WOONSOCKET – As the coordinator of the Autumnfest beer tent, Michael Dubois of the Rotary Club has been on a three-year quest with a simple aim: Keep the beer tent a friendly, safe and wholesome part of the annual festival.
As his mission comes to an end in 2013, Dubois is glad to report that he accomplished his goals. And this year, he says, the beer tent will be bigger, better and – yes – craftier than ever.
Back in the old days the beer tent was all Bud all the time, but several years ago Dubois says Autumnfest set out to add a more local flavor to the suds menu. First came Wachusett, a small-batch brewer located in Westminster, Mass. Then they brought in good old ‘Gansett – brewed in New York now, but still true to the old-fashioned recipe that grew up in Cranston.
“Bringing in that Ocean State flavor, that was really important to us,” says Dubois.
This year, look for the trends under the tent to lean even more heavily toward artisan and local craft brews. Woonsocket’s only commercially licensed craft beer, Ravenous, will add its coffee milk stout and other seasonal recipes to the beverage list. Newport Storm, another of the growing legion of popular craft beers made in the Ocean State, will also join in.
Like peas in a pod, Autumnfest and the beer tent grew up together, marking 35 years in business on Columbus Day weekend. Though the annual civic bash is viewed as a thoroughly positive event, the beer tent was sometimes seen as a trouble spot.
“There was a negative perception of the beer tent from the public, but most of the time it was coming from people who’d never been to the beer tent,” says Dubois. “It’s unfounded, but just the word ‘beer tent’ seemed to turn people off.”
Contrary to popular belief, says Dubois, beer tent patrons are overwhelmingly well-behaved, responsible drinkers, and servers don’t cotton to oversaturated imbibers. Even at peak times, when some two dozen servers are on hand, two to five of them are certified by the Safe Intervention Procedures program, or TIPS, a nationally recognized training regimen for bartenders and waitpersons.
How much beer gets poured during a typical Autumnfest is something of a trade secret, but when pressed for details the corners of Dubois’ lips curl up in a faint smile and he just says, “Lots.”
The important point, says Dubois, is that all the profit the Rotary Club earns from Autumnfest beer is used by the Rotary to support city-based charitable causes and civic needs – including Autumnfest.
“Every single nickel that we make goes back into the community,” he says. “Autumnfest, they do get a lot of our profits, but they look at us as their goodwill partner. We’re their service arm to put funds back into the community.”
Over the years, the Rotary, the exclusive sponsor of the beer tent, has strived to transform the image of “the cage” – it’s surrounded by wire-mesh fence – into an attraction that looks festive, where people want to socialize. Over the years, the club has enlisted the help of “celebrity pourers,” like former Patriots great Troy Brown and Steve Smith, frontman for the rock band Steve Smith and the Nakeds.
Officially dubbed the “beer garden,” the area is also decorated with mums.
As the suds flow this year, they will do so to the accompaniment of Schwarz-Schafe, a music ensemble specializing in high-energy German folk music with a pumped-up beat (think the Dropkick Murphys with German roots). The name, by the way, means “Black Sheep” in German, and they’ll be appearing from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday only.
To keep things extra safe, the Rotary has partnered with the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition to maintain a taxi stand outside the beer tent. Dubois said Detective Sgt. Kevin Greenough deserves credit for organizing the effort.
Another innovation this season is the football “tailgate” party, which will dovetail with the traditional Sunday afternoon Patriots game, that begins at 4 p.m. The beer tent hooked up with Cox Cablevision to broadcast the game on three big-screen TVs adjacent to the beer tent. Meanwhile, vendors from the nearby food court will dispatch servers to dish up treats for the Pats fans.
It’s probably just a technicality, but don’t look for any cars at this tailgate party. Chances are, with beer, big-screen Pats action and plenty of street food, no one is going to miss them.
If all goes according to script, the tailgate party will not only make Autumnfest a more enjoyable event overall, but stanch the exodus of festivalgoers who typically went home to watch the game at mid-afternoon on Sunday. Even though Autumnfest is usually still kicking for a couple of hours after the game is over, most viewers never return, inflicting “a major hit” on beer tent income during what is, after all, a very short weekend.
“Once again, this is also a way we’re just trying to diversify the crowd that frequents the beer tent,” says Dubois.
As Dubois departs from the stage of beer tent notoriety, he says the most important message he wants to leave is that the success of the operation isn’t a one-man job. He sees the beer tent as emblematic of everything that Autumnfest stands for, a sort of joint venture between the city, its people and Greater Woonsocket merchants.
Cosco donates the tent, and Bellingham Electric keeps the beer nice and cold. Nearly a dozen electricians donate their time to wire the Autumnfest grounds for power.
“We really feel Autumnfest embodies the spirit of the city,” he says. “People should feel free to come into the beer tent. It’s really come a long way.”
The beer tent is opens Oct. 11, from 5 to 11 p.m.; Oct. 12, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Oct. 13, noon to 10 p.m.; and Oct. 14, noon to 6 p.m.