07 Oct 2011 @ 12:31 AM 

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:

  • Stop pretending it’s about the beer and focus on something else. Get bands in and make it an all-day concert that happens to have a great beer selection (a la Brewgrass). Give brewers a chance to sell their beer instead of give it away and you’ll end up attracting a lot more breweries and take a lot of pressure off of the breweries.
  • Stop pretending it’s about the drinkers and make it a trade show. Make it industry-only. You want to see brewers show up and show off their products? Make sure that the only people there are buyers, retailers, and distributors. General public can have their own drunk-fests with all-volunteer staffs and maybe a few special guests.
  • Get the education back into beer festivals. Get rid of the damn band – no one cares – make it event-heavy. Put beer-and-food pairing sessions front and center, have talks by brewers about ingredients or techniques that are more than introductory bullshit schlock. Realize the fact that craft reaches a much larger portion of the marketplace than it used to and cater to that market. After all, those are the people that are going to beer festivals now.
  • Limit attendance. For the love of all that’s holy. Anybody will tell you: small beer festivals are more fun.

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.

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Tags Categories: beer festival, industry, marketing, media, op-ed Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 07 Oct 2011 @ 09 19 AM

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 10 Jul 2011 @ 2:02 PM 

Episode two is here, in which we discuss festivals, growlers, and a multitude of other good things and finally come up with a name (thanks Luke!): Pint/Counterpint. We’ll let you decide which is which.

What do you think? Have comments about festivals or growlers, retail or otherwise? Comment below!

Find yourself saying Episode two? Wait! There’s an Episode One as well. This one has better lighting.

Any topics you’d like to hear us pontificate about? Let us know! We’ll probably take you up on it.

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 04 Jun 2011 @ 11:20 AM 

As I’ve been working toward starting Mystery Brewing Company, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of making some great new friends in the craft industry, particularly here in North Carolina. In talking with friends in the industry, I find that we discuss topics in a completely different ways than I did when I was just a fan and beer drinker.

Yeah, that sounds arrogant as hell. But it’s not what you think. It’s not like I’m somehow more awesome now, but the discussions take a different path. It’s not: “Hey – is that beer awesome?” Those still happen all the time, but it’s also “Hey, what do you think of the packaging options these guys are using to get into the market?” It’s “I know you’ve been monitoring oxygen pickup on that process, what have you found?” It’s industry-related, it’s technical, and it’s fascinating. So, when a fellow brewer – one that I particularly enjoy these discussions with – approached me to propose some sort of podcast centered around those same discussions, I was intrigued.

We talked about it. We planned it. And now here it is.

It’s not going to be for everyone, but we hope that it allows us to bring a unique perspective to some topics in and around the brewing industry that we don’t see getting a lot of discussion. Sebastian is the Director of Brewing Operation at Natty Greene’s Brewing Company, one of the largest breweries in North Carolina. I am Founder of the soon-to-be-open Mystery Brewing Company, one of the smallest breweries in North Carolina. He’s school-trained in Germany, I’m self-taught in my backyard. His brewery makes a lot of traditional styles, mine attempts innovative twists on style creation whenever possible. We think that our combined perspectives are, at the very least, interesting and worth listening to. We hope you enjoy it, we hope it leads to discussion, and we hope that you’ll join us in the future when we put more together.

What do you think about homebrewers pouring in public under the auspices of a startup brewery? Hit us up in the comments section below; we’re eager and willing to keep going on this conversation.

A big ol’ helping of thanks (and many beers to come) to Tres Bruce Media for helping us shoot, edit, and post this.

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 29 Jan 2010 @ 9:39 AM 

If you’re in North Carolina, especially the Central part, you should consider putting the evening of February 20th aside and heading over to Chapel Hill.

Why? To drink my beer, of course.

It’s part two of the “World Home Brew Fest“. Nah, I don’t know why it’s worldly, either, but I know that it’s as local as local beer gets. Last time there were roughly 15 homebrewers showing off their beers and this time there promises to be more. I’ll be pouring two beers – one on behalf of the burgeoning Chapel Hill/Carrboro Homebrew Club … which may be called Orange County Homebrewers or something like that now. I’m not sure – regardless! We made a Dry Irish Stout at my house with little incident, and I’ll be pouring that. In addition, I’ll be pouring an Abbey-style Dubbel which is currently being aged with oak, bourbon, and vanilla. That should taste like cookies, and you should come drink it.

So come on down! February 20. Drink my beer and the beer of many talented homebrewers, make a little donation to MS to make the event planners happy, come have a blast, and say hi.

Get your (free) tickets online.

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Categories: beer festival, homebrew, RDU
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 29 Jan 2010 @ 09 39 AM

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 06 Oct 2009 @ 11:22 AM 

This past weekend, as I vehemently elucidated this past week, gave us the combo World Beer Festival/Backyard Beer Festival in Durham, NC, complete with local Tweetcast. I won’t link in any of the audio from the weekend (mainly because I find it really strange to listen to myself talk – it’s like hearing myself on the answering machine, it’s all wrong), but you can go through the profanity-laden shorts over on my Posterous site.

I set out to write bit of a wrap-up of both events, but to be honest, the success and pure awesomeness of Fullsteam’s Backyard Beer Festival really blew me out of the water. Still, let’s start at the beginning.

World Beer Festival: Durham

It was fantastic to see the WBF back in its old digs at the Historic Durham Athletic Park. It’s just a nice space, and on the beautiful day that we had on Saturday it’s hard to not love walking around outside and drinking great beer.

