For this month’s Session, Joan Villar-i-Marti of Birraire asks us to weigh in on the role of festivals in our local brewing scene. Here in the San Francisco Bay area beer festivals remain popular. But I have to wonder if they aren’t losing their relevance, becoming fairly routine marketing events as the number of alternative options to experience beer explodes exponentially.
The SF Beer Week Opening Gala held today (Feb. 6th) has never been more popular. In 2013, 24% of the tickets were sold in the first two weeks. In 2014, 55% of the tickets were sold in that period and the event sold out roughly three weeks before it started. This year in just the first 10 days, the entire event sold out several weeks in advance.
But of course, craft beer, at least as defined by the Brewer’s Association is growing at strong 15-20% clip so it’s not surprising that a beer festival of this magnitude in a strong brewing region is an increasingly hot ticket. However, as numerous Bay Area brewery tap rooms come online, bars routinely hold tap take-overs and “Meet the Brewer” events, and even gas stations start to have decent beer selections, beer festivals seem to be fading into the overall noise of brewing buzz. There was a time when beer festivals were the only way certain beers saw the light of day, but that time has passed.
If you don’t believe me, consider the Bistro Double IPA Festival held this February 7th in Hayward, CA. This festival started in 2002 to showcase what was at the time, a little known and commercially risky to style to brew, the Double IPA. Needless to say, the Double IPA no longer needs any introduction. You can even pick them up at my local Safeway. If the Bistro Double IPA Festival ceased to exist, brewers would have no problem showcasing these beers elsewhere and hop heads would have no trouble finding them. There was a time the Bistro Double IPA Festival was a badly needed breath of fresh air on the brewing scene, giving brewers pushing the limits of hops a chance for their beers to be discovered. Suffice to say, those hop monsters have been sighted. Given the incredible symphony of beer today, the Bistro Double IPA Festival seems incredibly one note.
Another factor seemingly working against beer festivals are the breweries themselves. It’s not an active undermining of beer festivals, more of a passive indifference. It’s simply that breweries, being businesses after all, would rather sell beer rather than give it away at festivals. Breweries used to brew special releases specifically for festivals as a form of marketing. But with the increasing numbers of Bay Area beer bars and gastropubs, this form marketing is increasingly unnecessary and undesirable. Breweries now have far more outlets to simply sell these kegs and make money. Even better for the bottom line, more breweries are building on site tap rooms, allowing them completely eliminate the middlemen, maximizing their profits. Having talked to a few Bay Area breweries, some have real concerns about the time, money and people tied up in a heavy beer festival schedule, and scaled back their appearances.
Finally, let’s confront an uncomfortable issue about beer festivals: There’s a lot of alcohol involved. Sampling 8-10 different beers in four ounce servings adds up to 32-40 fluid ounces of beer, a lot of alcohol considering beers in the 6-10% abv range tend to dominate the selection at beer festivals. Given area beer festivals cost over $50, all those beers still end up being mighty expensive.
As I start pushing 50, I find myself seeking alternatives to explore the area brewing landscape without all that alcohol, and don’t think I’m alone. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to find bars, liquor stores and brewery tap rooms that didn’t exist only two or three years ago to discover beer without all the alcohol and expense. As the “craft beer generation” continues to get older, breweries will likely become less reliant on marketing themselves in events involving so much alcohol at such high a cost.
Are beer festivals geek gatherings or beer dissemination? They undeniably remain a great way to meet other like minded individuals on all things beer as well as discovering new beers and breweries. It just that beer festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant.