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.

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 07 Oct 2011 @ 09:19 AM



Responses to this post » (15 Total)

  1. Maureen Ogle says:

    What a terrific post, and what a great list of suggestions for change. I have to agree w/you that there doesn’t seem to be much point — although the GABF also serves as a competition event. In any case, great piece!

  2. erik says:


    True, about the GABF, but the competition could happen without the festival (a la World Beer Cup) and you’d probably have a lot more people key into the award ceremony and its worth. At the GABF this year I didn’t even realize the awards were going on until halfway through and then I thought, “Eh – I’ll read about the winners later.”

    There needs to be something new before festivals reach irrelevance.

  3. Jason Austin says:

    Agree 100%. I felt the overall beer knowledge at GABF was severely lacking (from both volunteers and attendees). Compare that to SAVOR a few months ago, and the differences are night and day. I felt like SAVOR was more of an “upscale” beer event, and I can’t tell you a single brewery who didn’t have representation there. I didn’t see many knock-down-drunks, and people actually knew about the beer when I asked them about it.

    GABF was fun, but it wasn’t educational. I’d go back, but with less expectation of learning anything or engaging with brewers.

  4. Clif Wigington says:

    Great article!
    This article also shows there are huge differences between the ‘local’ beer communities. Here in Texas, we’re so behind in the craft beer revolution that -most- honest beer festivals (which I am apart of) still have the ability to educate a large number of consumers about local beer.

  5. zy1125 says:

    I have been to my fair share of beer festivals. Interestingly enough, more than half of them have been CAMRA festivals in and around London, including the GBBF. Your post resonates with me (does this come as a surprise at this point? Probably not…).

    I would say I enjoy English beer festivals more than American – in part because the beers are more sessionable, and more stylistically to my liking. It’s rare that the beers are anything more than the normal range, so it’s just a chance to try beers from around England that might not normally distribute to London.

    But I also like how they handle tickets and dispense – you pay less for entry (maybe £10), and then pay per-beer (£2-3/pint). You can get half- and full-pint servings, but none of this 2oz pour nonsense that just encourages people to slam back beers to “get their money’s worth.”

  6. Ben says:

    I think Kevin’s nailed it. In my opinion, the key to removing the “drunken insanity” aspect of the beerfest is to admit folks for cheap, then sell them tokens or tickets that are then exchanged for beer. When we attended the Michigan Beer & Brat Festival a few months ago, entrance was $6, and you got a full 16oz plastic pint glass (for an additional $5, you could get a nice commemorative glass one, which we chose to buy). Tickets for beer (and brats, in this case) were $1 apiece — two tickets got you a half pour (or a snack-size half brat), and 4 got you you a full pint (or lunch). These prices are pretty much in line with a nicely-priced pub, so the cost doesn’t run you any different than a night out. You got 10 tokens at a time, and if you decided after 2 pints and a half brat you wanted more, you just walk over to the booth and purchase more tokens. Easy.

    The other great part was that the event was run by a third party (a ski resort, in this case), who **purchased** all the beer from the brewers (most of the festivals in NC ask the brewers to donate beer). On festival day, all the brewers were there, but resort employees were pouring (brewers couldn’t pour, because at that point, it wasn’t their beer), and the brewers were free to chat, drink, hang out, etc. It was a seven hour festival, and because it wasn’t a frenzy of “beer shots” for a few hours, everyone was civil and tipsy, rather than exhausted and drunk.

    Plus, the brewers are compensated for their product, which is the only correct way to do it, far as I’m concerned. (I actually was lucky enough to speak with Dave Engbers (VP of Founders) for a half hour at this fest, and he let me know they refuse to attend festivals where they’re not paid for their beer… makes sense to me, and I’m sure it’s keeping plenty of great breweries off the list of a lot of NC’s festivals).

    Makes for a much better experience than at last weekend’s WBF, where you battle to the front of the line for a 2 ounce pour of something you’re really interested to try, maybe to catch a glimpse at the brewer or owner for 10 seconds before you’re shoved to the side by someone with an empty glass looking for “the strongest thing you got”.

    Anyone know if there any festivals around here that do it this way? The one in Michigan was the first I’ve been to that does.

  7. zy1125 says:

    Ben, you just gave a much more thorough and articulate overview of my experience at British beer festivals.

