Comic Cons Are Quietly Becoming Craft Beer Festivals
Convention organizers ReedPop turned to Seattle’s craft beer culture to enhance the experience at this year's Emerald City Comic Con.
This weekend the Pacific Northwest’s largest comic book and pop culture convention will welcome some 90,000 TV, gaming, comics, and cosplay fans to its annual geek getaway at the Washington State Convention Center. But for the first time in the history of ReedPop’s Emerald City Comic Con, it will also welcome attendees to its official League of Libations, where they can sample drinks from a number of west coast brewers, including the Fremont Brewing official ECCC beer “Dark Heron.”
In the last decade, the comic convention has gotten a mainstream makeover as geek culture has been more widely embraced. In the process, “geeky” things have started blending with other enthusiast interests, more notably the world of craft brewing. No, geeks haven’t suddenly started drinking beer in the last ten years (they’ve always been doing that). Nor is beer drinkers watching The X-Files or Doctor Who anything new (they’ve always done this, too). But the very intentional integration of craft beer culture into the comic convention experience is burgeoning. In fact, the organizer behind highly attended conventions like Emerald City, Chicago’s C2E2, PAX, BookCon, New York Comic Con, and the UK’s MCM Cons, has played a major role in the effort to make beer culture a part of the con brand.
“The way we see it is people come to our cons to experience art in all different types of forms: cosplay, comics, video games,” Emily Robillard, ReedPop’s Brand Marketing Coordinator, explained to Food & Wine. “We see these as not only hobbies but as different art forms, and brewing beer is right along those lines. It’s pretty much a complex art and [the brewer] is the artist.”
“Craft beer is all about enjoying a quality experience together so we think it’s a super natural fit to combine these two communities through the League of Libations,” says Jason Randles, the branding and marketing manager for Crux Fermentation Project, one of the beer garden’s featured brewers.
Extensions of their immersive and insular weekend-long experiences, ReedPop’s brew collaborations are supercharged versions of what you see at other geeky gatherings. San Diego Comic-Con International attendees will be familiar with the Heroes Brew Festival, an annual outdoor and ticketed “unofficial” SDCC beer festival which featured three main breweries for 2017. In Colorado, Denver Comic Con has worked six times with Breckenridge Brewery on an official beer that sees regular flavor and name changes, in addition to being put on tap around the city. And at Boston Comic Con 2017, Wayward Raven—a publisher of comics and illustrated children’s books—offered its drinking-aged booth visitors the chance to try a custom brew made by CEO/COO Mark Frankel.
But ReedPop’s beer-focused programming is not only about a single, local brewer or artist working on an exclusive flavor profile and label, nor is it removed from the con’s organizers. Brewers can be found nestled behind a show floor table, sometimes surrounded by con-exclusive merch. Their product can be enjoyed in official designated “gardens”—the only place you can get beer on-site. And when you do decide to the leave the complex, local partners are also offering the official taste of the con.
“Beer brings people together. It’s a cool way to gather people on-site, but also in meetups and other things pre-show,” Robillard says. “And we like the fact that our fans don’t want to leave the building. You’re almost kicking them out at the end of the night because they’re so excited and want more, and we want to help them in that venture at the end of the day.”
Some of ReedPop’s venues can be structurally isolating (think Chicago’s McCormick Place) and attendees schedules packed, so this above and beyond play toward convenience and community makes sense. But the beers are about more than just ease. The collaboration culminates in a product that can embody both the city and the con. Many of the brews seek to represent a heroic theme, but also each con’s—and thus city’s—individual character. Robillard notes that the prominence of Seattle’s independent beer culture is why ReedPop chose independent brewers for ECCC. Through Dark Heron and now the League of Libations, you see an aspect of Seattle’s identity reflected in an Emerald City offering. A result of this symbiosis is that local beer makers have the opportunity to celebrate their passions while attendees get a chance to learn about a new craft.
“Not everybody is exposed to craft beer, much less the craft beer that we make, so having [our] beer at a con—it exposes those who normally don’t see themselves as either spirit-drinkers or macro-beer drinkers,” Matt Lincecum, founder and owner of Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, explains. “It definitely exposes us to a wider audience that maybe wouldn’t come to a beer festival or don’t go to our beer garden.”
