Kansas City’s PopFest mixes drinks, talk, food and fun this weekend
Perfecting a single cocktail is hard enough. Imagine mixing them by the bucketful and serving hundreds of bartenders, industry professionals and enthusiasts attending the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, slated to begin Thursday.
There’s a lot of pressure to get it right, and to show Kansas City at its best. But then, PopFest’s developed a reputation for doing just that.
“PopFest is really great for Kansas City,” says Aaron Fry, the Kansas City sales manager for wine and spirits distributor Vintegrity and one of the festival’s seminar presenters. “It’s slowly starting to raise awareness nationwide what we’ve got here.”
That would be a thriving cocktail culture, one that’s grown in the six years since PopFest’s inception. Cocktail menus are now a staple at most restaurants, and bartenders and their guests continue pushing the industry in ever more creative directions.
“The knowledge and expertise within the bartending community is at a level I could never have imagined 10 years ago,” says Doug Frost, a wine writer and educator, Master of Wine and Master Sommelier (and a Kansas City Star contributor).
That’s evident throughout PopFest’s schedule, which ranges from educational seminars to tasting luncheons and parties. There’s plenty to choose from, and anyone can attend whether you are a bartender or just love cocktails.
“It’s a festival put on by bartenders, for bartenders and their guests,” says Scott Tipton, beverage director for Bread & Butter Concepts. Tipton and Berto Santoro, bar manager at Michael Smith and Extra Virgin and brand ambassador for Angel’s Envy bourbon, this year took over PopFest from founders Frost, Ryan Maybee and Brandon Cummins.
While brainstorming for their first year as managing partners, Tipton and Santoro began by thinking about people they wanted to learn from. Then, they reached out with a simple invitation: Come to Kansas City and share what’s most important to you now.
“What do you think is relevant? What are you passionate about? That’s how we started every conversation,” Tipton says.
And they all said yes.
One of the festival’s midday events at Grünauer will include tastings of Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, sparkling Catawba (an American grape) and sparkling cider under the tutelage of Fry, Frost and Caitlin Corcoran, co-owner and general manager of ÇaVa.
Tasting is essential, and that’s where those buckets come in. A small army of volunteers, called PoPs (Purveyors of Potables) will move into a prep kitchen Wednesday in the former Badseed Market space at 19th and McGee streets. They’ll juice their way through mountains of citrus, prep other ingredients and mix large batches of spirits and liqueurs in five-gallon buckets.
The 16 PoPs will then transfer all that to Union Station and other sites to be portioned, garnished and served. It’s a win for everyone — participants enjoy cocktails created by each presenter, and PoPs learn essential events management skills.
“We want to translate that microcosm of an exceptional bar program and show (the PoPs) how to do that for 100 people at a time,” Tipton says.
Certainly Tipton and Santoro, both PopFest veterans, bring plenty of experience to that task. Tipton, who created the PoPs program three years ago, began volunteering at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012 and last July returned as a “black coat” CAP, or assistant manager. 2018 will make Santoro’s fourth year on the San Antonio Cocktail Conference’s back-of-the-house team.
So they’ve got logistics and operations down. Taking over PopFest’s management required learning to book venues, attract sponsors, negotiate other details and delegate planning to volunteers and groups like Kansas City’s U.S. Bartenders’ Guild chapter.
It also meant re-evaluating longstanding highlights such as the annual bartending competition, which was discontinued. Frost and Maybee created what they called the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition a decade ago to showcase local bartending talent and then folded it into PopFest, but times have changed. Now community is in the spotlight.
“We don’t want (PopFest) to be about the individual,” Tipton says. “The focus is now on throwing really fun events where we can highlight local bartenders making drinks for 200 people, not for four judges.”
That doesn’t mean the competitive spirit is dead. The annual Midwest Melee will pit bartending teams from Kansas City, St. Louis, North Dakota, Oklahoma City and Arkansas against each other in what’s often described as a fierce and freewheeling smackdown.
“People coming in with those bartenders to support them always go home and talk about how crazy awesome it was,” Santoro says.
While that generates buzz elsewhere about Kansas City, such events also build a sense of camaraderie at home, says Jeff Lichtenberger, a bartender at Extra Virgin and vice president of the Kansas City USBG chapter, which is hosting the Midwest Melee.
“The USBG’s role with this is to bring our community together,” Lichtenberger says. “No matter what end of the spectrum you’re on, if you’re a drag queen working at Hamburger Mary’s or someone working at a craft cocktail bar, we want to bring the whole community together.”
That’s also why PopFest’s schedule includes a series of parties, beginning with the USBG-sponsored 1980s themed karaoke prom on Thursday. Not feeling the ’80s? Then choose from a whole series of gatherings: BBQ and blues, kilts and Scotch whisky, tiki (complete with a pig roast), honky tonk and gin and something billed as margarita mayhem.
There’s a point to all the partying, though. It brings people together, shows off bartenders’ talents and injects fun into what has sometimes been criticized as an overly serious craft cocktail movement.
“Everybody strives to make good drinks now,” Santoro says. “In 2011, 2012, when this thing really started to boom, bartenders started getting really pretentious. Nobody wanted to use vodka. Now you’re seeing bartenders wearing vodka soda hats, or whatever. It’s about being cool and fun again.”
Gary “Gaz” Regan, who is currently updating his essential “The Joy of Mixology” (Clarkson N. Potter, 2003), is bringing his mindfulness training techniques to PopFest. Dave Arnold, author of the cocktail science must-read “Liquid Intelligence” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), and Don Lee, known for his work with New York’s PDT, the Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) at Tales of the Cocktail and bar tools company Cocktail Kingdom, will explain clarification.
Eric Seed’s Haus Alpenz has resurrected a portfolio’s worth of once-forgotten but now essential products; one of his seminars will focus on aromatized wines. In another session, Seed and Licor 43 brand ambassador Justin Cardwell will consider modifiers in cocktails.
Pam Wiznitzer — bartender, president of the New York USBG chapter, multiple cocktail competition winner, and consultant with The Cocktail Guru — will talk hospitality. And service is the focus of Kate Gerwin, the first American and first female to win the Bols Around the World international cocktail competition in 2014. She is a North Dakota-based entrepreneur.
Interested in balancing sours (a drink category that includes daiquiris and margaritas) or starting your own consulting company? Sean Kenyon of the acclaimed Williams & Graham in Denver is pairing with Chicago’s Charles Joly — a James Beard Award winner, the 2014 Diageo World Class Global Bartending Champion and founder of Crafthouse Cocktails — to tell you how.
Gangsters your thing? Listen to Larry Rice, owner of the Silver Dollar in Lousiville, Ky., speak about Prohibition and one of its most successful bootleggers, George Remus. Mezcal? Steve Olson, the spirit’s most eloquent champion, will guide you through history, production and tasting over a Jack Stack BBQ lunch.
The James Beard Award winning Dale DeGroff, whose work at the Rainbow Room in New York touched off the cocktail renaissance, and whose “The Craft of the Cocktail” (Clarkson N. Potter, 2002) fueled it, will explore the confluence of bourbon and thoroughbred horse racing over lunch at Michael Smith.
To reach freelance spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
For a complete schedule and to buy tickets for the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, go to www.popfestkc.com.
PopFest presenters and volunteers
Looking at today’s cocktail landscape, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. Just as fresh juice and house-made ingredients were once scarce, so the luminaries presenting at the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival were once mere beginners. Here’s where some of them are today, where they began and what they’ve learned along the way.
Now: Co-owner and general manager of ÇaVa. She will be a presenter at the Naturally Sparkling Wine luncheon.
Then: Corcoran entered her first PopFest bartending competition while working as a barista and was “pretty bummed” not to make the finals. She then went on to win the 2014 contest with a drink that incorporated corn- and chile-infused tequila, corn milk, corn cream and popcorn grits.
Perspective: The bartender of the future needs to be well-rounded—knowing about sour beers, or how to pair food and cocktails is just as important as making a Negroni.
Now: author of “The Craft of the Cocktail” (Clarkson N. Potter, 2002) and other books; co-founder of cocktails and spirits training program Beverage Alcohol Resource; winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America award. Speaking at Whiskey, Gamblers and Flying Horses luncheon.
Then: DeGroff thought he had bartending down in 1978, then a guest ordered a margarita. When DeGroff reached for the sour mix, the guest changed his order to just lime wedges, tequila and Cointreau so he could make his own. “It’s just the way it was back then.”
