There’s something special about the Hopped Up Caribou Beer Festival
Master Brewer Dave Hoops has been to more than his fair share of beer festivals in his 20-plus years of brewing at Fitger’s Brewhouse. He doesn’t hesitate to speak honestly about what it can be like for the people on his side of the jockey box. “Sometimes it’s a drag,” Hoops said. “There’s so many fests now. People can be drunk and obnoxious.”
Hoops doesn’t work at as many festivals these days, but there’s one he never misses: the Hopped Up Caribou Beer Festival at Caribou Highlands Lodge in Lutsen, Minnesota. Or as he calls it, a “brew-cation.”
In its five years of existence, the festival hasn’t gotten much bigger than the first year it was held. It hasn’t opened the doors to many new breweries or upped the number of tickets sold. It’s intentionally remained a small and more intimate affair. More often than not, the people pouring the beer are the same people who brewed it.
That’s a rare thing at most festivals, where brewers often send proxies to man the kegs. But Hopped Up isn’t like other festivals. “If the brewers are happy, I’m happy,” says Stephanie Slanga, the festival’s organizer.
And if the laughs and slaps on the back you see when looking around the tent during the two-day fest are any indications, the brewers are indeed happy.
During the Friday evening kickoff Brewers Reception, which is essentially a two-hour version of the main festival but with about one-sixth of the people and all-you-can-eat gourmet appetizers (open to attendees who opt for the Full Barrel Weekend ticket package), Hoops made his way around the room like an elder statesman working the floor of a political convention. From relatively new but established brewers like Bent Paddle’s Bryon Tonnis to Hopped Up Caribou first-timers like Gun Flint Tavern’s Paul Gecas, Hoops greeted them all with his characteristic broad, bearded smile, bending their ears between pours.
Hoops and his brother, Town Hall Brewery head brewer Mike Hoops, always get one of the larger condos at Caribou Highlands and host an unofficial brewers’ reception of their own after the official one ends—a rare opportunity for the brewers in attendance to connect outside the confines and relative chaos of the festival. He said the brewers of today are a little better behaved than he was in his formative years. “I don’t want to say it’s sophisticated, but it’s grown up,” Hoops said.
Tonnis enjoys the Hopped Up Caribou weekend so much he invited his entire staff to join in this year’s festivities. Several took him up on the offer. As for Tonnis, he came up with his wife Karen. Their three-year-old son stayed home with the grandparents. “It’s a vacation festival,” Tonnis said.
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