Beer Fests: Three hours of sampling, 8,760 hours of planning

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 2
May 1, 2012 By

A few years ago, Bill Manley, communication coordinator for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., CA, was at the Great American Beer Festival “when this huge drunk guy saunters up to our booth and says, ‘Gimme your strongest beer.’ We pour him a Bigfoot, and he downs it like a shot. ‘Gimme another one,’ he says. We tell him that’ll be his last and hand him another. He downs that one the same way then slams the sample cup on the table. He turns and walks away, but not before he growls at us, ‘Your beer tastes like shit.’” Manley is laughing as he tells the story. But his sense of humor doesn’t change the fact that he would have liked to dump the beer over the guy’s head.

Coordinating the Great American Beer Festival requires the oversight of 495 breweries and 39,000 ticket holders.

Every brewery employee has festival stories like this. Stories of people who relentlessly beg for free schwag. People who complain about the size of their pour. People who want to be served before start time. People who want to be served after last call. People who hoard 62 coasters, 14 key-chain bottle openers and 78 stickers. People who are wasted.

Nobody wants to be that guy.

Fun is Hard Work

A beer festival, while fun for participants, is grueling work for brewery reps and the culmination of up to a year’s worth of effort for organizers. Most of them do it for love. But they also wish more attendees understood the labor that goes into getting that beer into the hands of festival-goers.

“I think the hardest thing for people to grasp is the enormity of it,” says Nancy Johnson, events director for the Brewers Association, which hosts three of the world’s best-known annual beer events—GABF, SAVOR and the Craft Brewer’s Conference (industry only).

In the GABF’s case, enormity means the coordination of three days, 495 breweries, 2,100 beers, 39,000 ticket holders, at least 17 hotels, four educational pavilions, 38 national locations where beer is dropped off for trucking to Colorado and $1.9 million spent. Oh, and 100 tons of ice.

“It’s a very large undertaking,” Johnson says, deadpan.

Though almost nothing can compare to the GABF in scope, organizers of even the smallest festivals observe similar protocol in the months before their events.

It All Starts with a Plan

An organizer first picks a theme—say beers that start with the letter Z—then sets about securing a date and venue, which can range from the lot behind his bar, to a municipal park, to a minor-league baseball stadium, to an arena that holds KISS concerts. Rockin’.

Cascade Brewing, OR, owner Art Larrance cites The Oregon Brewers Festival, which is held in an urban park so kids can come. Bill Sysak, beverage supervisor for Stone Brewing Co., CA, says the handsome milieu at Stone’s World Bistro and Gardens in San Diego County allows his Rare Beer Breakfast to be on par with the most elegant of wine festivals. Location is emerging as a determining factor in which events potential attendees perceive to be worth spending money on.

“A nice thing about a good beer fest is great scenery,” says Erin Crockett of Amityville, NY, who, after attending about 35 fests over four years, has become more discerning. “There’s something about meeting people while you’re outside that puts everyone in a good mood.”

Getting permits is the next step in planning and is probably the most critical, yet it’s the one brewery reps complain that organizers most often get wrong. An event permit isn’t enough. Neither is a permit to serve alcohol. Event producers can only be sure they’ve obtained the correct permits once they fully grasp the labyrinth of laws that govern an event whose primary function is to serve beer.

A glimpse, if I may: Are the producers required to buy the beer or must they receive it from the brewers as a donation? If they have to purchase, does it come through the brewery or the distributor? Are tickets mandated for general entry or for individual beers? Is there a limit to the size of each pour or a limit to the number of pours served? Regulations vary monumentally between states and are usually different from those that cover wine and spirits.

“I’ve ending up explaining the legalities to organizers, and it’s especially hard when it’s their first time,” says Rebekah Mutch, sales coordinator for Stone.

After that, if an organizer still doesn’t get it, the festival isn’t getting Stone. Breweries are liable for fines and penalties when they participate in events that aren’t run properly. So some of them are ultra-cautious. Some aren’t.

“Most breweries don’t really follow the laws,” Mutch says. “So I’ll say ‘No’ to an event and I end up looking like a jerk.”

If it’s an international festival, such as the annual Mondial de la Bière in Quebec, the organizer’s responsibilities grow to include customs inspections, trade agreements, global transportation logistics, federal importation taxes and national governance of liquor control. Founder Jeannine Marois hires staff in more than 10 countries who scout for craft breweries that brew a quality product and demonstrate the wherewithal to handle the bureaucracy required to get their beer into Canada.

Though it takes a year to recruit the breweries—almost half of which are usually newcomers—Marois feels it’s the only way to deliver what her customers want: new beer.

“Nobody can travel all over the world. Mondial can bring the world to the people,” she says.

Breweries with wide distribution rely heavily on their sales forces to shop for festivals that will place them in front of receptive audiences. Smaller breweries are more tightly restricted by budget and manpower.

