By Andrea Custer
It sounded like a crowded Irish pub at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix; a sound that would make James Joyce, or at least his fans, quite proud. The Great Hall was packed with brewers and beer enthusiasts for the 2nd Annual Bloomin’ Beerfest on Saturday June 7. This marriage of Bloomsday and beer tasting was put on by the Irish Cultural and Learning Foundation along with the Arizona Brewers Guild.
The event’s organizer, Betty Brackenridge, explained that Bloomsday is a very traditional Irish holiday that sprung from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, in which the entire narrative occurs in one day: July 16, 1904. There are Bloomsday celebrations in cities throughout the world, with activities usually including pub-crawls, Irish breakfasts and dramatic readings from the novel.
“It [the Bloomin' Beerfest] seemed like a good way to add a little Irish fun to Bloomsday readings,” said Brackenridge.
Ulysses readings began with Lynn Mascarelli breaking down all 18 episodes of Joyce’s sometimes confounding novel, followed up with a spirited reading directly from the narrative by Julia Devous.
“You know it’s actually more fun to read aloud than it is to read it,” Devous said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, in the Great Hall and just outside, The Academy Fiddlers and The Chuckawalla Rhythm Kings kept up the lively mood, playing alternating sets throughout the night.
The Academy Fiddlers, of the Academy of Irish and Celtic Studies at the Irish Cultural Center, skillfully played traditional Irish tunes with the accompaniment of one guitarist while the crowd of mingling beer-lovers looked on.
The performances by The Chuckawalla Rhythm Kings, of Yuma, AZ, were more raucous affairs. The musicians danced while playing their music and excited the crowd with their sometimes-bawdy lyrics. Colby Girard, the band’s guitarist, said that they took their inspiration from bands like Altan, who he described as playing live traditional Irish music at rock concert volumes.
Hundreds of beer-tasters enjoyed the music while members of the Arizona Brewers Guild served their liquid gold in tiny souvenir glasses.
Jerry Gantt, the President of the Arizona Brewers Guild and a craft brewer for 18 years, said that out of the 16 brewer members, about 6 were represented at the Beerfest, primarily brewers from the Phoenix area. Gantt credits Scott Yarosh with partnering the Guild and the ICLF for the first Beerfest last year.
“They [the ICLF] wanted a summer event to get the Irish community involved in drinking beer. Bloomsday was a perfect fit,” explained Yarosh, the Brewmaster of Sonoran Brewing Company and member of the guild.
While rivaled by its fellow guild members, the Sonoran Brewing Company produced the most ambitious beer at the festival: Cordillera White, a brew with a light aroma and subtle hint of white chocolate. Four Peaks Brewing Company had the best spread of goodies, including keychain bottle openers and a stellar display of their beers.
But for those patrons interested in the rarer, home-brew draughts, the Arizona Society of Homebrewers was on hand. Ryan Gary, the organization’s Vice President, described it as the longest running and largest home brewing group in the state. Unfortunately, due to government restrictions, the members were not allowed to serve their homemade beers at the festival, but they had plenty of information about DIY beer making and membership opportunities.
The event almost sold out of its 500 beer-tasting tickets, and Brackenridge said that the event has grown since last year. She attributed this in part to the increasing presence of Arizona State University downtown.
“There’s a lot of new faces here tonight, and most of the new faces are young,” Brackenridge remarked.
One of the attendees, Joe Dickinson, said that it was his first time coming to the Irish Cultural Center and that he was impressed by the event.
“This is a great introduction to Irish culture in the Valley," he said.