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.
Read more columns by Tomme Arthur.