep doing year after year,” Moon said.

Hosting it at Restless Moons “clears some red tape,” Moon said, and streamlines the process a lot more than if they were to host it in a public space such as the Turner Pavilion, which the Rocktown festival used. 

Carlson’s husband and co-owner of Sagebird, Zach, is a graphic designer, so he created the logo and merch for Beer Fest, Carlson said. Carlson is also running all the social media for the festival herself.

Despite most things falling into place, Moon and Carlson both mentioned some unforeseen complications with the short planning time. Wristbands, ice, security, portable toilets and making sure they have enough volunteers are only some of the items not part of the “original brainstorm” when planning something like this, Moon said.  

However, they said Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and others who were heavily involved in Rocktown have been helping them find their footing along the way.

The biggest fear Carlson has is about the finances, she said, because they’re buying multiple kegs from all 16 producers. Rocktown had the benefit of being run by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, Carlson said, which is a nonprofit organization, so more people were inclined to make donations and sponsor the event.

Four people smiling
From left to right, Jeff Moon and Restless Moons taproom manager Nicole Smith, as well as Amberlee Carlson and Zach Carlson, co-owners of Sagebird Ciderworks, joined forces to put on the Friendly City Beer Fest. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Moon)

“We’ve had a lot of pushback from people not wanting to sponsor or donate to us because we’re making money off of it,” Carlson said. “Hopefully we make money off of the event, but right now it’s tight.”

Carlson said there are other for-profit beer festivals that have a lot of sponsors, so she’s not really sure why it’s been such a struggle for them. The sponsors they do have though — Midtowne Market, MOD Displays, WNRN, and The Mark-It — have been very supportive and excited, she said.

Lauren Penrod, owner of Midtowne, said it was an easy decision to sponsor the Beer Fest because she wanted to support her downtown neighbors and friends. Midtowne also sponsored Rocktown during its first few years, so she said she was excited to be involved in something similar, especially at a lower cost.

Penrod said that Beer Fest being a for-profit event made no difference to her because its values are so closely aligned with those of her business.

One thing Moon said he thinks will make the Beer Fest different from Rocktown is that all the producers will be from the Shenandoah Valley, something that got a bit lost at Rocktown got bigger. He said a lot of people don’t think about the Valley when they think of good craft beer, and he wants to change that.

“There really is some good beer around here and hopefully we’ll get some people from out of town that are like, ‘let’s go see what Shenandoah Valley can do,’” Moon said.

Because  the Beer Fest was announced in February, Moon and Carlson said the reception has been nothing but positive so far.

As for the future of the Beer Fest, Moon and Carlson agreed that this is something they would like to do every year. But a lot of what the future holds depends on how well this first one goes, Carlson said.

“A big thing we want to get out is that it’s not a Restless Moons event, it’s not a Sagebird event, it’s not even a one brewery event,” Carlson said. “We want it to still feel like Rocktown and that it’s the city-wide community event, beyond the city even with all the valley producers.”  

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.