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Aug 23, 2014

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Beer Festivals: A brewer's view

By Gregg Smith

Beer Festivals may be the only thing growing faster than the national debt. If you have any doubt about that just pick up any beer related magazine or paper and thumb to the calendar section. Sometimes it seems as though there are more listed than the country has registered voters. Brewers needn't even look this up, they get proof on the phone and in their mailbox. There is scarce a brewer in the country who hasn't been hit up to bring (or donate) some kegs out to the (blank) annual (national/regional) beer festival. The people who show up love the events and great quantities of beer are always poured. But what do the brewers think?

Most agree it's necessary to attend. Don Gortemiller of Pacific Coast Brewing, Oakland, CA reasons "Part of going is to educate the public about beer." This takes many forms, from describing the brewing process and ingredients to the explaining the differences in beer styles. Brewer Larry Schantz of Mill Stream Brewing of Amana, IA cites August's annual beer event in Madison, WI "It's one of my favorites because it's fun to talk with people who are really interested in the beer, including the homebrewers." Kathy Elliot of Spanish Peaks, Bozeman, MT agrees and along with Madison lists the Boston Beer Fest, held in May, as an example of one in which "...the people are courteous, friendly and generally interested in the beer." Although the micro brew market is growing there's still an overwhelming majority of the population which must be won over to the taste of craft brewed beer.

With so many events available how does a brewer decide which festival to attend? Steve Parkes of Humboldt Brewing, Humboldt ,CA uses the easy approach "We hand it over to the marketing department to use for sales. They select which will do us the most good in meeting potential customers." Certainly a valid consideration, but what are the other criteria commonly mentioned for selecting which events to attend? First on nearly everyone's list was the ability to meet customers. Nearly as important was not losing a lot of money by attending. Most brewers contacted expressed concern over the manner in which the Great American Beer Festival charges; they feel as though they're supplying the beer and someone else is making a lot of money off it. Larry Schantz asks "Why should I pay all that money to ship my beer out to Colorado, and pay to serve it to people who won't be customers." Mark Taverniti of Spanish Peaks agrees "They charge too much to be there. Somebody's making a lot of money, and it's not the brewers." Kathy Elliot expanded on that theme even further "The GABF charges $50 for each beer you want to pour and they take 40% of what you make on any merchandise sales. Selling merchandise is important to us at events. It helps subsidize our trips. From now on we won't attend festivals which charge us for the privilege of giving our beer away."

Not surprisingly the brewers all list local, charity fund raisers as the events they most like attending. Steve Parkes summed up the popular feeling "...don't like doing the profit oriented events - won't do those, but like going to the charity fund raisers." There are obvious reasons- - short and less expensive shipping and travel considerations, the benefit of helping a charitable organization, and focusing directly on potential customers. In addition, most like talking to the hometown crowd. Universally it was described as 'more like family'. Which local events did the brewers list as favorites? Larry Schantz mentioned Madison as well as Chicago and the Heartland festival "If they're set up right it can be a great success - the fund raisers come out on top." Randee Reed of Thomas Kemper, Poulsbo, Washington prefers the Herb Farm festival held each Fathers Day in Falls City "It's an attractive outdoor location, spread out and encourages families to attend." Steve Parkes likes their own local Be Bop and Brew which helps local fund raising, along with the San Luis Obispo, CA festival. Don Gortemiller preferred the California small brewers festival.

An emphasis on family was common among the brewers because those events tend to reduce the possibility of the festival becoming a drunk fest in which people were out to "get their money's worth". Receiving low marks in this area were the KQED festival in San Francisco, the GABF, and the festival held each September in Vail, Colorado. Sal Pennachio of Old World Brewing, Staten Island, New York describes those crowds "They're the `give me what ever you got' types; it doesn't exactly seem like they're interested in the beer. I wish the organizers could tell the people to be nice to the brewers but I guess that's like asking all the cabbies in New York to speak English." Most were quick to explain that these events were well organized. What they questioned was a format in which the event charges one fixed price to enter the door. At these, fest go'ers seem to drink as much as they can to recoup the price of admission. The brewers prefer those in which people pay as they go, because the attendees slow down a bit and give more consideration to their beer selections.

All this leads to what the brewers would have at their ideal festival. Mark Taverniti thinks it would be "...one where they don't charge the brewer to be there." For Sal Pennachio it's when "...the organizers do little things like have help waiting to unload, and set up a `trade only' hour so the brewers can talk to each other and try each others beers." Larry Schantz likes the festivals which "Treat you nice, provide a hotel room, and act like they're happy you're there." Don Gortemiller says "I like events which sell tokens which can be spent; it slows people down and gets them to talk more." Steve Parkes and Rande Reed both lean toward events which project a hometown and family atmosphere. Larry Schnatz believes that some of the small town festivals could be improved by including a competition, he says "It's great for business to win a medal, the problem with the Great American Beer Festival is there may be 50 to 60 beers in your category, and the awards may overlook 10 or 15 beers that are really good." While some brewers may not like the competitive atmosphere of vying for recognition, these brewers indicated they like festivals which promote competition and award medals and thus, in the end, acknowledge the GABF, despite its faults, as providing something which all value as a marketing tool.

Though there are things which need improvement, the festival scene will probably progress and evolve as the industry continues to grow. Though the festivals are sometimes vexing they're a seemingly inseparable part of the beer scene. As one brewer put it "You almost have to go. If you skip one year they might think you went out of business." So it seems at least for now, we'll see you at the festivals.

Gregg Smith

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