Though winter can seem unrelenting, and warmer weather an impossibility, spring comes to pass at last. The days get longer, the temperatures soften, and buds begin to break. Patios and beer gardens bloom in lockstep with the flowers and trees, and guests flock to our businesses with renewed vigor. After a couple of the slowest months every year, the beers start flowing again in earnest, and spirits rise.
Now’s the time to make an impact.
It used to be that we made that impact, at least in part, through beer festivals. Going back some years, before craft got to the level of near-ubiquity, beer festivals were a key route to gain market access and interact directly with customers. Before distributors, retailers, bars, and restaurants were keen to carry a wide array of craft offerings, beer festivals offered a singular chance to showcase and sample dozens of styles and flavor profiles. Brewers showed up, hawked their wares, and moved the needle.
However, what was once novel and positively effective became tired. As craft beer went mainstream, festivals were often a mere reflection of what was on the shelves, with entry-level salespeople standing in for brewers, and tastings traded in for oversampling. Beer fests devolved into drinking fests, with less interaction, less discovery, and fewer eureka moments. Throw in profit-seeking promoters throwing indistinguishable events, and it’s no wonder attendance declined.
I believe beer fests can once again be vital. With shrinking shelf space and distributor cutbacks on SKUs, festivals can feature a broader selection than what’s currently available from many retailers. They can also gather together a host of local brewers in one venue where the collection of disparate offerings, brewing methods, and perspectives showcases the depth and range of craft beer that makes it so compelling.
Tips for Success
While festivals can again be essential for craft beer’s influence, they also require a lot of planning and hard work. We’ve been throwing beer festivals in the D.C. area for more than 15 years, including Snallygaster, an annual event that brings 180 brewers, more than 400 beers, and 9,000 guests to Pennsylvania Avenue for a rollicking day of food, music, and—of course—beer. Along the way, we have learned some essential lessons. By attending to the details of fest preparation and execution, we can create an impressive experience for guests, staff, volunteers, and brewers alike.
Plan Well Ahead. To produce a successful beer festival, you need to start planning and preparing as early as possible. We select our festival dates a year in advance and try to get the initial word out to brewers shortly thereafter. Early notifications—along with comprehensive research to find a date with as few competitive-event conflicts as possible—mean more brewers, guests, staff, and volunteers will be available for the big day.
Simplify the Purchase. Deciding on the right event offering and ticket options will impact a slew of event-related decisions. We’ve found the unlimited-tasting angle to make the most sense for all involved; it conveys value, and it helps the event operate more seamlessly than those that require drink tickets and additional drink-ticket purchases during the event. It can be daunting to decide what to charge, but we’ve found that our guests consume—on average—54 ounces in a three-hour event, 72 ounces over four hours. Knowing this number will help you decide your pricing structure as well as how much beer to have on hand.
Aim for the Perfect Number of Beers, and Seats. Another big decision is how many beers to pour during the festival. While featuring a long list is always preferable, having too many beers unnecessarily increases the hard costs of the event—such as tables, tents, draft equipment, and labor—and it could leave the organizer with a pile of partially tapped kegs. Getting the number of beers and beer amounts correct increases profits, and it also helps to ensure that the event goes smoothly. We tend to pour one beer for every 15 to 20 guests on hand, and we organize the layout with four beers per every 10-foot tent station. By having one station for every 60 to 80 guests or so, the beer offering is spread out in such a way as to keep lines at a minimum and always moving. For the inevitable long lines that form around the most sought-after beers and/or brewers, we encourage staff to walk the line with cans of additional beers and splash the guests as they wait.
Also, guests will look for access to some seating; we like to have a seat for every five to 10 guests attending the festival.
Keep It Glassy, And Rinse. If permitted, we strongly encourage the use of glassware for festivals. This cuts down on waste and affords a better tasting experience for the guest. Besides offering water-drinking stations throughout the event grounds, it’s imperative to have water available at each tent station for rinsing glassware. We like to use five-gallon tabletop jugs with dispensing spigots directed toward the guests; this way, each guest can rinse their glass before requesting the next sample. In addition to the opening jug, we stock two five-gallon backup jugs per station, for a total of 15 gallons for every four beers poured at the fest.
Get More Ice than You Think You’ll Need. Making sure to have the right amount of ice per tent station is just as important as having the proper amount of rinsing water. I’m routinely surprised by how quickly ice runs out at festivals, especially those taking place in warmer weather. When in doubt, over-order ice to use for chilling tapped and backup kegs, jockey boxes, and packaged beer from the beginning of the festival right to the end. Depending on the length of the event and outdoor temperatures, we’ll order up to 40 pounds of ice per beer. With ample ice on hand, everything will continue to pour cold and effortlessly throughout.
Get a Head Start on Admissions. Another major issue I’ve noticed for beer events is how long it can take to get guests processed and into the festival. Inevitably, guests line up before opening time, and this gives our teams the opportunity to get ahead of admissions. We have a large ID-check team as well as a large ticket-scanning team to get the bulk of our guests stamped and wrist-banded for speedy entry upon opening. Continuing to have these teams in place can ensure that a steady stream of guests continue to gain entry even after the festival has begun.
Get Help. I highly recommend engaging a crew of volunteers to assist with an event, particularly if the event is designed with a charitable angle in mind. It simply takes a large crew to set up, execute, and break down a beer festival, and volunteers are key to making this as smooth as possible. When recruiting volunteers, we like to make sure we have two per station, and we typically see about 20 percent of our signed-up volunteers either not being able to make it or only available for abbreviated assistance. Be sure to keep that in mind as you build that roster.
Treat Your Brewers. Besides volunteers, it’s important to encourage brewer attendance. We like to treat our brewers as special VIPs and collaborators in our festivals. We have a separate brewers’ entrance, a brewers’ lounge—complete with cold beers, specially catered food, private bathrooms, and plenty of seating—and we only ask that the brewers help get draft equipment set up and pour a bit while engaging with the guests. The more that brewers themselves can interact with guests, the more singular and memorable the fest will be.
And Enjoy It! We also encourage the brewers to hang out with each other. In fact, I think this could be one of the absolute most important aspects of any beer fest. As brewers taste each other’s beers, talk shop, trade stories, and dream up new collaborations, the industry advances. Sharing information over some beers will inspire and improve future offerings.
Be sure to make your festival as welcoming to fellow brewers as possible and to pour at as many other beer fests as you can. If we make beer fests vital again, we can bring more people into the fold, and we can get them excited about what small breweries across the country are producing.