There’s more than beer in the vats at Fanatic Brewing Company these days. There’s also a heaping helping of nostalgia as Fanatic owner/brewmaster Marty Velas oversees something old that’s new again: World’s Fair Beer.
Four Knoxville friends are relaunching the beer in honor of the 1982 World’s Fair’s 35th anniversary, but with one major change: This time, it’s going to taste great.
As anyone who’s seen those iconic, unopened cans on display amid the dark paneling and shag carpet of their parents’ (or grandparents’) dens can attest, the original run of World’s Fair Beer was more for collecting than it was for drinking. In fact, the beer has achieved cult status for, of all things, its badness.
So, when original World’s Fair Beer marketer Rick Kuhlman Jr. decided to revive the beer, and looped son Rick Kuhlman III and friends Harrison Collins and Chase Wilson in on the project, the group vowed to break out of that bad image. Wilson, an award-winning homebrewer, did a bit of revisionist history and created a recipe for a craft pale ale.
The result being brewed at Fanatic stays true to World’s Fair Beer’s light color, but is “very drinkable, flavorful, hoppier, but not bitter,” Velas says.
According to Collins, who is handling the marketing for the beer’s revival, World’s Fair Beer has been “remastered as a craft beer. We’re playing on the ’80s, but it’s done in a 2017 way.”
The group hopes World’s Fair Beer will appeal to several age groups as well.
“I think it serves a dual purpose,” Collins says. “The folks who were at the fair and bought the beer and look back on 1982, I think it’s going to serve as a huge piece of nostalgia for them. I also think for younger generations and transplants who missed the fair, they’ll enjoy partaking in this because you get some of that back.
“There’s so many pieces [of the 1982 World’s Fair] that remain, that you know of if you grew up in Knoxville. It sounds like the most incredible event, and it makes you proud of Knoxville, too. The Scruffy Little City pulled it off. This beer is sort of cheers to that.”
In the early 1980s, Rick Kuhlman Jr.’s father’s wholesale company, Kuhlman and Murphy Company, was sold to Pinnacle Sales of Knoxville, and Kuhlman stayed with the new ownership. Then, Knoxville landed a chance that had only been the purview of big cities in the past: hosting a world’s fair.
“There was a ton of excitement, and [Kuhlman] was thinking, ‘What can we do to leave our mark on this historic event?’” Collins says.
Kuhlman asked his boss, the late Pat Gleason, if he could make and distribute World’s Fair Beer in collectible cans, a new can design to be released nine times during the fair. Secret, coded messages made their way onto the cans, adding to the beer’s cult status.
“[Mr. Gleason told Kuhlman] he would agree if he could pre-sell 10,000 cases, that’s 240,000 cans,” Collins says.
Kuhlman pulled that off and then some, ultimately selling 250,000 cases.
Kuhlman is now in his 60s, and according to Collins he promised Gleason that he would one day revive the beer in his honor. In January, Kuhlman made good on his promise and asked the three friends, all of whom he had mentored, to join in the venture with him.
“I missed out on the fair, so to have a small piece in what was such an historic event in Knoxville, I am really thankful,” Collins says.
Collins says the group was surprised with the amount of positive response they received when they announced their revival of World’s Fair Beer. They were also pleased to contract with Fanatic Brewing Company to make the beer.
“Knoxville’s craft beer community is just so friendly,” Collins says. “All the brewers were so thrilled and excited. That to me has been affirming and it’s made this process that much more enjoyable.”
The beer will launch at a friends-and-family event in, of course, the Sunsphere, April 26. Catering will, also of course, be provided by Petro’s. After that, World’s Fair Beer will be available on tap at select Knoxville-area restaurants April 28 for two months, followed by the canned beer released in late June or early July.
The cans are designed by Tom Namey of Namey Design, and will look like the original 1982 cans, but with some changes. Legal requirements for labeling have changed in 35 years, requiring health warnings and a lengthy approval process. The back of each can will detail the beer’s history, and offer a dedication in honor of Pat Gleason.
The group is also planning on donating 20 percent of their profits to local charities.
“You can even put it on the shelf next to your 1982 versions,” Collins says. “But the difference is that your 2017 cans will be empty because you drank them.”
Featured Photo: Harrison Collins (left), head of marketing for the relaunch of World’s Fair Beer, stands with Marty Velas of Fanatic Brewing Company, in front of the vat where the first batch of the new World’s Fair Beer is fermenting. Photo by Shannon Carey.
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