The thrilling comeback of an Odessa traditionAug 18, 2021 11:47AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
The ebb and flow of the Historic Odessa Brewfest could very well be compared to the writing of a novel that is only two chapters of the way complete.
The first chapter contains the story of its beginning in 2014 and the five consecutive years that followed, when beer lovers and beer makers gathered together on the bucolic grounds of the Historic Odessa Foundation’s 251-year-old Wilson-Warner House to convene in the annual conversation of all things hoppy and malty.
The novel has just completed its second chapter that documents how the wave and threat of a worldwide pandemic wiped away the annual rite of passage for the more than 2,000 who regularly attend, leading to the cancellation of the Brewfest that had been scheduled for Sept. 12, 2020.
The third chapter of the novel will be completed on Sept. 11, 2021, when after a year away, the Historic Odessa Brewfest will make a triumphant return to the social calendar, but for the moment, let’s pick up where the second chapter begins, with a press release dated July 13, 2020:
The Historic Odessa Foundation in partnership with Cantwell’s Tavern announced today that due to the coronavirus pandemic and latest surge in COVID-19 cases, regionally and across the country, the foundation’s signature fundraising event – the seventh annual Historic Odessa Brewfest that was scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, has been canceled.
‘…But for how long, no one knew’
“Cancelling the Brewfest was devastating for us,” said Deborah N. Buckson, who has served as the executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation since 2005. “Everybody looks forward to Brewfest. It’s our largest outdoor event – lots of people, lots of festivities and lots of fun.
“We were one of eight Delaware museums who were receiving weekly the Governor’s Office about COVD-19 restrictions, and we realized pretty quickly that the pandemic would have a major effect on our operations but for how long, no one knew.”
What happened over the course of the next several months was defined by Buckson as a “domino effect” of distressing incidents.
The Foundation became one of the first museums in Delaware to shut its doors.
The steady flow of those intent on knowing more about the historical town and its imprint on Delaware and U.S. history shut down. So too did the usual revolving door of student tours from schools all over the area.
The steady social calendar of weddings, receptions and other special events held on the property and sites were abruptly cancelled or postponed.
The worst blow of all came when Buckson and her assistant Jennifer E. Cabell added up the numbers and saw that cancellation of the 2020 Brewfest would leave a $30,000 loss of revenue to the Foundation – crucial funding that is targeted toward the annual conservation and preservation efforts for its six major buildings and one dozen other structures spread across its 72 acres.
The timing of this bad news arrived soon after it was realized that the boiler in the 22-room Corbit-Sharp House was in need of repair at a cost estimate of $45,000.
Perhaps the only silver lining in a year of shutdown for the Foundation came when its educational curator Johnnye Baker developed online materials that teachers could use in their history classrooms.
“We were wondering how long we would be able to ride this out,” Buckson said. “We are a non-profit organization and rely entirely on grants, contributions, a modest endowment and these normal revenue streams, and one point we were thinking, ‘This is really bad. How do we survive?’
“COVID-19 had dealt the Foundation a devastating blow, but we just kept on plugging. We had to keep going and remain focused.”
The first lights of hope
For Buckson, the first light at the end of the dark tunnel toward hope happened when many of the sponsors of the Historic Odessa Brewfest paid for the lighting that illuminated the Historic Homes of Odessa’s annual Christmas event that drew hundreds of cars that drove into town for the spectacular view.
On July 13, a second light shone for the Foundation, when Gov. John Carney lifted COVID-19 restrictions in the First State, setting the stage for the return of the 8th Historic Odessa Brewfest on Sept. 11. Soon after the Foundation announced that the festival would return, several more lights shone when the festival’s sponsors from previous years jumped back on board, quickly followed by participating breweries.
Four days after festival tickets went on sale, all VIP tickets had been sold.
“We have been stunned by their support, because we literally could not have this festival if it were not from them,” said Buckson, who especially thanked presenting sponsor Chesapeake Home Services and National HVAC, who sponsors the festival’s two music stages and its participating musicians – and Wilmington Trust Wealth Management.
In its return to its home to its usual home at the Wilson-Warner House, this year’s festival will again feature the best of local, regional and national craft brews from over two dozen breweries from around the country – as well as Wilmington Brew Works, First State Brewing Company and Midnight Oil Brewing Company in Delaware. In addition, festival goers will again be able to enjoy live music on two stages, locally-sourced food provided by Cantwell’s Tavern, as well as enjoy the work of artisan vendors on site and participate in a variety of lawn games and amusements.
Over the past several festivals, Buckson said that there is another attraction that draws attendees to the Brewfest, which originated in 2014 when Kostik, Buckson and Jeremy Hughes and Mark Ashwell from Cantwell’s Tavern began to imagine a large outdoor event to promote the mission of the Foundation – which is to educate the public about life in the 18th Century Delaware. The concept of a beer festival made total sense; brewmasters populated settlements along the Delaware River during Colonial period including Odessa, which at the time served as major shipping port for grain used to brew beer. “People really appreciate the science of making beer and its history, so this festival is not just about enjoyment but education, and we love to see what happens when beer lovers engage with the brewers,” she said. “We’re one of the best documented historical sites in the Mid-Atlantic region, and we have a good idea about what household goods were being brought and sold in local mercantile stores. We have inventories for household goods and we can tell you what they bought to make their beer.”
Since its beginning in 2005, the Historic Odessa Foundation has been the keeper of the keys to a kingdom that unlocks the doors to the 18th- and 19th-century history – a timeless treasure trove that allows visitors to step back in time. For many who have attended the Historic Odessa Brewfest for the first time, it is their inaugural visit to Odessa, which helps define the role of the festival as not only an annual tradition but as that of the town’s ambassador.
The Historic Odessa Brewfest now gets to write – and complete – its third chapter.
“I am most looking forward to the return of the excitement and energy that a festival brings -- the music playing, the conversations between connoisseurs and brewmasters, and seeing the people admiring the property and telling us that they had not known that this existed,” Buckson said. “For a long time, Odessa has been considered Delaware’s most well-kept secret.
“On Sept. 11, we will be so happy to share this well-kept secret to those who come for the first time, as well as with friends we look forward to seeing again.”
Get your tickets to the 2021 Historic Odessa Brewfest. The Historic Odessa Brewfest is a fund-raising event for the Historic Odessa Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the legacy of the Historic Houses of Odessa for future generations, through commitment to the preservation of Odessa’s unique historic, architectural and cultural heritage. For more information about the 8th Historic Odessa Brewfest and to obtain tickets, visit www.odessabrewfest.com or call 302-378-4119.
Become a member of the Historic Odessa Foundation Annual membership in the Historic Odessa Foundation begins at $50 and entitles a member to a full year of many free and discounted opportunities, including Historic Odessa house tours, member discounts to activities and Cantwell’s Tavern, two guest passes and invitations to members-only events, including the December Holiday party. Join online by visiting www.historicodessa.org. or call 302-378-4119.