The art of the comeback

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Due to ongoing demolition and construction at the Sacramento Convention Center, the next California Craft Beer Summit will be held in Long Beach instead of Sacramento in September. That means that the title of “Best Local Beer Fest” is up for grabs.

There are strong contenders for the title, most notably the Capitol Beer Fest, the Track 7 IPA Invitational and the ever-expanding Coffee Beer Fest. But after a year’s absence, The Art of Beer festival is engineering a comeback that may propel it to the top.

“I never miss this one,” says Brian McGillivray, brewmaster at Truckee-based FiftyFifty Brewing, which won the Brewery Group of the Year award at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. As one of the more than 30 breweries and cideries scheduled to attend The Art of Beer on January 25 at the McClellan Conference Center, FiftyFifty will pour Eclipse, its famed barrel-aged Imperial Stout, as well as its award-winning, oatmeal cookie-inspired I Did It All For the Cookie.

McGillivray has attended this hybrid beer festival and gallery show since 2012, back when he was still working as a brewer for Sierra Nevada.

“I had never really seen or heard of an event that paired the beer with the art, and then some good food as well,” he says. “I knew at that point that I wanted to keep going back.”

The first festival was held in 2012 in downtown Sacramento, originally as a way for co-founder Rawi Nanakul to showcase his art. A former fight photographer who shot Muy Thai fighters in Thailand, Nanakul began shooting breweries after returning to the States to attend grad school.

“I thought I should put on a cool gallery show to show off the progress, and then that kind of became a beer festival,” he says.

About 200 people attended the first The Art of Beer, and only two other artists besides Nanakul showcased their work.

“Every year we started adding in more artists because I didn’t have any additional work,” Nanakul says. “It evolved into this idea of bringing the community closer to the people that make the beer.”

By 2017, the festival had grown to 3,300 attendees. But a flurry of negative feedback such as long lines and large crowds persuaded Nanakul and the other festival founders to take a year off, scale back and refocus on the festival’s original mission.

The $40 to $80 tickets for this year’s event are capped at 1,200. Nanakul promises a more intimate experience with greater food options and fewer corporate sponsors, as well as pop-up pours from two “secret” breweries and an art auction to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“It’s kind of terrifying to put yourself out there again after taking your first little bump,” Nanakul says. “I’m excited, but at the same time, I feel like I’m putting more of myself out there this time because we don’t have the corporate sponsorship and it’s more about what the four of us really want to do for ourselves."