The Burning River Fest began in 2002, offering environmental and sustainable education moments couched in microbrewed beer, local food, live music from more than 20 local bands and homespun revelry.
Kids’ activities, green exhibitors, boat tours and an “eco-discussion stage” round out the fun – all headquartered at the historic coast guard station on Whiskey Island. The environmentally minded festival, which is named in reference to the tragic fires on the Cuyahoga River that peaked in 1969, returns to Lake Erie this Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25. And from the sound of things, our Great Lake will remain its home for many years to come.
Back to Whiskey Island
“Burning River Fest has been a somewhat nomadic experience for us,” says Conway. “It got to a point early on where we outgrew our own space at the brewery to host it, mostly due to construction, expansion, and the need for square footage.”
Burning River Fest has been incarnated at the brewery’s Market Avenue compound; at Voinovich Park, near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; then at Wendy Park on Whiskey Island. Most recently, the festival showcased at the Nautica Entertainment Complex on the West Bank of the Flats.
Conway says that a return to the Whiskey Island confines made the most sense, and offers an incredible opportunity to showcase a forgotten gem without using the entire lakefront footprint there.
“We have things set up so the event happens right in front of the Coast Guard station, with one of the buildings occupied by our many eco-partners,” he says.
Conway feels “this is a good way to get nature and industry rubbing elbows. At the Coast Guard Station, you see migratory birds, deer and other wildlife paired with ore boats, barges, train trusses and sailboats—that’s really fascinating to see. I lived in Chicago for 12 years and along the Chicago River, you just don't have that going,” he adds, matter-of-factly. “We have that card dealt to us, so why not play it up?”
A Lot Like Christmas
Local beer fans get all tingly just hearing the word “Christmas,” and not because of Ol’ Saint Nick. Great Lakes’ legendary Christmas Ale—the spiced, seasonal ale produced in very limited quantities for the holidays—has an equally legendary regional following. It takes an out-of-season nod at the fest this year.
“For the first time, we’re doing Burning River Fest over two days instead of one, and this time we’re going with a ‘Christmas in July’ motif,” he offers. “We have made a special batch of our popular Christmas Ale just for event, which we expect will help the festival be a larger than normal draw.”
The winter warmer, crafted with honey, fresh ginger and cinnamon, flies off the shelves during those colder months. To wit, the Christmas in July concept seems like the perfect way to expand the festival’s audience and bring messages of local sustainability and environmental awareness to the mainstream.
“That was exactly our motivation and intention,” Conway affirms with a grin. “Christmas Ale seems to cross over all beer contingencies in the area… We believe that having the Christmas Ale will raise the bar and add another level of excitement as well. If we can draw those people, they get an early treat and—we hope—a learning moment, while providing much-needed dollars into coffers of organizations like the Burning River Foundation.
An Important Agenda
In the spirit of giving, Burning River Fest’s proceeds benefit environmentally aware organizations across the region, including the Burning River Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that providing resources for the protection and sustainability of Northeast Ohio’s fresh waterways.
“We've raised over $200,000 in the last five years for the eco-community,” says Conway proudly.
Last year, the Burning River Foundation awarded over $50,000 in grant monies for “ecological conservation, environmental protection, scientific exploration, historic preservation and sustainable future of waterways in the Great Lakes region.”
Among those grantees, the GreenCityBlueLake Institute, helmed by director David Beach and housed within the Cleveland Museum of Natural History since 2007, was granted $17,000 last year toward initiatives on community advocacy and supporting urban ecology research.
These include components on “urban greening” (e.g. community parks and gardens, public landscaping) and educational outreach to residents of Northeast Ohio to help them identify ways to lessen their impact on the environment.
Something in the Water
For his part, Conway believes that apart from the great time (and great beer) that Burning River Fest offers to attendees, the overriding festival messages should be pretty important to them as well.
“I do think that people are starting to understand how important the lake is to the prosperity of our city,” Conway says of our biggest and brightest natural resource. “A lot of attention has been paid to the Great Lakes as a critical part of this region, but also in what the future and demand will look like for fresh water.
“With Lake Erie right in our backyard, it’s important for us to not just preserve, respect and protect those waters, but to help others realize and remember their importance to our lives as well. Of course, many of us are interested in a way beyond most because 90% of beer is water,” says Conway. “And 99 percent water, in the case of Budweiser!”