In light of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers knew they couldn't host some 1,000 people at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion for the fifth annual AMP Fest this year. Having already done virtual programming with Walton Arts Center's Hearts to Homes series, though, they knew there must be a way to shift the region's only beer, music and tech festival to a different format.
"I like to call it virtual with a twist," reveals Amy Freeman, senior manager for sponsorship and special events at WAC and the AMP.
AMP Fest "To Go" will incorporate virtually accessible content livestreamed from the AMP, as well as an interactive component that will get participants out of the house -- while maintaining the festival's three core pillars. The scaled back event still features beer (and cider) from five regional breweries, a performance by local band The Juice, tech activation via smartphone and a talk from one of the tech sponsors, while the whole event is hosted by local comedian Raj Suresh.
"We started really thinking, how can we creatively keep doing what we're doing?" Freeman shares. "It's an important fundraiser for the Walton Arts Center. And now more than ever, we need the support of our community. We want to continue to be able to offer our education and our access programming, which is what AMP Fest supports, as well as give the community something to look forward to. I think everybody is looking for that thing they can go do outside of their home, but do it safely."
So, instead of meandering the backstage and others areas of the AMP, ticketholders will pick up their info packet and swag bag on Oct. 23 or 24 and, via the AMP Fest phone app developed by VMLY&R, will find instructions and clues for completing a brewery scavenger hunt on Oct. 24 to acquire all the beer samples. Don't drink them yet, though!
Oct. 25 is when the virtual portion of the event begins. Streaming from the AMP, local master brewers will discuss the beers provided for sampling, how they are made, what they pair with and what makes them unique. That's the time to imbibe the samples -- during the virtual tasting event from the comfort of home. A tech talk and demonstration by Samsung, plus the performance by The Juice rounds out the fest.
"One thing that we are very fortunate to do is we're going live from the AMP, therefore we have access to our video walls," Freeman says. "We're going to have those video walls set up behind the band, behind our host for the evening, and you're going to be able to randomly see the people who are also on the Zoom with you on those video walls. It's like when you're at a concert at the AMP, and you look up and you're like, 'There's my friends,' or 'There's my coworker!' You're going to have that crowd engagement that I haven't seen yet in some of our local virtual events, and it's something I think is very special to us that we are going to be able to offer at this event."
"It is one of my favorite shows every year," adds Travis Smith. Smith is the bar manager at the AMP and the drummer for the evening's entertainment, The Juice. "I am a tech person that's been also a bar manager forever. So if you're going to have a beer festival where the new beers are coming, and I also work in the music world, so you're going to have local record labels bringing in bands that they're supporting, I can't think of a better event around town that's supporting all of these things -- locals brands and bands."
The Juice -- with fellow members Garrett Brolund on bass, Michael Hanna on saxophone and keys and Jim Goza on guitar and lead vocals -- came together early last year as a side project for the group of friends who had been running in the same circle for years. With them all involved in various other bands and musical ventures, The Juice would be a cover band they could have some fun with when they weren't busy with other gigs.
"I think in Northwest Arkansas, you'll find that the community communicates with each other a little bit more, which opens up the lines of communications to form these bands," Smith shares. "It kind of ended up kind of taking off a little bit more than what we were expecting. But in a hopeful way to where it's a good balance for our other projects."
Only Smith and Goza will actually be performing during the virtual fest -- a duo Smith calls "The Juice, from concentrate" -- but music fans can see the full foursome perform at Happy Hour at the AMP for the second time this year on Oct. 24.
"When we started this band, our lead singer Jim goes, 'I just want to play at the AMP.' And I was working here, so I knew that sometimes there are opportunities for local and regional bands -- it wasn't outside of the realm of possibilities," Smith explains. "For us, it's been really fortunate to be asked to play two shows on this Happy Hour series where they're kind of looking for eclectic bands that play a variety of music like what we do.
