All Partied Out: Are Breweries Suffering From Festival Fatigue?

The Business of Beer by | Oct 2016 | Issue #117

Beer festivals. At one time they were an anomaly, isolated gatherings of like-minded epicureans eager to try unusual ales and lagers. In 1982, at the first Great American Beer Festival, 800 people turned up in Boulder, Colo., to sample 47 beers from 24 different breweries. Last year’s GABF attracted 60,000 attendees and 756 breweries pouring more types of beer than any reasonable person would want to count.

But the GABF did more than introduce microbreweries to a wider audience. It became the genesis of a movement, a blueprint of sorts for similar gatherings all over the country. Need evidence? Just scan the events calendar on a website like BeerAdvocate.com—there are now hundreds of these celebrations of beer’s flavorful diversity held every year. Today, beer festivals are often the initial point of entry to consumers for a new beer brand or brewery, although that doesn’t mean all festivals are necessarily beneficial to the craft brewing industry.

“There are so many festivals that the market is watered down,” says Dan LaBert, executive director of Brewers of Pennsylvania, a guild established in 2011 that includes more than 100 brewery members. Call it “beer festival fatigue,” with breweries feeling the constant pull to attend festival after festival while an oversaturation of events on any given weekend leads to smaller, less-engaged audiences and sluggish ticket sales.

“It’s real easy to do a festival,” says Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. “There are a lot of for-profit event companies holding beer festivals every month it seems.” His non-profit organization produces four festivals a year in the Empire State, each of which features 40 to 60 New York breweries with staff representatives pouring beer. These festivals are a primary source of revenue for state lobbying efforts, beer marketing and promotions, and brewing education for members.

Even as they face challenges of their own, state brewery guild directors like LaBert and Leone view festivals hosted by for-profit media and event production companies with skepticism. Leone, for example, believes they draw customers away from association-sponsored events, which then hampers the advocacy work that the guilds are able to do. “Festivals help us to build a war chest,” he says. “When there is a shake-out, we need to be there to defend craft beer.”

A.J. Bodden, festival producer for America On Tap, feels differently. “There is value in having various entities producing events in a single market so long as they remain cognizant of one another and make sure not to create unnecessary competition,” he says, and maintains that dedicated beer festival attendees tend to be willing to go to events as often as once a month. This year, America On Tap will produce 57 festivals in 29 states. Breweries aren’t required to attend to have their beer purchased and sampled on site, but according to Bodden, brewery representatives who do show up are offered a welcome bag, a $10 food voucher, and, when possible, overnight accommodation.

“We do our best to not compete with the various guilds but rather complement their efforts by supporting them and their members,” he says. “We never charge breweries to participate in our events (unless they wish to be a sponsor), always pay for beer and always welcome the guilds on site without charge. Furthermore, we consistently avoid planning our festivals in close proximity to theirs from a timing perspective and are always open to collaborating if they are willing,” he adds, arguing that the event-in-a-box model that relies on local labor (often partially consisting of volunteers) and services gives all breweries a level playing field, no matter their size or marketing prowess.

The three-tier system requires companies like America on Tap to buy beer from a distributor, though, which means small breweries don’t always have control over where their beer is poured or are overlooked completely, and the profits remain in the hands of the event producer, not the brewers. “It’s hard to get into the game if you are self-distributed,” says Kevin Mullen, co-owner and head brewer of Rare Form Brewing Company in Troy, N.Y. “Beer is a social thing, a community thing. Some of the profits should be going back to the community,” says Mullen.

For Patrick Annesty, director of sales and marketing at River North Brewery in Denver, breweries are becoming more selective in what festivals they attend. Most simply don’t have the resources or the production capacity to devote to dozens of ticketed events every year. “We look for festivals that are transparent, particularly in how they distribute profits to charities,” he says, explaining that whether it’s a guild festival that asks for beer donations (but uses profits to empower and improve the craft brewing landscape locally) or a third-party group that buys beer at cost, the purpose of the festival has to be one that fits with the culture of his brewery.

Meanwhile, Brewers of Pennsylvania’s LaBert says beer festivals must be more than, “just a transaction,” stressing that third-party-run festivals often have part-time personnel pouring beer with limited knowledge about the products. Leone agrees. He takes a two-fold approach to his New York festivals, finding they must simultaneously market beer through consumer education and strategic lobbying while building a connection to the breweries. In his opinion, festivals that rely on random volunteers to pour samples, in essence, dupe the consumer into faulty ties to the beer.

But Bodden of America on Tap says there is room for everyone around the jockey box. “The challenge is that guilds are underfunded. We’re not hurting [guilds],” he insists. In fact, Bodden contends that his festivals promote beer as well as any other event aimed at consumers. “Our core belief is that it is important to the craft beer industry for breweries and consumers to have a common place where they can congregate for the purpose of enjoying and conversing about great beer.” 

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