Perspective: Exquisite technique doesn’t matter if your bar is empty, he says. Bartenders must learn to tell a good story, read guests’ body language and make uncomfortable people comfortable.
Now: Wine consultant and writer; one of four people in the world to hold both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles; co-founder Beverage Alcohol Resource; and Kansas City Star contributor. Speaking at Naturally Sparkling Wine luncheon.
Then: In 1976, Frost was an actor helping to run a bar in Grand Lake, Colo., that didn’t stock the usual premixes. He tried substituting lemon juice and simple syrup, but couldn’t get it to taste right. “We made our drinks from scratch, not because we thought it was cool, but because we didn’t have a choice.”
Perspective: Service is again a priority. “Most talented bartenders are asking themselves if and how they might better embody hospitality and the principles of service.”
Now: Certified sommelier and Kansas City sales manager for wine and spirits distributor Vintegrity. Speaking at Naturally Sparkling Wine luncheon.
Then: Fry began his career 15-year-old Applebee’s busboy and worked his way up through the restaurant world, including a short stint as a bartender. But his focus was always on wine.
Perspective: Bartenders, servers and sommeliers all need to understand wine service. “We need to take service to another level, because the guest enjoys it so much.”
Now: bartender at Extra Virgin and vice president of the Kansas City USBG chapter
Then: When a customer at Nara ordered a Sidecar a few years back, Lichtenberger did some hasty research before managing something approximating the drink. “I know the guy hated it, but he was very nice.”
Perspective: “Let people drink what they want to drink. Everyone enjoys different things.”
Now: Bartender, author of the soon-to-be updated “The Joy of Mixology” (Clarkson N. Potter, 2003) and other books, and an educator whose Cocktails in the Country workshop draws 100 bartenders annually and who has taught mindful bartending techniques in the U.S., London, Paris, Moscow and Beirut. Speaking at the Gaz Regan’s Mindful Bartending seminar.
Then: His Manhattans made him proud back in the 1970s. “On reflection, though, they weren’t all that great! I’ve learned how to make them properly since then!”
Perspective: Applying mindfulness to bartending makes the job more meaningful, helps bartenders be happier in their jobs, get along better with fellow workers, make more money and be more valuable employees.
Now: Co-owner of the Silver Dollar in Louisville, Ky. Speaking at Prohibition Era Whiskey & Cocktails seminar.
Then: Rice wanted to “nail the classics” before reinterpreting them, and the Ramos Gin Fizz proved problematic. He started working on it in 2007 while at Louisville’s 732 Social, which closed in 2011. “By the time I actually ‘got it,’ Social was long gone.”
Perspective: “I feel like everyone is getting back to the basics when it comes to customer service. Putting them first.”
Then: While working at P.F. Chang’s on the Country Club Plaza, he used peach vodka to make “some kind of frou-frou drink. It was delicious. Or I definitely thought so at the time.”
Perspective: “Every day you learn something. It’s the master of nothing, student of everything mentality. We all learn from each other. That’s what keeps you going.”
Now: Managing partner of PopFest, beverage director for Bread & Butter Concepts.
Then: Tipton bartended in San Francisco in the early 2000s, but “I didn’t want to make the drinks people ordered. I wanted to make what I thought they should be drinking.” Then one day Reba McEntire ordered a vodka martini. Tipton put his own twist on it. She sent it back. “I’m thinking ‘this is going to be a beautiful moment.’ But, no, it wasn’t.”
Perspective: “Everybody wants to be the cool bartender now. They want to be the mixologist. Just be a bartender for a while. Find yourself within that. Don’t try to be anyone else.”
Now: West Coast ambassador and national trade ambassador for Licor 43, former general manager and managing partner of BC’s Kitchen in St. Louis. Speaking at Modifiers in Today’s Cocktail Landscape seminar.
Then: Cardwell started bartending in 2004 at a Florida beach bar, “which pretty much amounted to me putting pre-mixed ingredients in a blender and hitting a switch.”
Perspective: While the ubiquity of craft cocktail menus has raised the level of professionalism and creativity in the industry, it can put bartenders at a disadvantage. “It is in the end the same as what happened about 10 to 15 years ago in the culinary community, where new cooks all came in thinking they would be stars and sometimes that just isn’t the case.”
To reach freelance spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to email@example.com.