What Does a Beer Festival Look Like, Anyway?

Beers & beardsI’ve been overthinking beer festivals lately; mulling over the idea of developing a taxonomy of beer events, then abandoning the idea as Not Useful. But some questions stick in my mind: when is a beer festival a ‘festival’ and when is it an ‘event’ (in the ‘Facebook event’ sense)? Is something the scale of Philly Beer Week too big to be a festival? Is Seattle Beer Week’s Celebration of Women in Beer its own festival, nested within a larger one? Has something like GABF become too ‘corporate’ to be festive? Is our local progressive Oktoberfest* a festival? Or is the Cask Bitter Festival held by Machine House, one of my favorite local brewers, really too small to warrant the name? Can they ‘take over’ their own taps in a single-style tap takeover?  I’d argue that their branding worked – there may have only been 4-5 beers featured in the ‘festival,’ but it certainly got me there.

It’s odd to think that cask bitters are now so rare on the US beer nerd scene that they need to have a whole weekend dedicated to them; back when I began attending beer festivals in the late 1990s, bitters, brown ales and stouts were typical fare – now they are nearly as novel as this month’s most popular resurrected-and-tweaked forgotten sour historical style, and they are probably not considered as ‘accessible’ as everyone’s standard-offering 7% IPA.  Indeed, most beer festivals I enjoy tend to be somewhat smaller in scale. I no doubt ‘imprinted’ to some extent on the first beer festival I attended more than once: namely, the Mountain View Small Brewers Festival. Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, in the heady days of the dot-com boom and bust in Silicon Valley, this pleasant annual event was largely a Local Festival for Local People. As I lived a short walk away in a terrible, expensive 1-bed apartment (and this was in a pre-Google Mountain View), it was doubly so for me. It was my first introduction to beers from Firestone Walker, Mendocino Brewing and Widmer Bros, long before they were even regional powerhouses, but I had a special fondness for Wizard Brewing, whose hand-carved, Tolkienesque tap handles were a crowd-pleaser to their nerd-dominated audience; we were people who knew our way around a D20 (though some of us were beard-free). The beers tended to be British-influenced, and anything ‘sour’ or ‘wild’ was almost certainly not so purposefully crafted, and such terms were entirely absent. Rogue and Sierra Nevada brought their IPAs, but they were something of an exception; especially bitter and/or hoppy beers were practically confrontational (at least according to Rogue’s/Stone’s marketing materials). But Michael Jackson himself recommended the festival every year, so it had to be good.

Festivals – at least, festivals I attended – began to get bigger, more expensive and slightly weirder in the early-to-mid 2000s; the event that evolved from The Book at the Cook at the UPenn Museum in Philadelphia became the Annual Michael Jackson Beer Tasting, with beers from Dogfish Head, Yards, Troegs and Victory (plus some international oddities), and the man himself in person. He was incredibly generous about signing books for tipsy, effusive fans (ahem), and happy to talk tasting notes and the history of the local and international scene. It was a unique chance to sample some of Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales before they were commercially available (though we got to do this at the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach not infrequently as well), and I’ve never been to a more wonderfully-appointed salon for a festival – being surrounded by ancient Chinese and Egyptian art is a far cry from tents in a field or booths in a convention center under flickering lights, though I cannot imagine the museum’s insurers signing off on it now. This and similar local festivals seemed to be a chance for brewers to showcase their standard lineup – maybe bring a small keg of a one-off beer, or a special collaboration with another brewer at the festival, but in most cases, that was the exception; it seems quite the opposite now, when brewers seem to compete to bring their most oddball beer to each festival.

This is no doubt driven by drinkers, at least those polled during market research, who claim to seek novelty, and while novelty itself is no bad thing, it can become repetitive in its own way. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote, ‘when everyone is somebody, then no-one’s anybody,’ and that rings true at some festivals now. If everyone has brought their ‘tequila-barrel aged Mexican lager brewed with lime,’ it’s easy to skip those booths, but it can’t be cheap for the brewers to continually churn out specialty beers for the huge number of festivals that now appear on the calendar. I had a candid chat with some of the higher-ups at Victory Brewing a few years ago – I was interviewing for a job I didn’t get, though they were lovely about the whole process – and they were quite open about how Philly Beer Week was tough for their staff: locals wanted to see something special or otherwise hard-to-find, while those who were visiting for the express purpose of trying all the local beers wanted a mix of the standard line-up and a few of those ‘white whales.’  Getting that festival lineup wrong would be expensive for a larger, established brewery, but potentially ruinous for a smaller one. However, given that these are businesses, one assumes that there’s a strategy involved with going to (or not) individual festivals, whether those are local or far-flung – if the intent is to keep it small and impress your existing base, make a weird one-off; if you are working toward your regional, national or even global reputation, bring a well-made flagship beer – it’s entirely possible that your amazing mild or schwarzbier will seem exotic among the fruit-infused, barrel-aged novelty beers. There’s probably a very dry business school case study in here somewhere, but I digress.

So, what do I really want from festivals now?  I cannot speak highly enough of the recent Oregon Brewers Festival, which celebrated its 30th year when we attended this past summer; as a multi-day festival with no admission fee, family-friendly options for the kids and in easy walking distance of our Portland hotel (not to mention many of Portland’s justifiably-lauded breweries), it was absolutely ideal, if still beardy. There wasn’t the (usually self-induced) pressure of needing to try all ALL THE THINGS in the 2-3 hours of a pricey, one-day festival; it was pleasant to wander in, try 2-3 samples, then wander back out to see other sights.  Having been to another ‘kid-friendly’ beer festival that was simply more trouble than it was worth (few activities, not enough food, hard to get to, questionable beer quality, etc.), I had relatively low expectations, but Portland has it figured out. I do still enjoy many of the adults-only events, but they need to have a very specific focus and/or attendees to get me to shell out my babysitting dollars.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention a ‘beer festival’ I came across when we were in the UK a few years ago; it was simply a series of rotating casks from a handful of specially-chosen breweries, highlighting the seasons – more or less just the normal offerings for this particular free house. No lines, no hype, no tickets, no tokens – just a beer you might not normally have, available with or without excellent food.  The novelty factor was still there in that the beers were only  available in limited quantities, but they were simply (mostly) excellent pale ales, bitters and stouts – old school. It would be too low-key to be considered a ‘festival’ by most American standards, but if this is the future of festivals, I, for one, welcome our laid-back, throwback beer overlords.

*For those whose reading of the world ‘progressive’ now defaults to the political, thanks to The Current State of the World, this is a literally progressive Oktoberfest – it moves from brewery to brewery over the course of the afternoon, accompanied by an oompah band. Specialty merchandise – t-shirts, hats, drinking boots – are part of the fun. Protip: beat the crowds by always staying one stop ahead!

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