    I think that this is the solution, and given the freedom of the brewers / industry folk who are now not pouring, you now have the ability to set up side discussions formally or informally for brewers and/or industry folk to talk privately, or to educate the drinking public, and an incentive for them to attend – they are able to freely mix with their target audience to get feedback, rather than get carpal tunnel manning tap handles for four hours of 2oz pours.

  8. erik says:

    Festivals in NC do not pay for beer and they won’t as long as people keep giving them beer for free. All the NC breweries could back out of a festival citing and they STILL won’t do it because distributors will be more than happy to put that beer in there for free.

    I don’t think anybody in NC can have that policy (won’t attend without getting paid) and expect that to make any sort of difference.

    Also – in NC selling at festivals requires a special permit from each brewery and most just don’t have that permit.

    Not to say that there’s no way that things can change here, but it’s going to take somebody big (aka one of the 4 or 5 big festivals) making a significant change of format to lead by example and even then you can damn well bet that they’ll be met with an enormous backlash when it happens.

  9. zy1125 says:

    Not sure I agree with the premise that it has to be one of the big festivals that needs to effect the change. I won’t pretend to know NC Beer law as well as you, but if I am reading the “Special One-Time Permit” site ( http://www.ncabc.com/permits/special.aspx ) and associated regulations (18B-1002/1003) correctly, it should be possible to have a festival like Ben and I lay out, but *not* possible for some of the entities putting on the largest festivals in North Carolina.

    For example, let’s just say I make ‘Taste Your Beer’ a not-for-profit entity with a function similar to that of England’s CAMRA – maybe our mission is to ensure the survival of NC beer or something. I then raise money through dues, or bake-sales, to apply for the permit, buy the beers, and secure a space to hold a beer festival. The one-time permit *appears* to be a retail permit, which implies I could sell the beer (perhaps at cost, perhaps at a profit for fund-raising for future festivals).

    Erik – do you know definitively that this would be prohibited? What am I missing in my reading?

    Part of the reason that WBF couldn’t do this is that they are put on by ‘All About Beer’ – a for-profit magazine. The key, it seems to me, is creating a not-for-profit entity for the purpose of putting on this kind of event.

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  10. erik says:

    Oh, the reason that I am saying that it needs to be one of the bigger festivals is that I just don’t think that others will follow suit and will easily dismiss anything smaller.

    The Tanglewood Festival in Winston-Salem was a pay-per festival, but it didn’t go over real well mainly because the rest of the festival was run horribly.

    Here’s the thing: It’s possible. There are a lot of hoops involved (the festival would need to be a licensed retailer or have vendors be licensed retailers, have a license to sell in the city that they’re in, and permission from the county to do, along with the special one-time permit — that is, if I understand all this correctly, which I may not), and it needs someone who is interested in running a festival to take the time and make the format work. It’s not the kind of licensing that someone can half-ass and make work.

    Said person is also going to be really great at budgeting, because I can tell you that most of the small festivals in the state lose money. Tent rental, space rental, table rental, ice, security, bands, electricity, glassware, t-shirts for volunteers, etc. – that all costs a lot of money and many of the smaller festivals don’t sell enough tickets (or don’t charge enough) to be able to recoup cost – and that’s before you’re adding on the cost of purchasing kegs.

    So – as you’re implying, yes – the NC Brewers Guild could most definitely do this, if they were so inclined to put the time and effort into doing it right. It’s a huge commitment to do from scratch, though, which is another reason I think it would be best done by someone who has done festivals before. They know the associated costs and know where they can jiggle stuff to make the format ultimately work.

  11. Halley says:

    I think Kevin’s nailed it. In my opinion, the key to removing the “drunken insanity” aspect of the beerfest is to admit folks for cheap, then sell them tokens or tickets that are then exchanged for beer. When we attended the Michigan Beer & Brat Festival a few months ago, entrance was $6, and you got a full 16oz plastic pint glass (for an additional $5, you could get a nice commemorative glass one, which we chose to buy). Tickets for beer (and brats, in this case) were $1 apiece — two tickets got you a half pour (or a snack-size half brat), and 4 got you you a full pint (or lunch). These prices are pretty much in line with a nicely-priced pub, so the cost doesn’t run you any different than a night out. You got 10 tokens at a time, and if you decided after 2 pints and a half brat you wanted more, you just walk over to the booth and purchase more tokens. Easy.

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