“We try to attend every festival within our trade area,” says Dan Kopman, co-founder of St. Louis Brewing Inc., which produces Schlafly Beer, distributed within 300 miles of its St. Louis headquarters, excluding Chicago. “In theory, we’d like to go to the GABF, but we never get around to filling out the application, mostly because it’s at a time when we have a lot of other festivals going on.”

“We get invited to just about every festival there is in North and South Carolina,” says Dave Fox, founder at Skull Coast Ale Co., which debuted its beer at the 2010 World Beer Festival—Raleigh, produced by All About Beer Magazine. “So we have to pick and choose based on demographics and size.”

Fox typically brings his road show—himself, a sales rep and his mascot, a costumed volunteer named Skallywag Pete. He targets major beer-drinking cities in the Carolinas, or markets where he’s releasing his brand or obscure fests that make good business sense, such as the one hosted by the Gastonia, NC, Grizzlies collegiate summer baseball team last May.

“We wouldn’t normally attend a festival with just 750 people,” he says. “But this one was worth the money because, here, the attendees vote on the beer that will be sold at games all season.”

Skull Coast won first and second place.

Out-of-Market Appeal?

Not all beer drinkers care whether a festival includes a beer that isn’t available at the corner pub. But brewers looking to expand understand that festivals are an opportune time to sample potential account owners, distributors and consumers, all gathered in one place for one purpose—to taste beer.

Experienced festival-goers often express gratitude to brewers who incur the expense of sending their beers to untapped territories. Some of the fun in being part of the craft community is the buzz over new releases, the quest to obtain the unobtainable and the possibility that, one day, you’ll try a beer that changes your life. Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine may taste like hoppy human waste to one guy, but it could be the Holy Grail for the gal behind him in line.

“I go to festivals in part to try new beers and special releases, and I get super excited if it’s something I can’t get at home,” says Chris Spradley of Redondo Beach, CA, who flies across the country to attend events, often on the hunt for Great Divide Brewing Co.’s Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout. You might call this viewpoint aspirational in the same way that some people longingly read exotic travel magazines or test-drive expensive cars. Or, you could just call it exposure.

“When Mr. Bud Light comes to a festival, he sees a world of opportunity,” says Mike Sandefur, owner of 3-year-old Battered Boar Brewing Co. in Oklahoma City. “It’s our chance to show him and everyone else there’s great beer in Oklahoma. We tell everyone we exist. It’s not supposed to be a secret.”

Sandefur, who says his Facebook fan requests double or triple after a public event, believes so strongly in the power of festivals that he dips deep into his budget to send as many of his employees as possible. Two years ago, he drove his entire seven-person crew to GABF. It’s a reward for their hard work and a way to maximize contact with consumers. He spends a lot of money to do this, but no one expects to make much money on festivals anyway.

“People think we’re very rich,” chuckles Jeannine Marois of Mondial de la Bière. “We’re not rich. It’s a challenge to buy good beer and cover all the very expensive costs like security, salaries and taxes.”

Fox, from Skull Coast, says, “In some states, you’re allowed to sell your beer to the festival, but in others, you have to donate it. Some states or organizers set you up like an exhibitor at a convention and charge you $1,000 to $5,000 to rent a booth or a table.”

Beer Education at a Cost

Although it’s counter-intuitive, the popularity of beer festivals is actually making some of them less profitable. Executives from Bear Creek Mountain Resort & Conference Center in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains ended a six-year tradition after their 2010 festival netted less than $5,000. They sold plenty of tickets, but for the first time, brewers were unwilling to donate their beer.

“I can understand that in this economy, and with so many charities doing beer festivals, it’s tough on brewers to accommodate so many requests for donations,” says marketing manager Megan Weir.

Last spring, Bear Creek hosted a wine festival instead. “What makes it worse for brewers is that they don’t even have the same ability as wineries to sell bottles right from their tables,” Weir says.

Bear Creek’s festival was arranged in the same way as most others in the Mid-Atlantic: Attendees paid a flat rate for entry and a tasting glass and then consumed limitless samples during a multi-hour session. Though the event was civilized and sedate (trust me, I was there), this format is controversial and possibly the speediest route for an otherwise thoughtful human being to become the shot-pounding yahoo we met earlier.

“I don’t want people to go into a drinking binge, pounding all the beers they can to take advantage of the limited time,” says Larrance, who sells tokens for pints at his free fest. “I think if we allowed unlimited samples, people would be lying under the taps.”

“You get that fraternity-type atmosphere,” agrees Sysak, who caps the number of drink tickets per individual.

But producers of bottomless-glass festivals insist they have it covered. They sell food. They schedule their sessions early enough for people to make social plans for later. They program nondrinking distractions such as vendors, speakers, juried competitions and cooking and pairing demos. And between their staff, paid security officers and the ever-present—and sometimes undercover—enforcement officers, they swear they’re excruciatingly vigilant in flagging drunkards and warning brewers who are pouring more than the 1 to 4 approved ounces.

