Picking the Right Beer and Music For Your Festival

March 23, 2017

By Chris Woodard, March 23, 2017

Many of us have been to a music festival or concert where the beer selection was sub-par. Many of us have also been to a beer festival where the entertainment was seriously limited. The first annual Sunaana festival was exactly neither of those.

The fledgling festival’s city of choice was Portland, Maine. Its venue was a revitalized warehouse-style building on Thompson’s Point. Among a cluster of revitalized historical buildings is Brick South: the site of the first annual Sunaana festival. Across the street is none other than rising star, Bissell Bros. Brewing Company. Featuring prominent local (and not-so-local) bands and some of the best beer in New England, Sunaana is a must for next year's sophomore effort.

The first year of any event can be a mystery. Is Sunaana a music festival with beer or a beer festival with music? Truthfully, it’s both. Organizers spared no energy in ensuring the event would feature the best of both worlds.

I reluctantly admitted to organizer Patrick Arnold that I had literally not heard of any of the musical acts scheduled to perform. When I asked who they were and why they were chosen, Arnold credited Darren Elder of The Halo Studio with curating the musical acts. Perhaps the most notable act was Icelandic rock band Mammut. Arnold explained excitedly that these acts were all, “about to break,” and that “[the] event isn’t about pushing anybody [over the top]. Our event is about finding those who are going to do it whether we are here or not.”

Patrick nailed it. These bands weren’t the types you’d hear at the pub and hope their original songs ended soon so you could hear more crafty covers. They played their own music. Music with good sound and energy. It didn’t matter if you knew the words. Band after band, song after song, the music rocked consistently all throughout the day.

To add a little more excitement to the musical aspect of Sunaana, the organizers see the event as a chance to create some American continuity for foreign acts. In 2017, Sunaana occurred one week prior to the start of renowned music festival South By Southwest in Austin, Texas and two weeks prior to Reykjavic Calling in Cambridge, Massachusetts – Mammut was invited to all three..

When it came to the beer, Arnold and other organizers looked across the street to the Bissell Bros for leadership. They contributed not only their beer, but with their consultation as well.

Thompson’s Point resident beer expert Pete Bissell was tasked with selecting the best-of-the-best brews for the event. The Bissell Bros, themselves, are no stranger to quality. Among other tasty offerings, their Swish double IPA is currently ranked 43rd on the BeerGraphs leaderboard.

I asked the Bissell Brothers themselves about their experience as the shot-callers for this event and how they made their selections. “We knew it couldn’t be an open invite,” said Pete Bissell, “it couldn’t be a traditional beer festival with hundreds of booths.”

With a short list of invitees, the Bissells had to be selective. As Noah Bissell described it, they wanted to invite “brewers that are part of our story.” With such a high concentration of breweries in Portland and the surrounding towns, it turns out there are quite a few qualifiers.

Sunaana Music FestivalFestival goers move seamlessly from the beer to music in the open hall.

Many of the Maine and specifically Portland-area breweries seem to have a healthy relationship with one another. “People call us for favors…’can i borrow this or buy an item of this off you?’” Pete says about other local breweries.

There’s something about big beer that can be very polarizing but it seems to be different in the craft world. He continued, “The industry is inherently rooted in manufacturing and throughout history in manufacturing it’s been ‘if you’re not us, you’re the enemy. It’s not like that [here].” Despite the ninety plus breweries in Maine serving only 1.3 million people (we really love beer), the Bissells know they can coexist.

Of course they brought their own Swish, but Bissell’s selections for the Sunaana tap list included other Maine notables as well: Allagash, Banded Horn, Gneiss, Foundation, Maine Beer Company, Orono Brewing Company, Oxbow, Rising Tide, and Sebago. Also featured were Massachusetts’ own Trillium and visitors from Virginia: Ocelot, The Answer, and The Veil. Some of the breweries’ owners and/or brewers were spotted in the crowd enjoying the work of their peers. Each brewery represented had at least two of their beers on the menu; it was truly a lineup to be reckoned with.

With so many quality options, you’d better commit your whole day. Sunaana is a full-pour event though so you might be hard pressed to power through the whole list. I had to be selective, only having one beer that I had already tried (Maine Beer Company’s Woods & Waters). In the end, my new favorites were none other than Bissell Bros.’ Industry vs. Inferiority and Citra Cutting Tiles by Trillium.

Despite being a first year event, Sunaana was pretty damn impressive. Reluctant to call it a success, organizer Patrick Arnold said, “The purpose of year one is to get to year two.” There are big plans for the future of the festival. It figures to grow significantly, becoming even more multi-faceted from an entertainment standpoint.

The beer though, I’m not sure the beer could get better.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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