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Friday, June 6, 2008

The Session #16 -- Beer Festivals

It's The Session, beer blogging on a common topic, and this month it's "beer festivals." See all the links soon here.

I just told someone last week that beer festivals are pretty much work for me anymore. I was at the Mondial in Montreal, and while it was enjoyable, and the weather was great, and there were plenty of good beers -- new beers! -- and brewers -- new brewers, to me, anyway -- and pretty girls and grilled and smoked meat and all dat... I left before the session was over, and I only went back for an hour or so the next day. I would never have done that in the past. What happened? What stole my fun?

I used to enjoy beer festivals, and I'd stay till the last minute. I'd taste everything new that I could safely hold (I used dump buckets, I drank water, I'd eat, anything to try more beers), I'd talk beer, I had a great time. I met John Hansell at a beer festival, which led indirectly to my current position as managing editor for his magazine, Malt Advocate (which in those days was a beer 'magazine,' about 8 pages stapled in the corner). I met any number of brewers, including David Geary, who recently showed me the "business card" I gave him at a Stoudt's festival back in...1994? "I figured you'd be back," he said, "and you were."

It wasn't the working that was the buzzkill, though. I worked fests and still enjoyed them; hell, I even worked taps for brewers on some and had a fun time. I think what killed it for me was the Falling Rock Syndrome. People who go to GABF often enough, serious types (serious about beer, anyway), quickly learn that the Friday and Saturday night sessions are crazy, often given over to drunks. They head out to other, smaller venues, like Denver's beer bar supreme, Falling Rock, or a brewpub, or someone's hotel room.

That's what festivals have become for me: the meeting-up place for the after-party, and it seems like the "after" part gets earlier and earlier. I LIKE going to the after-parties, they're a lot of fun, they're usually people I know or people who know people I know, and it's all very convivial.

And they're not wall-to-wall people, packed in so tight they can't move. Some of the problem is like Yogi Berra said: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded." Blame the festival promoters: stop selling so many tickets. I'd happily pay $10 more if I could move. Turn down the band's amps; I can't tell you how many times I've yelled to someone at a festival "If I'd wanted to hear blues, I'd go to a blues festival: I'm here to talk to brewers and I can't even hear myself think!" Better programs would be great: give me the brewery names, their websites, their addresses, what beers they have, and a little room for notes. Give me food options, give me some education options, give me no smoking and good ventilation, give me a beer garden to sit for a bit. Give me shuttle-to-lodgings/transit options.

I think beer festivals need to be re-worked. For our benefit, the fest-goers, and for the benefit of the brewers. Some of them are better, but craft beer -- and let's be honest, that's really the only kind that generates festival-going interest -- is hot, and people are interested. Give them a good experience. Maybe I'm just a crotchety old bastard. But if I don't think it's that fun anymore, maybe I'm not the only one.


Anonymous said...

I can't agree more. I so used to look forward to going to them. I have done the beer pouring thing with my beloved VBC. I rarely agree 100% with anything but you've so nailed this one on the head.

rick mayberry

Charlie S said...

After over 100 fests over 13 years I've come to loathe them a bit. Crowded fests, smelly vans, the justgimmewhateverslite guy and the complete loss of a weekend are all big contributers. Maybe the payment trend will help this a bit but with gas prices now it's even a stretch especially for a brewpub. Yes it's time for a lot of these fests to rethink things. I won't even consider a for profit fest anymore (cept SC fest) and struggle to go to the 3 session nightmares. I'd like a quiet area with a couch please.

Phillip J. Birmingham said...

The dark side of limiting ticket sales is that you get what you have with the Great Taste of the Midwest, where demand totally out-paces supply and tickets sell out the first day:

"In person ticket sales sell out very quickly. If you aren't in line early, chances are good that you will not get a ticket.

Please note that we are only able to fulfill about 25% of all mail order requests due to the large number of orders we receive. Any order that does not meet the requirements listed here will be automatically removed from the lottery in favor of those orders that conformed to the requirements.


Envelopes must be postmarked on May 1st. Orders sent postmarks other than May 1st will be returned to you unfulfilled."

Of course, the reason everybody wants to go to the Great Taste is that it does lack the drunken lout contingent, and doesn't overflow its space. Therefore, I can't really fault them for limiting sales, but I'd pay extra just to have a better than 25% chance of getting tickets, after I've remembered to get my order postmarked exactly on May 1st, no sooner, no later.

Rick Sellers said...

Great Lew, you let the Falling Rock secret out of the bag... now it's going to be busy and hard to get a seat.

Oh, great post by the way.

Bob said...


Your arguments against beer festivals sound a lot like mine.

Maybe we're getting old, proving the old adage that youth is wasted on the young.

Years ago, I only found 2 things wrong with beer fests...getting too drunk or not drunk enough.

I'm in that point in my life, however, where I want to be served beers while sitting on my ass, hold a conversation in a normal tone of voice, and don't have to contend with port-potties and unpredictable weather conditions.

Neil Davidson said...

I am totally with you there, Lew. The last few i've been to have been un-inspiring. It's hard to find anyone you really want to talk to, and after about ten beers, who knows what you're tasting anymore.

And by the way, it already is hard to get a seat at Falling Rock during GABF.

Anonymous said...

For this year's local beer festival, we invited another couple over for a fancy Mexican themed meal and beer tastings from my cellar. Everyone agreed it was a far more enjoyable night than dealing with crowds, drunken idiots and horrible music. If that makes me old (just turned 30), then so be it!

bierman2000 said...


As a person who has attended fests and volunteered at too many to count over the last 15 years in the US and Europe, it has gotten progresively worse in the last few years.
If I'm pouring beer and they find out the higher ABV, one which I don't promote then it's basically a give me that 9 % and they don't care about style or taste just getting drunk, especially at night session festivals.
As mentioned before the 3 shows in 1 day is pure greed on the organizers part, they need to consider the travel and the wear and tear of 9 hours or pouring beer or more and travel time.

People are also starting to complain that we breweries bring the same old flagship beerd to events and need to realize that many events Do Not pay for beer especially in PA.
Music is just a way to boost the price, my pet peeve is FEED the people and give them FREE water as this will cut down on the drunks and also make an event more enjoyable for all. I mean cmon you pay 40 - 45 to get in and then 2 for water and 5 - 7 for a sandwich or 3 bucks for a hot dog. Cater the event if you have to but include water and food. Many provide this, but more and more there are too many that do not.
OK off my soap box. The idea is to sample many styles not just the higher ABV.. DIPA, RIS, Barleywine which why in the hell is it being served in summer with the extreme ABV.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think Lew is inside my head. This is one of those times.