Light Years Ahead

Dan Cochran loves ComFest.

From his hard partying teenage years to these days, where he lays out a big family blanket to take in some live music with his kids, the annual Community Festival is a part of his life.

So when the people behind “party with a purpose” reached out and asked him if he could slake the thirst of revelers with something extra light and funky, he was happy to oblige.

If you’re going to the maximum good time in Goodale Park, you’re going to need to pace yourself when it comes to the booze.

Now, Cochran’s new Hilltop Light is here to be your sessionable shade tree.

That’s one of the great things about Cochran’s blue-collar approach to brewing. While some may turn up a pinkie at the everyday beer (the American Adjunct Lager, so as not to put a brand name on it), he knows when someone says “beer,” it’s still what most people think of and drink of.

“I’ve always been passionate about the American Adjunct Lager, he said, which shouldn’t be surprising from a man who used to play bass in a band called The League Bowlers. “A lot of brewers might disagree, but it’s a style of beer I’ve always enjoyed, and respected.”

One of the things Cochran’s appreciated about the style is the brand loyalty you see in the category. There are “Bud” people. There are “Coors” people. There are those who drink PBR. Some of them long for a local variation of that style they can call their own, and that’s where Hilltop Heritage Lager and its lighter version come into play this summer.

“There are thousands of people who drink nothing but light beer,” he said. “I know a lot of brewers aren’t happy with me brewing a light beer, but you can’t deny that this is a product that is selling, and has been selling for a long time. So, why not give people a locally produced light beer?”

The popularity of adjunct lagers and their light variations is precisely why ComFest has always offered macro brewed beers, despite the intensive locality of the rest of the fest. Four String’s risky play to dive right into these waters, and go head-to-head with the big brewers on their own turf offered ComFest an opportunity to go local without alienating people who just aren’t ready to navigate the nuanced waters of traditional craft beer.
So now, HHR will replace PBR on the ComFest beverage docket, and Hilltop Light will supplant Miller Lite. It’s not only a unique opportunity for Four String and a nice step forward and tip of the cap by a local independent festival. This is bigger than ComFest. If a small, local brewer can replace those big name brands at festivals that aren’t beer-oriented, it opens up an entirely new market space for smaller breweries.
“I’m excited,” Dan said. “Comfest is so important to me, and this community.”

So, with Four String moving in this direction, will we see a Hilltop Light Lime in the near future?

“We’re not going to do anything like that,” he laughed chuckled. “But I can show you something….”

The project Dan showed us is still in development, but we can reveal that Four String is looking at offering a series of Radlers. “Radler” is a German word for bicyclist, and “Radlers” are a style of beer similar to a shandy where a fruit-based soda is blended with a light bodied beer. The resultant beverage is usually around three percent ABV, and is highly refreshing.

“We’ll use an all natural soda,” Dan said. “And probably offer the beer in four-packs of 16 ounce cans.”

All of this is carefully planned. Four String isn’t a big brewery, but a product like Hilltop Light takes about a year to develop. “The market has changed so much from when I first started,” Dan said. “I’m looking at things 20 years down the road, right now. That’s how we’re going to be successful.”

Four String found itself treading some deep waters when they opened their big production facility on Hague Road. Shortly after that facility came online, the craft beer market saw sales flatline. People talking about the craft beer bubble started banging their “I told you so” drums. Four String hustled, picked up some brewing contracts, and reassessed. Now Hilltop is blowing up, and Hilltop Light should tap into a market craft brewers would never dream of reaching.

It turns out, local beer doesn’t have to be outlandish, bold and exciting to succeed. Four String is proving that there are a lot of people who will buy a local beer that just tastes like, well, beer.

ComFest going local is also a sign of the market changing. Seven years ago, when Dan was still brewing on used dairy equipment, nobody in the craft beer business would have thought about having anything more than a small craft beer tasting area for the small percentage of beer geeks who happened to be at ComFest. Back then it was enough to brew a few exciting beers for people who liked that sort of thing.  Now, Hilltop will be there for the thirsty masses, straddling the line between “craft” and “local.”

And Dan will be there, on his blanket, with his kids, taking it all in. 

The 46th annual ComFest will take place June 22-24 in Goodale Park. Want some delicious local beer and food without having to pay for it? You can be a part of this all-volunteer festival by visiting comfest.com.

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