The layout of this event was quite nice. All of the North Carolina beers (and others, more local like Georgia and South Carolina) were presented together, directly in the middle of the festival, and other breweries were fanned out around them. As usual, most of the imported beers were presented together as well as the obligatory macrobrews. It made navigation – even without a copy of the festival map in my hand (I gave it away to someone who didn’t get one) – very easy.

Every year that I go to this event, it always seems a little more crowded to me, but I’m not sure that reflects reality. It’s possible that I’m just getting more and more irritated with people being in between me and the beer. Why are all these people making me wait in line?!

The highlight of the festival for me happened to be the very first beer that I tried, which made the rest of the afternoon weirdly anti-climactic. Natty Greene’s from Greensboro brought a small keg of Flanders-style red ale that had been aging in oak barrels for 2 years. It was divine, and taking steps away from that afterwards was strange, especially as the general feel of the beer around the festival tended to focus almost exclusively toward the hoppy. Later, I got a chance to try their Cascade wet-hopped Southern Pale Ale again, and it was even more delicious than before. Awesome citrusy tang from the fresh Cascades, but quality-wise the sour red ale really stood out for me.

I was able to try a sample of Mother Earth’s soon-to-be-released IPA. It was big and hoppy, and quite nice if a little underbalanced (lots of hops!). I attempted their Wit soon afterwards, but it was totally overshadowed by the lingering hops of their IPA. I presume it is even awesomer than it seemed. They’re worth keeping an eye out for. Mother Earth has their grand opening set for October 24th.

I often approach beer festivals with goals in mind, as in “I’m going to try this particular type of beer today.” It won’t stop me from finding other styles that I enjoy, but I tend to focus on one and try to seek them out. This Saturday, that goal was Rye. Rye beers mystify me. For the most part, it seems almost like brewers are scared of rye. Maybe being able to say “Rye P-A” is just too good to pass up, but it seems to me that most of the time rye beers are so highly hopped that I can’t actually taste any rye. This stood true for every rye beer I tried at the festival. A short conversation I had with a friend of mine reveals how well this goes over.

Me: I’ve been trying rye beers today.

Him: Man, I can’t get behind it. It’s like you get a really good IPA going on and then there’s something really weird and wrong with it. Why would they ruin a good IPA like that?

Me: Or you could ask why they’re spending so much time covering up the flavor of rye with all those hops.

Him: Because it SUCKS.

I can’t say I agree.

I like the spiciness from rye, but it’s not often balanced well with the hop schedule which really just gives you a weird tasting IPA. This is a topic for a later column, but worth thinking about, anyway.

The one rye takeaway was from New Holland: Rye-Smoked Rye Doppelbock. It was not overly hopped. In fact, it was big and round and smoky and tasted almost exactly how bacon smells. I’m not sure if this is what they were shooting for, but they hit it, dead on. The first sip took me by complete surprise and then over the course of the sample I was continually more pleased with it. Is it a refreshing drinker? A pint to be had while shooting the shit with friends? Probably not. But with the right food it would be amazing.

Backyard Beer Festival

This was, to me, by far the highlight of the day. Why? Well certainly because I got to share my own beer with people. But what really made this whole experience stand out for me was the sheer enthusiasm of both the homebrewers and attendees. Sean and Chris took a good idea and executed it flawlessly. It’s especially impressive given that they did so in an incredibly short amount of time (3 weeks!) and inside a brewery that is under construction. These guys deserve every ounce of credit people can muster. It was a fantastic event.

Here’s a PDF of the brewers info sheet that was handed out to all the attendees as they came in. I hope Sean and Chris don’t mind that I scanned this in.

I can’t really take you through it from the point of view of an attendee, and maybe some of the people that attended will be willing to share some thoughts in discussion, but from a homebrewer’s perspective this was just damn cool.

A lot of people stopped to talk about the beer. They wanted to know about recipe formulation, what kind of hops I was using, what I was thinking (What were you thinking!?) when I came up with a recipe, and even about process. It was great to hear compliments about the beer and to be able to just shoot the shit about homebrew. It was wonderful to be able to taste a wide range of other people’s homebrew, as well. People really outdid themselves in this, especially in a short amount of time.

Unfortunately, it’s just now – days later – that I’m finally pairing up my memories of the beer that my wife and friends kept bringing over to me with pictures of people and the brewers info sheet to actually make a connection of exactly who made what I tried. I wish there had been more time to walk around and interact with other brewers. With any luck we’ll be able to connect at a later time.

A couple of homebrewers, I think, really need to be pointed out for their sheer ballsiness. These two guys, Austin Dowd and Brandy Callanan: they came in here with 5 months of brewing experience under their belts and poured two great beers. 5 months after I started brewing I was terrified to have my roommate try my beer much less a giant group of strangers. Those guys should get a medal for bravery.

I clearly need to stop this post, since we’re moving onto something like 35 pages now. I’d really love to hear from people who attended the event and other homebrewers, as well. Please, if you’re familiar with people who are there (or are one), send this around, shoot some feedback into discussion. I had a blast, I’m hoping everyone else did, too.

Finally, here are collected photos of both the World Beer Festival and the Backyard Beer Festival. These have been collected from various Facebook postings and other (even professional) outlets. Credit is given where it is due. I’ll be adding pictures to this gallery as I get more, so it’s probably worth checking back. I’ve tried to keep them in relative order of the day. Roughly.

For whatever reason I ended up in a LOT of pictures here (mind you – my wife and friends took some of these), and I apologize that you’re going to have to keep coming across my mug. It’s a good thing I’m so dashingly handsome.

[nggallery id=2]

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Categories: appreciation, beer festival, new beer, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Oct 2009 @ 11 24 AM

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