“People get mad at us for refusing to pour them a bigger sample,” says Gary Rosen, a former sales manager for Blue Point Brewing, NY. “But what they don’t realize is their extra ounce could shut down the whole festival. And I’m not going to be THAT guy.”

And it’s impossible to deny that drunk people can be really annoying, even at a beer festival. Megan Parisi, former lead brewster at Cambridge Brewing, MA, refuses to book a festival she feels has been advertised as a drinking, rather than a tasting event.

“If they’re sloppy, if they just want the strongest thing you’ve got, if they’re not interested, you wonder, ‘Why am I here?’ I could be pouring a bucket of swill.”

It’s hard to blame her.

To be ready for a 1 o’clock session in Boston, Parisi would wake up at 7 to pick up supplies from the brewery. She would get to the venue up to an hour-and-a-half early. She’d lug in toolboxes, backpacks, tents, tables, banners and giveaways and spend the next hour setting up. If everything in the distribution and production chain happened as it should, the beer and ice would have arrived on time and there would be a dolly available for the heavy lifting. She’d set up her jockey box (the cooler-like contraption that holds the ice, draft lines and tap handles) to dispense beer, hoping that she wouldn’t need to fish around in her toolbox for equipment to adjust the CO2 or a part to fix a leak. If she had a few minutes before the doors opened, she would run around to greet other brewers and sales reps, then proceed to spend all day on her feet pouring beer and answering questions.

Maybe she would get a bathroom break, a chance to snag a few sips from some special brewer bottles or a sandwich between sessions. Maybe not. When she’d finished breaking down and cleaning up her area at midnight, she might hang out at the brewery or in a hotel room with some brewers and drink beer that didn’t get consumed at the festival. More than likely, she went home to crash.

“If it weren’t for caffeine, we wouldn’t make it through the second session,” she sighs.

Participants who asked well-thought-out questions and showed genuine interest give Parisi a second wind during her work day.

Patrons who make naive statements such as “Pour me your favorite beer” or “You must have the best job” mildly bug her. Attendees such as Giorgio Piatti and Jillian Golan compose the very essence of why she was there.

One Convert at a Time

Before Piatti, of Williamstown, NJ, took his first-ever sip of craft beer at the Philly Craft Beer Festival last spring, he was so overwhelmed by the number of beers and lines and vendors and crowds that he didn’t know what to do. But the wine aficionado soon figured out the purpose of his tasting cup and proceeded to take advantage of the reps “astounding enthusiasm and approachability” by sampling their wares and asking them questions.

“I didn’t have any idea how many different flavors there would be within each category,” he says. Conversations that day inspired him to rent the documentary Beer Wars, which turned him on to the competitive and political nature of the industry. Since then, he’s been an avid supporter and drinker of artisanal beer.

Golan is a dedicated student of craft beer’s teachings and, as such, approaches each festival like a class.

“A festival is how I decide what I’m into,” says the Philadelphia nutritionist. She writes down beer and brewer names, flavor notes and whether the beer reminds her of anything.

Golan would never whimper for a free baby-doll T-shirt or a trucker hat. So when a brewer from Hometown Beverages, NJ, recently offered her a pint glass after a friendly conversation, she was thrilled.

“It’s a good memory,” she says. “I like to support local companies so I now buy that beer whenever I can.”

This speaks directly to Parisi’s point that even at her most tired, she’s got to stay alert and cheerful enough to represent her brewery in a way that fosters a positive relationship with consumers. This is why the same two words come up over and over when brewers and organizers explain why, despite the aggravation, they cherish festivals: education and interaction.

“We want to educate people about what goes into the beers so that they can appreciate them more, and we want to see breweries become more successful,” says Andy Calimano, co-owner of Starfish Junction Productions, which runs large-scale beer events from Philadelphia to New York. “One of the ways to do that is … to meet the people.”

He sees this every time he walks by a Yards Brewing, PA, station at a Philly fest or a Blue Point Brewing Co. tent in New York. Consumers in these cities can drink these beers literally at any time, but invariably, these are the ones they line up for.

“People like to reach out and get that personal connection with the people who make and sell the beers that are dearest to them,” he says.

These are the moments that remind brewers and sales reps why they keep showing up at festivals.

“After scrubbing grain all day, we get instant gratification when we hand someone a beer and watch their face light up,” Sandefur says. “Every time we leave a festival, we feel a little better about ourselves and one step closer to what we want to accomplish.” Sandefur understands that not everyone who tastes his popular Coconut Cream Stout will like it equally, just as Bill Manley doesn’t expect every drinker to like his intensely bitter, 9.6 percent ABV Bigfoot. But what they do celebrate are festival-goers who respect the artistic process enough to show consideration for their creations—at least for the minute or so it takes to sip a beer sample, not guzzle a shot.