This week is a festival-y week. This past weekend was, of course, the Great American Beer Festival. This coming weekend gives us the World Beer Festival in Durham, NC. It’s my home beer fest, and this particular one will be the first one that my little startup brewery has a booth at, however unofficially.
It’s meant that I’ve spent the past week or so thinking a lot about the festivals themselves: What do I want out of them? What are people getting out of them? What are they all about?
This year was my first GABF, and for the most part it seemed like a nice beer festival. I quite enjoyed it. It was well organized, there were nice wide aisles, there was a good selection of beer and nice side events. (The Farm-to-Food Beer Pairing Pavilion was brilliant.) Indoor beer festivals are also my favorites because there’s no smoking and there are actual bathrooms and not port-a-johns. So, awesome on those counts. What I really noticed, overall, was something that Andy Crouch brought up in his recent GABF recap which is that there was a tremendous lack of brewers. There were, however, scads of volunteers (yay!) that didn’t know anything about the beer they were pouring (boo!). It’s something that made me reflect back upon local beer festivals and seeing brewers hanging out behind festival tents chatting with one another while volunteers were pouring their beer just feet away on the other side of a flap.
What’s going on here?
Before I answer that, let me ramble on a little more.
While I was in Denver, I had lunch with a friend who does not drink. Over the course of lunch, she asked, “So, what’s the point of this festival? Is it a good way to get exposure to a lot of people?” and I thought about it and had to answer: No. Not really. Not at all, actually. I drank beer from dozens of breweries, and I doubt that I can tell you more than a handful that I had and enjoyed.
And it’s a sort of woogy answer. Here in Durham, with an almost-open brewery, I am looking forward to getting a lot of exposure. But I am largely an exception. I am pre-new and many people haven’t heard of me (or have only heard of me have no idea what I’m all about) and this is an excellent way to get in front of my local crowd. But what about for everyone else?
Again, what I told my friend: I don’t think most brewers really care about getting in front of drinkers, anymore. They care about getting in front of the 1% of people that are in there that can actually help expand their market – the beer buyers, the bar owners, the restaurateurs, the distributors. Everybody else is just getting trashed.
And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with beer festivals.
To wit (and I’ve said this before): Beer festivals used to be about education. For years and years, they served as a way for a population that was eager to learn to get a wide array of beers easily, and to learn about a vast array of different styles in a way that just wasn’t available to them anywhere else. Now they can go do that at the package store. Total Wine has just as many beers as you’ll see at most beer festivals, maybe more, and it’s cheap to build your own six-pack. Sampling is just a lot easier in the marketplace than it used to be. That means when people go to beer festivals they’re not interested in learning. They already know what they’re looking for. They’re interested in drinking – which in and of itself is not a terrible thing – but as beer festival prices go up and up and up, people tend to try to get their money’s worth out of the price of their ticket and that generally means pounding as many 2 oz. samples as possible.
Is this true for every festival? Certainly not. But the bigger ones, the more well-known ones? Almost universally true.
From a brewer’s standpoint, if people aren’t there to learn from you there’s no incentive to try to engage with them. There’s nothing more disheartening than having somebody walk up to your booth and ask for “your lightest beer” or “whatever” and then just slug it back, regardless of what it was. We put a lot of work into making these products, and we’re proud of what they taste like. It’s frankly a little insulting to watch somebody pound a sample of your product without any thought. I’d rather you hated it and dump it out then to drink it without thinking about it.
If it’s not about educating consumers, it’s really about that small contingent of people that can effect a brewer’s bottom line in a real way, the people who will end up buying a large portion of product (eg – kegs or cases, not a bottle or a 6’er), and that makes hanging out at a booth and giving beer to people who don’t care fall under “not a good use of time” in most circumstances. After all, a brewer can hang out around the back of the booth and wait for that 1% to come around and focus on them while volunteers pour the beer.
So, if this is the overall trend, then what does the future of beer festivals look like? I struggle with this. I can’t help but think that brewers will get more and more jaded about spending large amounts of time and product going to beer festivals that help them less and less and that more and more people will stop showing up to something that is become more and more of a chugfest.
I offer these possible future solutions for beer festivals:
I’m sure there are dozens of other ways we could see festivals revitalized. It’s time for some innovation.
I enjoy beer festivals, but I am jaded by their expense to the brewer. You’ll see us at our locals, but not at many outside of our area. They need re-imagining to continue to be relevant to both brewers and drinkers and I kind of wish I was in a place to help move them along. Unfortunately (for festivals), I’ll be on the other side of the tent flap making beer.