Diagnosing the Grumpy Brewer
I just returned from my therapist, and he says I’m fighting a newly discovered discontent known simply as GBA (Grumpy Brewer Affliction). It’s not contagious, but given that I’ve been in the craft brewing business for almost 20 years now, he’s not surprised I caught it. Apparently, I am one of many brewers (young and old) who are increasingly being affected by this malady. It most heavily plagues those of us who have attended thousands of events and particularly demonizes those of us who previously organized beer festivals. In reality, it’s a posttraumatic disorder from all the countless indiscretions we’ve witnessed at beer festivals over the years. Lying on the couch in his office, I recounted some of my most vivid memories, including guys who drank out of the dump bucket, the patron who was dropped like a Mike Tyson opponent for cutting to the front of the restroom line and let’s not forget all the suddenly amorous couples who couldn’t wait until getting back to their hotel before fondling some very private areas. Of course that’s not everything I have seen but merely a quick hall-of-shame summary of many years of participating in beer festivals.
But he thinks my personal trigger may have come three years ago at a chance meeting with a Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike and his busty beer wench who attempted to hijack our Great American Beer Festival (GABF) booth (as costumed volunteer pourers). What? They have pirates at a beer festival? I guess I’m the only brewer who didn’t get the memo that pirates love their craft beer.
This couple arrived at our Lost Abbey booth for their Thursday night shift as our volunteer beer pourers. I was at once equally stunned and appalled. Mind you, their outfits were incredible. But I swore as they grabbed pitchers and started to pour beer in our booth that I was being “Punked.” Clearly, someone had put them up to this and I was being videotaped.
They were a nice enough couple in many ways, but in others they were just so very wrong. Call me a beer purist (I prefer the term brewer), but I reserve costumes for Halloween and an occasional thematic party to celebrate someone “going over the hill.” But as a brewer, I have little patience for costumes and beer. Makes me old I guess, but that’s the nature of this old-school beast. Back in 1994 when I attended my first GABF, it had a far less Hollywood feel to it, with the exception of writer Michael Jackson sipping beers on the festival floor.
Since that day, my understanding of beer festivals came to be that at each event I would meet another bearded fat guy rocking vintage Jerry Garcia-inspired tie-dye comparing notes on a beer with his buddy in white socks and Birkenstocks. Their friend notebook guy was never far behind, scouring the pages of his three-ring binder to determine if he had ever encountered said beverage. (Now there’s an app on our smartphones for that.) Lastly, someone in their party would inevitably be dropping crumbs from his pretzel necklace like Hansel and Gretel seemingly trying to find their way back to their favorite brewery booth.
Fast-forward to just about any beer event today and these old timers are still there, but they are heavily outnumbered by new consumers who better understand that convenience-store offerings also include Slim Jims and cheddar cheese sticks, thereby diversifying their arms-length food options. In doing so, they have ushered in a new era of beer festival necklaces.
Thankfully these newer and more culinarily diverse beer festivals now also include attractive millennial females, albeit many act like nervous pet owners tethered to their ever-present douche bag boyfriends, who were overserved by the bar they left before getting in line for the beer festival. Still, many of them travel in packs of friends who are incredibly passionate about great beer. Their knowledge of beer even outshines three-ring binder guy because they grew up with these beers in their refrigerators and attended beer festivals with their parents. We love these people. At least we love their consumerism.
But I am also aware there is an underbelly of brewers out there pining for the days of old. This past June, brewer’s registration for the GABF opened on a sleepy Tuesday morning. Within two hours, all the slots for the festival floor as well as judge-only beers had been filled. Last year, it took six days for these slots to be gobbled up. Many stalwarts of the festival and some of the most previously decorated brewers were left holding nothing but air and a decidedly bitter inability to participate in this year’s festival. I will miss seeing them and cheering their amazing beers earning medals.
Since its humble beginnings in Boulder some 31 years ago, this now-Denver-based festival has grown into a giant three-day spectacle capturing the imagination of over 50,000 attendees. There is nothing simple about an event of this scale. It requires tons of beer, ice and volunteer labor to make it happen. And that’s where our man Jack Sparrow and his lovely beer wench come into play. Was it wrong for them to show up and support craft beer in a costume? Maybe if like me you claim old school?
You see, where I come from, beer is THE reason. Not “a” reason but singularly the only reason any beer festival exists. Sure, it may have a charitable component, a celebratory function or a simple stylistic bent. But first and foremost, it exists to get people to come together to drink beer. I’ve felt that way since that first event I attended, and I don’t see that perspective changing for me anytime soon.
But it’s increasingly clear the caveman beer festival of old is long gone. Lines for everything craft beer are the new norm. Branding is bigger than ever, and the chance of running into someone who actually makes the beer for a living is becoming far less likely. But it raises the question, does the average consumer care? And more importantly, who is the average craft beer consumer?
Twenty years ago, casual craft consumers were more like closet swingers and part of a secret society with its own rules and lingo. But like the pornography of yesterday, craft beer, too, is all over the Internet, and it’s free to anyone with a browser. Is this a good thing? I’d say it’s kind of hard to argue, with success being the very thing we all sought as we collectively held hands and dragged people into a sea of better tasting craft beer, isn’t it?
There is a well-repeated saying of craft brewers everywhere that a rising tide floats all boats. But lest we forget that rising tides also fall, we might overlook the notion that shallow tides reveal rocky bottoms. And there is nothing rockier from where I sit right now than the ideas behind how we blend this old and new consumerism.
As brewers, we love to share our beers with consumers. It’s why we operate tasting rooms, promote our breweries at beer dinners and attend beer festivals. But today in so many ways, craft beer now belongs to a larger collective audience. It isn’t a singular notion anymore, and it’s more apparent at beer festivals than anywhere else for me. Yet there are still events where I am reminded that both new- and old-school sensibilities can coexist.
Last May, I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. It was the finest first-year beer festival I have ever attended! Those are the kind of beer fests that we as brewers love. A bunch of incredible beers being enjoyed by a wide range of consumers who understand and respect beer made for a great event. Sadly, not all beer events are like this for us brewers anymore. We are constantly barraged with requests to participate in more and more festivals, most of which don’t treat our great beers as anything more than a promotional vehicle of some sort.
As such, many of us brewers have become a bit cynical, realizing that these events are not as much a part of the rising tide but collectively part of the vast ocean of craft beer we’ve been navigating for years. But these waters are much more crowded these days with new boats floating this tide both as producers and consumers. It’s made the sailing a bit less fun. So while I don’t personally attend as many local beer events as I used to, our company still needs to promote our brands. From time to time, I do miss lugging jockey boxes, half-barrel kegs and a CO2 tank around in my car. But that direct interaction with customers is now easily accomplished in our tasting room each afternoon.
The business of Craft Beer is accelerating at a rate most of us can’t fathom. But as Rome wasn’t built in a day, it also means I’ve been witness to many things I also never thought I would see in craft beer. And while lately I may have caught a tinge of Grumpy Brewer Affliction, I’m here to say I’ll be OK. Though not fully cured, I’ve been reminded there are some new rules that accompany our attendance at all of these events. The singular notion that a craft beer drinker is an old man with a gray beard doesn’t hold much water anymore. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I have to go costume shopping. If I’m going to continue floating on this rising tide, I might need a go-to outfit enabling me to fit in or at the very least find a sword to fend off all the pirates surrounding me.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.