Monday, June 29, 2015

The Fault in Our Festivals: How Craft Festivals Could Use Some Fine-Tuning

The Dreaded Beer Booth Babe.

We stood in some half-formed, wobbly line in the back of what had been callously labeled the "VIP" section, though I could see no obvious advantage that deserved this designation. The various tents that had been set up were obscured by the falling darkness, and did little to distinguish themselves from every other indistinct little green tent that dotted the sloping beach.  The lines writhed and murmured with a vague buzz of discontent.

"I can't believe they ran out of that one..."

"What line are we in?"

"Where's James?"

And so we stood, shivering slightly against the breezy chill of the water, doing our best to savor the remnants of swiftly-dwindling buzz. The line moved with a dull sluggishness, with everyone trudging onward like lazily programmed automatons, impatiently waiting for whatever mysterious brew awaited them at the end other end. It had become less about experience and more about getting your money's worth. Pick a line. Wait. Chug. Move along. Repeat.

I stood at long last before the hastily assembled direct line draw system before a saccharine-sweetened woman in a black bikini. "Hi!" she greeted me. "You can choose between...a...Belgian...
"(quick check of the label) Single and an "IPA!" She didn't speak so much as she chirped.

I gazed quickly around the tent for some semblance of details regarding the beer. The ABV? Flavor notes? The damn brewery? Perhaps I was buzzed enough to be foolishly optimistic, but I pressed on. "Which brewery was this from?

A quick label check. A generic brewery name I hadn't heard of.

"I haven't heard of them, any idea where they're located?" I hazarded. I shouldn't have.

"I don't know, but you know who would?" she gushed. "Google!"

And my buzz and joy flushed away.

The Fault in Our Festivals 

This is just one (albeit a bit dramatic) example that occurred in a recent Southern California beer festival, but it does exemplify some of the very real issues that are besieging many craft beer festivals, transforming what should be great showcases of the industry into maddening meltdown that evoke memories of the worst fraternity on your college campus.

It doesn't help when I dress like this, I grant you. "Beer me, bro!"

At this point I'm entirely aware that I'm reaching "crotchety old grandpa" levels of grumpy, and I see where you're coming from. "So what, dude," you're surely uttering, "Those things aren't supposed to be craft beer lessons. They're just big parties." But that's what I'm getting at: in many instances these craft beer festivals often fail at being both.

If your sole purpose of participating in a Craft Beer Festival is to get wasted, your methods are probably a bit misguided (and how did you find my blog?!). For one, it lacks some practicality; beer, especially in the quantities distributed at beer festivals (see: tiny vessel in photo above), isn't a particularly efficient way to get drunk. Besides that, while exceptions exist, breweries tend to offer their lower alcohol beers from their collections, with many Pilsners and session IPAs making an appearance (and rightly so- they're the perfect styles for outdoor adventures). Don't get me wrong. You'll get a good buzz. But it won't be an efficient buzz, if that's what you're looking for.

And, what's more, as the day goes on, you'll be fighting for each and every one of those samples, as each brewery tent will assuredly snake into ever-growing lines, which means that the process becomes:

1. Wait in line.
2. Obtain beer. Chug quickly without any consideration.
3. Repeat.

Which is fine, really, as it's a fun day doing something different. I'm not saying these can't be fun events (I'm particularly fond of the Los Angeles beer festival), but as a celebration of craft beer, and a way to get drunk, it sort of comes up short in both departments.

And really this is a failure on all the behalf of all parties: the festival organizers, and the breweries themselves. This was especially true of the latter in this particular example, where the breweries were so damn poor at representing themselves, it was difficult to say why they bothered.

When it comes to a showcasing your craft beer, it is of the utmost importance to present your brewery in the most positive light possible. Many of the little guys have little-to-no marketing budget, so it is events like these that serve as great opportunities to get their name out there. Of course, if it were up to me, I'd ban the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing Pseudo Crafts from participating but that's just me.

And, generally, that doesn't include a booth babe who knows zero about your beer, your brewery, your vision, or anything else that will help someone actually remember you. Almost as important as the beer itself is your presence at the event. A beer could be a veritable nectar of the gods and still manage to be completely forgettable if the experience surrounding it doesn't match. Beer served from a sad little cooler with no description about who you are, what the beer is, or where it comes from is a great way to play into the mindset that deteriorates beer festivals, in which guests systematically stand in lines in order only to get a bit more closer to their desired level of inebriated.

Not pictured: puddles of vomit. Photo source;

Instead, a booth should be manned (or womanned) by knowledgeable members of your staff, preferably those from the brewery itself if proximity allows. If not, sales representatives are suitable substitutes. If festival temporary staffing are the only options available (and, as you can probably tell, I'd advise against this if at all possible), they should be at least primed on what the hell it is they're serving. Your tent should advertise who you are well before I get to the front lines, and I should be able to quickly discern what you're offering when I do get there. I'm a beer geek at heart, so I'm going to be tempted to ask a question or two about the beer. Where can I get it? Do you distribute here? How's your tasting room?

I'll stop short of asking for your grain bill or hop profile (that's just a beer geek trying to show off.)

Ooh, and have stickers. I like stickers.

Oh, and it should probably go without saying but...don't run out of beer. This should be entirely obvious, but an astonishing number of breweries run out of one or both of their beers entirely way too early and it makes for quite the negative impression. One brewery I encountered had people scooping beer out of a large plastic bucket because "it was quicker that way." True, maybe, but the sort of thing I'd expect out of frat house party, not a beer festival.

All of this bitching sort of amounts to one major point: Best Festivals are fun, casual environments in which people can experience beers they might not otherwise have the chance to encounter. They're overcrowded, which means that it becomes a sort of arms race to get your money's worth. For me, I personally wish that organizers would reel in the number of allowable entrants by at least 10%. I recognize that these are of course means of making money, but the risk of overcrowding too much certainly deters people from repeat visits.

Or, at least, offer a Beer Snob ticket that lets me in an hour early, for a small bump in ticket price. The festival described in the beginning offered something like this, but what it actually got me wasn't particularly obvious - certain "exclusive" breweries didn't seem particularly gated from the general crowd. I don't need to feel special - just the opportunity to make the most of the beer showcase before the buzzed mob mentality kicks in. Hell, I'd pay double if I could go to a festival with a quarter of the total number of tickets sold.

Of course, I haven't been to every beer festival, but many of these themes tend to rear their ugly head at many of the ones I do  make it to. I don't imagine beer festivals will ever be able to offer what a trip to a tasting room could do, and I don't think it needs to- it's entirely acceptable that they maintain more of a casual demeanor. But what I do ask is that breweries treat their offerings with the respect they deserve. Because that's what Craft Beer is all about.