Second annual beverage, cheese fest draws crowd

MIDDLEBURY — Despite Saturday’s searing heat, the second annual Vermont Beer, Wine and Cheese Festival drew about 1,500 paid visitors to Middlebury’s Marble Works, allowing the event to roughly equal the numbers and financial benefits from 2011, organizers said.
Shaded under three tents, cooled at least a bit by late-afternoon breezes, and serenaded by The Grift, Chamberlin and Snake Mountain Bluegrass, festival visitors sampled the wares of more than 30 of Vermont’s best breweries, vineyards and distilleries, as well as 15 of the state’s top cheesemakers.
Organizer Bryan Phelps said members of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), which put together the festival, were “very pleased” that ultimately the crowd and the roughly $10,000 in proceeds to be split among three nonprofits — the Vermont Food Bank, the Addison County Firefighters Association and the BMP — matched those of its successful 2011 debut.
Phelps, a BMP board member and an owner of Noonie Deli in the Marble Works, said if not for the 95-degree temperatures and high humidity he is all but certain even more would have paid $25, or $20 in advance, to attend. (A food-only option cost $5.)
“We were hoping for more, but I think the 90-plus heat kept people away,” he said.
Regardless, Phelps said the second festival — which also goes by the name Midd Summer Fest — met its goals, which he described as above and beyond just funding the BMP and the other two nonprofits. He listed those as “bringing something to Middlebury that didn’t exist before,” giving the town good statewide exposure, and showcasing Vermont’s successful producers of fine beers, cheeses, wines and spirits.
“There’s a clear benefit to the event other than the money it raises,” he said.
Another goal met on Saturday, Phelps said, was making the event run more smoothly. Organizational improvements included:
• Doubling the number of entry points, and equipping them with credit-card processing equipment and scanners for pre-bought tickets. Those moves meant fewer and faster-moving entry lines, he said.
• Adding more beer producers under the tents; overall, there were 50 percent more vendors of all types. “We were able to get more beer vendors in, which resulted in shorter lines,” Phelps said.
• Adding a third tent, with its own band, for producers of wine, ice cider and spirits. Phelps said the non-beer vendors were happy to have their own venue to offer their beverages to a more targeted audience. “The people that wound up in the wine tent were people who were actually interested in Vermont wine,” he said.
That extra tent and the greater number of beer vendors also allowed the beer producers to slow down and talk to their patrons, at least briefly at some points, about what they had to offer.
“That’s the whole point, really. They (visitors) want to learn more about the producers and products,” Phelps said. “There were a lot of those interactions going on.”
In all, Phelps said things ran smoothly, visitor feedback was positive, and a template is in place for future years.
“We had a few logistical issues in the first year that we were very happy to see we solved this year,” Phelps said. “It’s very clear that people were happy with all the adjustments we made.”
Many of those visitors also came from out of the area. Phelps said final numbers will be in once BMP organizers complete tabulating online survey results, but early indications are that the festival lured a considerable portion of its crowd from elsewhere in the state, meaning Middlebury is gaining exposure. 
“This year more than last year we drew more from outside Addison County,” he said.
The BMP’s Vermont Beer, Wine and Cheese Festival committee, of which Phelps is the chairman, will begin planning for next year’s event shortly.
But Phelps on Tuesday morning took a minute to reflect that in looking back the idea seems obvious — put many of Vermont’s great cheese, beer and winemakers together in an attractive setting with music, and visitors will show up.
“In retrospect it all makes sense,” he said. “It’s hard not to attract people.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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