Hunahpu’s Day began well.
Florida sunshine bathed the staffers, volunteers and brewers who had set up the tents and tables in Cigar City Brewing’s parking lot. A relatively modest line of beer geeks and fans of the lauded imperial stout, some of whom traveled from places still gripped by the winter that would not end, waited patiently amid mild temperatures.
Ticketholders begin filing in at 11 a.m. The gatekeepers scanned barcoded tickets. Inside, dozens of taps flowed with rare and exotic beers. Lines began forming at the most popular.
Making it a ticketed festival was an attempt to solve issues of overcrowding and unmanageable lines that plagued previous years. It seemed to be working.
Then it went south.
Many in the Florida beer community credit Cigar City Brewing, its founder Joey Redner, and head brewer Wayne Wambles with leading the Sunshine State away from its reputation as a craft beer wasteland and driving brewery growth (there will soon be more than 100 breweries in Florida).
But if Cigar City led the Florida craft beer wave, it could be argued that Hunahpu’s Day led Cigar City there. The high-gravity beer (11 to 11.5% ABV, depending on the year) is described by the brewery as “An Imperial Stout Aged on Cacao Nibs, Madagascar Vanilla Beans, Ancho Chilis, Pasilla Chilis and Cinnamon.” It’s well suited to aging, and highly coveted by beer traders and collectors. Wambles has said he believes 2014’s vintage is the best so far.
Several hundred fans attended the first release in 2010, a relatively low-key affair over four hours in the tasting room. Then the heavy-hitting, imperial stout landed a gold medal at the 2010 U.S. Open Beer Championship, among other accolades. People noticed. The brewery stepped it up for 2011, opening up its parking lot and serving Hunahpu’s and other creations, along with guest beers on a pay-per-pour basis. It got even bigger in 2012, with folks camping out overnight to be among the first through the door, and with even more rare beers on tap. Redner, realizing that the crowd would be larger than expected, lowered the bottle limit that year from three to two to ensure everyone who wanted some would get it.
Then in 2013, an estimated 9,000 people came through the gates, spawning myriad issues including overflowing portable toilets early in the day and complaints of lines so long that attendees were not able to taste nearly the number of beers they had planned.
Supply was never an issue. Bottle limits were set, and people who wanted bottles got them. There were enough left over that folks could purchase extras after the initial bottles were sold.
Not this year.
Cigar City announced that this year’s Hunahpu’s Day would require $50 tickets and be capped at 3,500 attendees. Ticket holders would be guaranteed the chance to buy up to three of the 22-oz. bottles for $20 each by 4 p.m. If any were left over, they would be available for purchase on a first-come, first-served basis up to 12 bottles, similar to previous years. In the meantime, festivalgoers could enjoy unlimited tastings of the other beers.
“This is the first year that we went and put tickets out on Eventbrite,” said Cigar City Brewing President Toni Derby. “What we found out was that there were several faked tickets.”
She quickly corrected herself. “Not several. Hundreds.”
The counterfeit tickets quickly overwhelmed the gatekeepers.
“People were arguing, ‘No no no, this is my ticket,’” Derby said. The line to get in stacked up rapidly, stretching nearly half a mile at one point. A decision needed to be made, and made quickly.
“We realized that we had to do something, so we just started letting everyone in because there was no way that we were going to be able to fight with these people to find out whether their ticket was actual or not,” Derby said.
The space quickly filled. The queue to buy bottles became chaotic. At 4 p.m., as promised, bottle sales opened and people started buying full cases. Others, far from the warehouse doors where the bottles changed hands, still wore the silver wristbands showing they had not yet purchased the initial three.
Shortly before 5 p.m., they ran out. Some YouTube videos making the rounds show Redner behind the table with his arms up, palms facing the crowd.
“We’re going to get it figured out,” he announces. Some of those in front begin pushing the portable tables into the warehouse. Two police officers approach, slide the tables back, and the steel overhead doors clangs shut. Boos resound. A ginger-bearded man bangs on the door, trying to start a chant of “Cigar City Sucks!” A few join in, but most walk away. Within seconds, the two officers, followed closely by Redner, come around the corner. The chanting and banging stop.
“At that point,” Derby said, “We thought that for the safety of all our guests, it was necessary to get the off-duty officers over and disperse the crowd and tell everybody to leave.”
The doors to the tasting room, which were going to open at 5 p.m., were locked. The crowd emptied out, some grumbling aloud, making their frustration known. A staff member stood at the gate announcing to those exiting, “If you still have your silver bands, keep them. We will make it up to you.”
Hunahpu’s Day 2014 ended.
Something had to be done, and soon. A post went up almost immediately on Cigar City’s Facebook page: “If you have your silver Hunahpu’s Day wristband, please save it, we will find a way to compensate you for this day.”
Soon after that, an apology for what transpired, acknowledging that mistakes were made, and that “It really sucked.”
After a couple of hours, another: “As we figure out how to make up for the nightmare that happened today, we’d line (sic) to start with this mea culpa: all draft beer in the tasting room tomorrow will be FREE.”
Free beer at the tasting room? Was that the right thing to do?
The Day After
A Facebook post the next day announced the first big step toward reparation. Everyone who purchased a legitimate ticket would be issued a full refund. It was a decision made during conversations that lasted long into the next morning, Derby said.
Meanwhile, free beer was to flow in the tasting room, and concerns were expressed that it would be another disaster. It wasn’t. Though there was a bit of a line when the doors opened at 11 a.m., according to General Manager Billy Burns, things quickly smoothed out. At 2 p.m. the crowd was noticeably larger than normal, but other than plastic cups instead of pint glasses, no different than a particularly busy day. Some customers unaware of the previous day’s events were pleasantly surprised by the free beer. Most of the conversations centered on what happened the day before.
Outside, the only evidence of what happened Saturday were rows of portable toilets awaiting pickup. The weather was every bit as pleasant as the day before.
The dissection of what went wrong continues, but clues began to emerge from attendees recounting the day. There were reports of men outside the event with stacks of paper “tickets” selling for $10 each to those gullible or desperate enough to buy them. Others reported fence jumpers and gate crashers. There were tales of fights in the line for bottles, and of intoxicated, angry people trying to snatch bottles and cases from others’ hands.
There were no arrests or reported injuries, Derby said. It was yet to be determined if any sort of investigation would take place into the counterfeit tickets.
The Death of Hunahpu’s Day
But it still was too much. No matter where the blame ultimately lies, Redner knew that he and Cigar City failed to deliver. On Monday morning, he announced in a statement that Hunahpu’s Day will be no more.
“I am acknowledging defeat. That was the last Hunahpu’s Day.” he said. “The beer will go into distribution next year and hopefully spread out among many accounts, it will get to consumers more fairly.”
And for those left empty-handed?
“We will be working on another batch.”
UPDATE: Read a story on the resurrection of Hunahpu’s Day.
Gerard Walen is a freelance beer writer, founder and editor of BeerinFlorida.com, and author of the soon-to-be-released book Florida Breweries (Stackpole Books, April 2014).