Brewfest at the Beach happens Friday at Ocean Beach Park

Looking backwards over two decades, at more than 40 different editions of the New London Rotary's Brewfest at the Beach events, founder Edward Cramer is surprised — and yet not surprised — by the overwhelming and enduring success of the whole concept.

On the one hand, as the career adult beverage purveyor who owns Gordon's Yellow Front Wine, Beer & Spirits, Cramer has in part made his living via the empirically verifiable certainty that beer is and will always be really popular. However, back in 1996, was Cramer confident that a public beer-sampling soiree — designed to generate charitable income for civic-minded projects — would actually succeed?

"We had no idea what we were doing or where we were going," Cramer says in conversation earlier this week before Friday's latest Brewfest at the Beach takes place in the Pavilion at New London's Ocean Beach Park. "The whole craft beer movement was in its infancy, and at the time I certainly didn't anticipate the explosion in craft beer. But we needed something in addition to the established breweries like Budweiser and Coors."

Cramer mentioned the idea of a charitable beer festival to a friend who was a distributor for Red Hook Brewing, a Seattle-based craft ale with a just-opened sister brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. Cramer remembers, "He told me, 'Great. Do it. It's starting to happen everywhere.' That sounded good, but I wasn't sure how to go forward. And my friend said, 'Hey, you've got me. Go to Sam Adams and tell them Red Hook's onboard. They'll do it. Then go to Long Trail, and they'll be happy to help. And it'll fall in line.' And, boy, did it."

Today, of course, BrewFest at the Beach — Friday's presentation will include over 150 beers, twisted teas and lemonades, wine and, to provide a foundation, hot dogs and chili along with pizza from Stonington's the mobile Buon Appetito truck — is a hugely anticipated ritual for folks who make it a point to attend each of the annual spring/fall dates. There's even a live soundtrack provided by the official band of Brewfest: Rhythm Method.

But Cramer is also delighted that Brewfest has attracted the newer generation of so-called beer geeks — those e'er-thirsty craft brew aficionados constantly looking for the newest and freshest small-batch sensations.

"(In the Yellow Front), we get a lot of the beer geeks talking about the drives they'll make to Massachusetts or Maine or Vermont to craft breweries for small batch beers that become cult items and maybe aren't available in Connecticut," Cramer says. "And they trade beers with friends. Our challenge is to find stuff that's as good and unique and maybe even cheaper — and this all works in wonderfully with the whole idea of Brewfest.

"We'll always have the popular standard stuff, but we get more and more craft beers from across the region and the country. Since we do this twice a year, we'll also feature Friday new seasonal stuff like pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest beers. And whether you're a casual beer fan or a geek, the idea of comparing and contrasting new beers with your favorites is pretty fun."

Obviously, all of this thirst-quenching merriment is made even better by the fact that BrewFest is the New London Rotary's largest fundraiser benefiting its flagship cause, Camp Rotary, which is a free summer camp for New London middle school students. Perhaps appropriately, Brewfest also helps with the renovation of the Ocean Beach Pavilion.

While Cramer stays on as the beverage chair for Brewfest, he long ago handed the reins of the event to Phil Turner. After Turner passed away, Gerry Tom and Mark Spinnato became Brewfest co-chairs.

"Phil did a wonderful job, and Gerry and Mark do a wonderful job," Cramer says. "Rotary's motto is 'service above self,' and there are so many who work hard for this — not just within the organization but across the community. We have so many stories of individual and corporate volunteers, folks who recognize the value in what we're trying to do and are willing to help in any way to make it happen."

Brewfest at the Beach, 6-9 p.m. Friday, Ocean Beach Park, 98 Neptune Ave., New London; ages 21 and over; $25 advance, $30 gate; newlondonrotary.org.

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