For Emerald City Comic Con’s third collaboration with Fremont Brewing, attendees will sip on a golden-amber IPA featuring Strata, El Dorado, Comet, Citra, and Centennial hops and bursting with citrus, tropical, floral, and stone fruit notes. Lincecum played with Dark Heron’s 2018 recipe for a couple months before settling on what he says is “emblematic of [Emerald City] Comic Con and all the geeks who go to enjoy being together.” The Fremont founder describes this year’s flavor, which changes along with the bottle art year-to-year, as “a little bit off the beaten path.”
“With this one, there’s such a wide diversity of people going I tried to find something I thought would appeal to a larger audience, rather than something more niche-y,” Lincecum tells Food & Wine. “I wanted to make people happy, not try to blow people’s minds with a new style or push their comfort level.”
This year’s label art was created by Seattle’s award-winning Native American comic artist and designer from the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, Jeffrey Veregge. Drawing inspiration from his Native American roots and using his training in Salish formline design, Veregge’s label hero is a tribute to the stifling of free expression, with Dark Heron serving as a beacon of light and justice for those seeking to protect it. Once she comes into her own power, Lincecum says, Dark Heron shares it—like the beer can be shared—with people around her.
While 2018 won’t mark ECCC’s first official con brew or beer garden, it is the first time they’ll be curating special events. It’s also the first time brewers outside of Fremont have been invited to participate. That includes California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Oregon’s Crux Fermentation Project, and Seattle Cider Company. The decision to grow was made jointly by Fremont and ReedPop as the organizer became keener on the idea of integrating beer more fully into the show.
“This year we wanted to bring it a little bit more forefront, to say that this is actually a valuable piece for [attendees],” Robillard tells Food & Wine. “You can go down there, drink the Dark Heron, talk about all the cool new stuff you’ve seen throughout the day. But you can also try something new and different. That’s how we see our fans interacting with our con a lot. They’re coming to dwell in the fandoms that they know and love, but they’re also coming to pick up a new comic book or try out a new video game, or meet some new friends. They can try a new beer while they’re at it.”
Besides ECCC’s brew, New York Comic Con’s Brooklyn Brewery crafts Brooklyn Defender, billed as a defense of our right to have fun and to rampant individuality. Currently in its sixth iteration, last fall it saw new artwork and its recipe revamped into a golden IPA mix of Cascade, Amarillo, Simcoe, and Mandarina, a change that was featured both at the con and a series of pre-show events across New York City. C2E2 and Revolution Brewery’s Galaxy Hero celebrated five years of its tropical fruit and citrus IPA in 2017 by launching the Heroes Lounge, complete with specialty library beers and local brewer Fist City’s Chicago Pale Ale. In addition, fans could attend “The Revolution of Craft Beer & Comics” panel, and pick up the second issue of the Galaxy Hero tie-in comic book.
For Emerald City, a series of pre-con Dark Heron launch events have already taken place, but this coming weekend, attendees can expect beer garden trivia, fan meet-ups, and drunken draws. The inclusion of the three additional west-coast breweries will also yield an epic drink menu. After sampling Fremont’s 2018 Dark Heron brew, attendees can try Crux’s Pacific Crest Trail Porter, Firestone’s Double Barrel Ale, and Seattle Cider Company’s Dry Cider.
ECCC 2018 doesn’t start until Thursday, but ReedPop has already thought about how to grow the craft beer experience at Emerald City beyond the convention’s walls. Robillard also notes that the current success of NYCC, C2E2, and ECCC opens the door for beers at other cons like ReedPop’s Philadelphia’s Keystone Comic Con. While those plans are still brewing, fans attending this year’s Emerald City con can expect to find the League of Libations on the first level of the Washington State Convention Center.
The garden will be open from Thursday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. You’ll need a pass to access it though, so if you don’t already have one to the nearly sold-out event, you should purchase your Thursday tickets online. And if you can’t make it to the convention, or are just looking to get your hands on more Dark Heron, the Fremont brew can be found at local bars and restaurants throughout Seattle and in 22-ounce bottles in regional grocery stores for a limited time.