Downtown Harrisonburg’s Rocktown Beer and Music Festival draws crowds of more than 3,000.

Story by Sam Valentine

Photos courtesy of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance

The wail of an electric guitar cuts through a crowd above the roar of laughter and conversation. A few amber drops from a frothy glass of craft beer splash lazily onto the pavement as delicious smells pour from food vendors lining the sidewalks. Rocktown Beer and Music Festival has returned to downtown Harrisonburg.

Rocktown attracts nearly 3,000 people each year in August and April to Harrisonburg’s Turner Pavilion. Along with more than 30 craft breweries, the festival features live music from local and national acts and food from local eateries. Every downtown Harrisonburg event, including Rocktown, requires tremendous efforts behind the scenes, and nearly all those efforts are coordinated by Katie Yount. Yount serves as the director of events for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. From coordinating volunteers to planning events, she is the liaison for any event in Harrisonburg. “I deal with all the logistical aspects of the events. It’s really a public and private partnership,” she says. Rocktown is the largest volunteer event that takes place in downtown Harrisonburg, using about 200 volunteers.

Volunteering can be stressful at any event, but Yount makes sure her volunteers are taken care of. First-shift volunteers get free admission to the event, five beer-tasting tickets, a T-shirt and a mug for their troubles. Since-second shift volunteers don’t get to drink at the event, they get an even better prize package: the shirt and mug plus a free growler and fill-up at Midtowne Bottle Shop. Volunteers at other downtown events, like the Fourth of July celebration “Valley Fourth,” perform general tasks such as checking IDs, manning gateways, and general setup and cleanup. While these are all essential at Rocktown, the real burden falls on the beer-pourers.

Each regular ticket purchases five beer tickets and each ticket vouches for one 10-ounce pour. Attendees must wear a wristband and volunteers are responsible for marking the wristband each time an attendee selects a pour. The volunteers are properly screened and trained for their responsibilities, so the event coordinators have no problem enforcing the rules. “We had a big problem at first with people using Chapstick to erase the mark on their wristbands. Now if a volunteer has Chapstick on them, we’ll ask them to leave,” Yount says. JMU doctoral student Kody Sharp and his wife, Somer, volunteered last year during Rocktown.

“Free admission for a small amount of work is great, but working with different breweries from around the country is the truly unique experience,” Sharp says. Longtime Rocktown volunteer and Shenandoah Valley Realtor Luke Smith says volunteering at Rocktown is a great way to get involved in the local beer scene, but admits it’s a struggle “not trying any of the delicious brews while volunteering.” The featured breweries, Pale Fire and Brothers Craft Brewing, each utilize the volunteers during the event to advertise and distribute their flagship brews to festival-goers. Pale Fire Brewing co-founder Tim Brady says without volunteers, the festival would be impossible.

“They take a lot of the burden off of brewery representatives so that the reps can mingle with people and talk about the beers and breweries,” he says. Brady, who founded Rocktown Beer and Music Festival in 2011 along with his friend and Jack Brown’s co-founder Aaron Ludwig and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, says the help of more than 150 volunteers each year makes the task of setting the festival up in two hours a reality. Among the 36 breweries featured during the event, the beer stylings of Purcellville brewery Adroit Theory will be featured for the first time. Beer is his passion, but Brady says he’s also looking forward to music acts Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds, Major and The Monbacks, and Bryan Elijah Smith and The Wild Hearts “Every year it’s exciting to see people dancing in front of the stage to live music, especially the few children that come along with their parents,” he says. “It really makes for an amazing atmosphere.”