"We do kind of cater our set with a little bit more of electronic sounds and stuff like that," Smith adds of the duo going to the streaming setting. "And we're all goofy. So we try to make it entertaining and bring a little bit of comedy in. And the two-piece show kind of is a little bit more interactive, I would say. Maybe even more so with the virtual style."
AMP Fest -- along with events like the Art of Wine Festival in the summer and the Masquerade Ball in the winter -- is a major fundraiser for WAC/AMP's arts education programming. Those programs reach kids and assist educators from all over the state, as well as provide arts opportunities for community members at low or no cost. AMP Fest has raised sum $275,000 in the previous four years toward that mission and with Art of Wine's cancellation in response to covid-19, the organization is looking to make up that gap wherever they (safely) can.
"This year, as we continue to confront this pandemic, our staff knows the importance of remaining flexible and finding new and creative ways to continue to serve our community," Freeman offers.
"We're doing everything we can to just provide an escape and live arts to our community and to our students. And things like AMP Fest, attending Happy Hour at the Walmart AMP, seeing the films at WAC and AMP, all of that contributes to helping us continue to bring this programming and this art to the Northwest Arkansas community."
Bring On The Brew!
Though the participating breweries had to be scaled back this year to accommodate the scavenger hunt format, five local favorites are still on the ticket. Kristine Allen, brand representative for Bike Rack Brewing Co., and Andrew Blann with Fossil Cove Brewing Co. answered a few questions ahead of their AMP Fest return in this strange and unprecedented year.
Q. What can you tell us of the beer you will include in the six-pack?
Allen: Our Oktoberfest is what we are including in the AMP Fest six-pack. It's a classic German fest beer: malt-forward, bready notes, and hints of honey and graham cracker at 5.7% ABV. It's my personal favorite beer we make and pairs perfectly with all of your amazing fall foods.
Blann: We're including our Session IPA in the six-pack. We introduced the Session IPA in March as the newest option in our year-round six-pack lineup. It's an IPA for all occasions -- not overly bitter and full of refreshing hoppy stone fruit, pine and citrus notes paired with a light malty body. It's a perfect addition to fall days in the Ozarks.
Q. What are some of the ways your brewery has pivoted during the pandemic?
Allen: Like everyone else, we shut down for a while, and pivoted most of our energy towards to-go. We did six-pack delivery for a couple months, but really our main focus was meeting the demand at our local liquor stores. Unfortunately, that's also meant we haven't been able to produce as many new specialty beers as we usually do, since we need to produce so much of our top three sellers: the Urban Trail Golden Ale, Epic Trail Amber Ale and, of course, the Slaughter Pen IPA. Luckily, we were still able to create a few great beers that aren't available all year, like our Oktoberfest.
Blann: Early on in the pandemic, everything was about to-go sales. We pivoted to home beer delivery with online ordering overnight, focused on our liquor store and grocery accounts, began packaging draft-only offerings and offering curbside pickup. Draft sales started to come back during reopening and we instituted new protocols to make our Tasting Room as safe as possible and to ensure compliance with ADH guidance. Providing a safe environment while offering a space that feels somewhat normal and allows beer lovers a chance to share a pint with us is our focus as we continue to adapt to operating a brewery during a pandemic.
Q. What's up next for your brewery?
Allen: Our next beer release will be the Dark Lager in November. Stay tuned for that, because we're pretty excited about it!
Blann: We're really excited about our fall lineup and have some fun projects in the works. Right now, a couple of Tasting Room favorites are The Hatchling (a hatch chile cream ale), the Krush (a German-style kolsch) and the T-Rex On Peaches (our T-Rex Tripel aged in bourbon and wine barrels with fresh Ozark-grown peaches added). Later in the fall, we'll have our Pumpkin Ale (right around Halloween), Blackberry Cream Ale, an Imperial Stout and the Cherry Gose will return!
AMP Fest 2020
WHEN — Oct. 24-25
WHERE — Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, around NWA, and online
COST — $40, includes six-pack holder and beer, sampling cups and swag bag
INFO — 443-5600, waltonartscenter.org