Kristina Szczyrbak has a confession to make.
“I only recently tried craft beer just a few years ago,” she says quietly. “And I’m not super-obsessed with it.”
A tame admission for most, but Kristina seems a little worried that from the founder of the largest craft beer festival in the area, it might sound sacrilegious. In its second year of operation, the 2018 Cabin Fever festival saw an attendance of over 1600 people. More than 100 volunteers helped pack 17 brewers (with 2 cideries) and 50 other vendors into the Mylan Park Expo Center.
Most of those volunteers only work the day of the festival. The vast majority of the preparation required to pull off an event of this scale falls to her. For more than three months leading up to the festival each year, Kristina is making preparations for 30 hours a week. This is added to her existing 50-hour workweek as director of a nonprofit. At times, it has almost been maddening.
Both years during the home stretch of putting on the festival, she found herself literally banging her head against things, swearing to never do it again: “I can’t do this to myself again next year. I won’t do this. My work is suffering. My family is suffering. Why am I doing this?” she said.
And yet, some part of her knew that she wasn’t being honest with herself. “Even as I’m saying those things out loud, in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re definitely doing this again.’ I don’t think I can stop doing it.”
Kristina says she is a naturally busy person, “like, maybe to an unhealthy degree.” When asked to describe why, she tries for a full 20 seconds to put something into words. “Because sometimes I don’t feel like I can relate to anybody else.”
There is a fascinating paradox between Kristina’s feeling of disconnection from community and her willingness to spend so much time creating it. Cabin Fever seems to have been spurred less by an interest in craft beer than in the community of brewers she found in the state, who she describes as “highly intelligent people” with a D.I.Y. work ethic.
“You have people with these advanced math and science degrees, and they’re just like, fuck it, I’m going to go brew some beer,” she says. “They’re starting out in garages and building these companies around it.”
Kristina characterizes brewers as generous and aware of the communities they’re living and working in. At this year’s Cabin Fever festival, Screech Owl Brewing debuted their Muddy Creek Ale in partnership with the West Virginia Land Trust to promote a clean water initiative. The brewery was awarded People’s Choice Award by popular vote.
“You don’t really see for-profit companies interacting in that way with groups that seem to be more passion-driven,” she says. “These are businesses that are passion-driven, like nonprofits are.”
Kristina was a single, homeless mother in college when she took a position with the nonprofit Women Work 11 years ago. She had already started a nonprofit in high school, and served with the Americorp Vista program. Nonprofit work is all she’s ever known.
She accepted the position with Women Work because it meant stability, even though it also meant forgoing a college degree. She was offered $12/hr, which sent her skipping down a neighborhood alley to a friend’s house, where she exclaimed, “I’m rich!”
The nonprofit trains women in nontraditional occupations (construction, carpentry, electrical work, etc.), using a model of pre-apprenticeship that involves accelerated hands-on and classroom training. The objective, of course, is job placement. Kristina sees a lot of women who were like her – single mothers with little work experience, sometimes holding down 2 or 3 jobs in the retail and service industries. She says that’s exactly what she had to look forward to before taking the position.
Between the time she began organizing the 2018 Cabin Fever festival and the date it actually happened, dramatic changes were happening at Women Work. She was promoted to Director, which required her to oversee several field offices. Around the same time, the organization was awarded a Department of Labor grant that nearly doubled its size, allowing her to open two new satellite offices in the state. Between the festival and work, she accomplished a tremendous amount of labor in 2017, leaving West Virginia better off in more ways than one.
After each festival – especially the first one – Kristina started receiving messages from people who wanted to start their own festivals. What advice did she have? What tips and tricks could she share? It took her back to the full year of planning Cabin Fever, when she had reached out to people in the same way. Brewers were the most helpful. They talked with her, and offered encouragement and advice.
But the people who ran festivals never seemed to get back to her. “I was like, gee, I wish they’d be more helpful. What’s their problem?” She laughs, mostly because she now knows the only trick that matters: putting in a ridiculous amount of work. Kristina says there is plenty of information online about how to throw a festival like hers. But it all comes down to the labor. “It’s blood, sweat and tears. Constant hard work. So if you’re willing to stay up all night to pull this shit off, then you will. Just put the work in and you’ll have a beer festival.”
People have come to her with compliments after the festival each year; several opined that it was the best-organized event they’d attended in the state. But Kristina holds herself to high standards, and often doesn’t meet her own expectations. She relates this to an early childhood experience in which her mother was looking over one of her tests from school.
“I said something to the effect of, ‘I did better than anybody else in the class,’ and she said, ‘That doesn’t mean anything. Was it the best you could have done, or not?’” Kristina seems to have latched onto this idea. “I recognize that I’m highly effective and efficient, but I could be better.”
This is not to suggest that she is not proud of Cabin Fever, or the community it has fostered. Far from it.
The last song at every West Virginia event is, of course, Country Roads. The song is nostalgic for her, in the way it is for many people in the state. As this year’s festival was ending, she walked through the event space, singing along with others as she went. Suddenly, she came upon the sight of 60-70 people standing arm-in-arm, swaying and singing the song loudly together in unison.
Kristina does not consider herself someone who cries often, especially not in public. But the sight of West Virginians celebrating their home state in a moment she had created was cathartic in a way that immediately broke her down and built her up, all at the same time.
“I saw all those people and I lost my shit. It was this overwhelming sense of, ‘You did it. This is what you envisioned and you did it.’”