Beer festival season is upon us once again. Really, I’m not sure there is a festival season anymore. When I first started Renegade there was. But now, festivals seem to be year round with the same concentration at all times of the year. Still, summer makes me think of beer festivals and the chance to get outdoors and enjoy some finely crafted brews.
Recently I read an article on porchdrinking.com asking the question of whether beer festivals have jumped the shark. A short while later, I attended what was one of the top five worst festivals I have ever attended as a representative of Renegade. I fully admit that I am not a regular at beer festivals anymore. As Renegade has grown I have been fortunate to be able to hire a staff to cover festivals and events. However, I have attended many festivals as an attendee and a rep and I continue to get full reports from my staff.
Over the past few years I have noticed a definite shift in beer festivals leading me to ask the question, “Don’t beer drinkers deserve better?” For that matter, don’t brewers deserve a better venue to showcase their beers?
Think about the average beer festival—you are herded into an open space that is fenced off in some fashion, often in the direct sun and heat. The festival is likely oversold and so you are in the midst of a crowd that is difficult to navigate. The size of the crowd also makes it difficult to access the beer and to ask questions of the representatives at the tents. The alternative is that you are crowded into a cavernous indoor space which has all the same uncomfortable crowds of an outdoor space except with the added annoyances of booming echoing conversation and a growing beer fart cloud that envelopes the festival goers.
You are served a small portion of beer, for good reason, but do you really have the opportunity to explore that beer? Enjoy that beer? Seconds after it is poured, do you remember what it is? Has your palate readjusted from that stout/sour/imperial ipa you just had before having that saison/pilsner/red?
With all of this imbibing you might care for a snack or a glass of water, but all too often there is a lack of adequate food and water for the number of people in attendance. Of course, let’s not forget the all-important restroom, which all too often are in short supply as well and consist of a barely tolerable porta potty experience (it is times like these when I am truly thankful to pee standing up).
When you are done racing through samples for 4+ hours, you now need to find a way to safely get yourself home—an important detail often overlooked by many festivals. Craft beer is about responsible enjoyment of quality beers. Festivals seem to rarely, if ever, encourage responsibility by organizing any transportation after allowing unlimited sampling for hours. If they do attempt to promote responsibility, they do it by limiting the size of the sample, not the number of samples or the time allotted. All that serves to do is lessen the enjoyment of each sample by providing a smaller amount by which to capture the nuances of the flavors the brewers worked so hard to put in your glass.
You’re asked to participate in this experience for $50, $60, $80, even $100! Are you getting that value from your attendance? Ultimately that is for you to decide. Consider these options though, what if you and four friends each took $40 to the liquor store and bought whatever looked interesting and then each took $10 to the grocery store and cooked out and sampled beers for an afternoon? You would have plenty to drink and eat, you could relax and enjoy yourself, spread out a bit, plan to stay with your friend or have an easier time accessing public transportation because you don’t have thousands of people leaving the same venue at the exact same time. Or, what if you hopped on your bike and took $50 around to some of your favorite taprooms. A flight of beers in my taproom is $10, pretty much the going rate. Take that $50 to 5 brewers and that is 5 flights of beer, more than you could drink in a day likely.
I attended my first beer festival, the Vermont Brewers Festival, in 2004. Now, yes, this was 11 years ago, but the entry fee was $20 and the festival was not at all crowded. It was one of the early experiences that started to develop my love and appreciation for craft beer. I interacted with the brewers and peacefully enjoyed my beers on the banks of Lake Champlain.
I worry about the experience that people leave beer fests with now. Does it enhance their enjoyment of craft beer or do they feel as though they were duped into paying too much for a lackluster experience? Breweries attend festivals because we want you, the consumer, to be exposed to our beer. We are looking for people that have never tried our beer before, to expand our brand and give you a great experience with our beer and our company. We don’t get paid to be there and we donate all of our beer, so our only motivation is to help you enjoy our beer.
Unfortunately, brewers don’t run beer festivals. Too many times, beer festivals are not designed for you to have the best experience possible with our beers. They are designed for profit under the guise of a charitable donation.
Now, yes, I understand why you go. You get to try many beers in one place, there is a chance that something rare will be there, it is something to do with your friends, it’s an excuse to go to ________ mountain town, etc, etc. What’s more, as brewers we appreciate your support of the craft beer industry. But was craft beer really meant to be enjoyed in a fast food drive by experience? Waiting in line to grab a quick sample and then on to the next? At Renegade we pride ourselves on our quality of service and the experience people have in our taproom. Our taproom beertenders cross train in our brewery and in sales so that they are ready to answer a wide variety of questions about our company. At many festivals, we aren’t able to give you the experience we want you to have with our beer.
Not all beer festivals are created the same and this commentary certainly is not a commentary on all beer festivals. There are many festivals that we attend and enjoy. I guess the message here is before you buy that next festival ticket, consider the cost, the venue, the number of tickets being sold, inquire as to what percentage of the proceeds actually go to charity and ask “Do I deserve better?”