Let me start by saying I’ve never coordinated a beer festival. I’ve only attended them. I know it’s a lot of work to put one on. It’s complicated. It’s expensive, even without all my suggestions. Anyone who has put one on has every right to tell me to go away until I’ve done it myself. However, as an educated consumer, I know what I like, and I’m positive I’m not alone in my opinions.
Last weekend I attended the Brew at the Zoo beer festival at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a nice little festival. The venue was cool. There were some great breweries there who brought some excellent beer. I don’t want to shortchange them.
However, the price tag for zoo non-members was $40. I’ve been to some awesome festivals for less than $40. This was good. It wasn’t awesome.
What kept it from being awesome? For me, it comes down to two things that plague most of the festivals I’ve attended:
- Lack of unique beers
- Volunteers running the pouring stations
Other than that, Brew at the Zoo was pretty well-done. However, it made me think about what I liked most about the festivals I that I really enjoyed. Keep in mind, I represent the niche of beer appreciators, not just people looking for another night on the town.
I came up with six things I think are crucial to make any festival rise above the average beer-sampling event. Follow these tips and you’ll please everyone from the novice to the most dedicated beer geek. And most importantly, they’ll come back the following year and they’ll bring friends.
1. It’s all about the beer
Beer festivals should be about just that: beer. For a beginner, any beer festival is great because there are certain to be beers there they haven’t had. For beer geeks, the bar is set a little higher. I can’t go into any grocery store and find anything new. I’ve had almost everything available in this state.
So, to convince me to spend money to attend a beer festival, promise me there will be some beer there that I’ve never had. I’ll pay to try something I can’t get normally. At Brew at the Zoo, the only brewery I saw that brought anything unique to South Carolina was Sweetwater Sch’Wheat, which at this point is only available in Atlanta. I really appreciated that.
See if you can get breweries to bring out some rare stuff. Consider:
- Beers in the brewery’s portfolio normally not available in that market
- Trendy far-out styles like sours, brett-funky, belgians, and barleywines
- Casks are always a hit. They are unique and are easy for breweries to prepare.
- Barrel-age something
- Bring something out from the cellar. Beer aged two or three years beer will get the beer geeks in a tizzy.
In order to convince breweries to bring these gems, you’ll probably have to pay them something for the beer. Did you know that at most beer festivals, breweries provide the beer for free? Imagine that, paying a brewery for what they produce. Crazy concept.
I know that Brewvival Festival in Charleston paid breweries for the beer they brought, and it had the best beer selection of any festival I’ve ever gone to. I estimated about 40% of the beers that were served I had never tried. For me, that’s remarkable.
In the immortal words of Teddy KGB, “Pay that man heee’s money.”
2. Get brewery representatives to work the pouring stations
Almost every volunteer that I’ve encountered working a pouring station at a beer festival has been friendly, respectful and energetic. They are great people. They just don’t know much about the beer.
If you can convince the brewer him or herself to come out, all the better. I love talking beer with beer people. There’s no better way to make a disciple for life than for the person who makes the beer to make a personal connection with their customers. Those customers will fight for you, literally.
At a bare minimum, get someone working the station that can answer three basic questions:
- What’s in the beer?
- What other styles do you have besides what’s available here?
- Where can I buy your beer?
The bar is not set high. Just find someone, anyone, that knows something about your beer and you’ll have an advantage.
3. Hydration is key
It’s obvious that water helps keep people safe and hydrated. However, water should be available at every pouring station. If you care about beer, give people an opportunity to rinse their cup before getting the next beer.
Respect your customer, respect the beer.
4. People don’t go to beer festivals to stand in bathroom lines
It’s a beer festival, people are drinking a lot of liquids. That liquid needs to go somewhere. Have more bathrooms available than you think you’ll need.
5. Food is more than fuel
Food not only helps keep people from going over the intoxicated edge, it’s a wonderful complement to good beer. Put some thought into your food vendors and what they’ll have available.
6. Go with the flow
Traffic flow is crucial. Pay special attention to prevent bottlenecks and dead-ends, as well as the potential for lines at the entrance, bathrooms and pouring stations.
Don’t oversell the event. No one wants to deny a paying customer, but for the sake of the reputation and longevity of future festivals, decide how many people can comfortably fit in the space and cap ticket sales.
Not only will it make the event more comfortable for those in attendance, you’ll get a lot of buzz if your event is perceived as “exclusive.” Brewgrass is a perfect example. The festival is in September, but tickets go on sale in February and it sells out in less than a week. That’s a hot ticket.
I have a few other suggestions, though not as crucial:
- Have the event outdoors. Being inside feels more restrained, like you don’t want to spill beer on your parents’ carpet. It’s a beer festival, not a trade show.
- Splurge and get glass taster glasses. It’s a classy move.
- Music is important to any party. For a beer festival, pick bands that play good background music. Jam bands are best.
Yep, that pretty much sums it up for me too. Nothing like going to a Beer Festival where about 2,000 people drinking beer and eating food share a grand total of 5 porta potties. It makes one long for the sanitation practices of 17th century London.
Also, a take home taster glass is free advertising, in everyone’s home no less, for next year’s festival.
Good comments (from someone who is always the designated driver at these things.)
I would also add to the other ideas about letting people record and comment on what they drink throughout the festival. While I have only been to a few beer festivals to date, I have noticed that they have all lacked a convenient means of recording the beers both drank and adding comments. Providing this option allows benefits for all. For beer noobs it lets them mark which brewskis or styles they may want to try again in the future. For the practicing beer geek it is a way to compare and contrast and in general just keep a record of their beer geekiness.
I have suggested creating a kind of beer festival passport where attendees could get stamps or check marks at each pouring station. Furthermore, if you have brewery reps on hand, the visitor might be able to record a few key insights from the makers of a particularly choice beverage.
Thanks for the tips, especially number one, I have been to more beer festivals where beer takes a back seat to entertainment, food, and merchants. I hope organizers heed your advice!