Folks, if you're unaware of this, it happens all the time. There are parts of the country where beer festivals do regularly pay brewers for the beer that they pour, but there are also places where that's not how the game is played. Brewers are invited to festivals, some of which are for charities, some of which are not (and as one brewer I'm friends with says, "Just because it's your charity doesn't mean it's my charity."), and then told how much beer they're going to be bringing and not getting paid for. People are paying for tickets, people are paying for food, people are paying for breweriana, t-shirts, pint glasses, and everything else, but the brewers aren't getting paid for their beer.
Why do they do this? The festival promoters know that for the larger brewers -- craft and not-so-craft -- it's a write-off, a promotional expense they're more than happy to pay. I know it's the case for large spirits companies: they're happy to bring booze to festivals because sampling is the most effective way to sell a good product.
And let's be deadly honest: larger breweries often give free beer to retail accounts. It's illegal in the U.S., but it happens every week: bars order three kegs and get four, they take a competitor off-tap and get X number of free kegs. I've talked to brewers who've seen it, I've talked to retailers who've had it offered. It doesn't get prosecuted because no retailer is going to rat it out...and kill the goose that lays the golden kegs. Is this news to anyone? The same kind of spending drives free beer at festivals.
Smaller brewers are working on much smaller margins and overall budgets, and four half-barrels means some real money to them. Why do they do it? They feel they have to. And festival promoters -- charitable and profitable alike -- will tell them about the "exposure" they're getting. As Jerry Bailey, the former prez of Old Dominion once told me, "exposure" is a bad word when you're talking about getting caught outside. I've had people ask me to do events for free because it would be "great exposure!" Hey, you know what? I'm so damned exposed already that I'm naked and shivering, I don't need more of it!
What really torques me about this is how many times there is entertainment at these events, and they're getting paid! No one ever suggests to the band or DJ that playing at the beer festival will be great exposure so they should do it for free. Because they wouldn't do it.
There are responsible festivals. Jim Anderson's events in Philadelphia were always paid-beer events. The Alström Brothers have told me that their BeerAdvocate events are all paid-beer events. There are also some fests that are put in a tough position by screwy local laws, where buying the beer would jeopardize or cancel their permit: the better fests of this type compensate by throwing the brewers free room and board. But some fests don't even give the brewers free parking, fergodssake.
You know what? There are a LOT of festivals out there these days. Beer festivals are popular. Wanna bet you and I now know one big reason why? Low overhead. Do yourself and your local brewer a favor: start asking questions the next time, before you buy tix for a beer festival. "Is the beer at this fest paid for?" "What's the charity? What percentage of the take do they get?"
And if you're a brewer? Look, if you like the charity, or if the venue's a really cool place you like visiting, or if the festival really is right smack-dab in the middle of your target audience (and they haven't already all tasted your beer), okay, you're an adult, make your decision. But think about that "naked and shivering" line. How "exposed" do you want to be? If they're not going to respect you...why respect them?