The Session #130: It’s my beer festival and I can make up crazy rules for it if I want to

The Session #122: Imported HazardsThis month’s Beer Blogging Session, Bryan Yaeger asks us to create our own beerfest. (What’s a Beer Blogging Session you ask?  Find out here.)  I must admit I don’t go to beer festivals as much as I used to. I might go to one or two a year these days.  Back around 2010, I probably peaked out at around five annually. With the growing pervasiveness of growing beer selections in every nook and cranny of society, there’s less of a need to seek out beers and breweries at beer festivals as the become more accessible. But I still think beer festivals play a crucial role of bringing breweries and people together, so in that spirit, here’s the low-down and how I would set up my beer festival in the spirit of bringing together two tribes that don’t talk with each other all that much. Whether or not this festival would be logistically possible or even if anyone actually would actually want to attend it are minor details I won’t trifle with.

The Location: We’d host it in my hometown at Campbell Park,  in my hometown of Campbell, which sits on the west border of San Jose, CA. In addition to hosting the festival in this small outdoor setting, the park is within short walking distance to public transportation.

The Breweries: Without further ado, here’s the brewery list, organized into three categories.

Local independents: Strike Brewing (San Jose), Santa Clara Valley Brewing (San Jose), Hermitage Brewing (San Jose), Clandestine Brewing (San Jose), Freewheel Brewing (Redwood City, CA), Fieldwork (Berkeley, CA), Discretion Brewing (Soquel, CA), Sante Adairius (Capitola, CA), Brewery Twenty Five (San Juan Bautista, CA), El Toro (Morgan Hill, CA), Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (Santa Cruz, CA), Crux Fermantation Project (Bend, OR), Hopworks Urban Project (Portland, OR), Cleophus Quealy (San Leandro, CA), Headlands Brewing (Marin. CA), Dust Bowl Brewing (Turlock, CA), Anderson Valley Brewing (Boonville, CA), Calicraft (Walnut Creek, CA), Cellar Maker (San Francisco)

So-called crafty breweries: Boulevard Brewing (Kansas City), 10 Barrel Brewing (Bend, OR), Lagunitas (Petaluma, CA). Anchor Brewing (San Francisco), Saint Archer (San Diego)

Overseas breweries: Brasserie de Rochefort (Belgium), Samuel Smiths (UK)

There is a method to this madness. The first group are hometown favorites, or otherwise small breweries I have a personal affinity for that do great stuff that I want everyone to try.  The next group are breweries I also like, but aren’t considered independent by the Brewers Association.  Brasserie de Rochefort and Samuel Smiths are there because they’re great breweries giving the festival an international flair.

It all adds up to 26 breweries. I think that’s a good number for a beer festival.

Attendees: OK, here’s where it starts to get a little weird. I’m limiting the attendees to 500 people.  In addition, these 500 are split into two groups of 250 people: Hard core beer-geeks and people with a passing interest in beer. (People self identify themselves into either group.)  Each group wears different colored wrist-bands to identify themselves.

Activities: Also attendees are required to have two 3-minute conversations about the last beer they had with a member in the opposite category before they can have another pour.  Each conversation has to be with someone different.  Yes, I do want hard-core beer geeks to understand how the other 99% of the population view beer, and expose those with a passing interest in beer that there’s a whole great big  beery world out there.

In addition, all attendees are required to drink two beers from the “so-called crafty” breweries. That means any hard-core beer geeks pontificating about why independence matters and why the brewers at, say 10 Barrel are evil sell-outs to those with a just passing interest in beer will mostly likely get confused stares and inconvenient questions. Those with a passing interest in beer will learn there’s a lot more to beer than just what’s in the glass. Hopefully, those in both groups will learn a little more about what matters, and what might not matter as much as they think it matters, in beer.

Internet jamming: In the spirit of having people talk with people around them instead of having their heads glued to their phones, the festival will employ a fancy electronic device that will jam internet communications.  This device will be turned off for five minutes on the hour for quick internet breaks, because as much as I decry it, I’m a slave to the internet as much as anyone else is.

Food: For me, food at a beer festival serves to clear the palate, sop up some alcohol in the my belly, and keep me from going hungry.  So there will be plenty of light crackers, cheeses and healthy vegetable options.  Food trucks are welcome, but I’ll mention when my taste buds are reeling after tasting five IPA’s, a barbecue sandwich or spicy taco pretty much kills whatever sense of taste I have left.

Pour size: This seems to be a slightly controversial point. No I don’t think 2 ounces of a beers is enough to fully appreciate it. Yes, it often takes a pint or two fully appreciate a beer. But given the goal of everyone trying a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and talking to other people about it, this festival serves 4 ounce pours so people can do that without falling down drunk half-way through.

Booth personnel: As much as I appreciate all the hard working volunteers at beer festivals, they’re usually at a loss to say much about whatever beer they’ve been assigned to pour. That’s why each booth must have at least one brewery representative who can speak knowledgeably about the beers they pour.

Yes, this festival would take me and a lot of other people out of their comfort zones, and being taking out of one’s comfort zone is often the opposite of what people look for in a beer festival. I get that forcing people to talk to with one another comes across as some sort of high school orientation exercise or some dreaded corporate “team building” activity. That said, when it was over, I think I would take away a lot from the festival and I believe others would, too.  Of course, there’s no way to actually prove this, because I can’t imagine in anyone’s wildest dreams this beer festival ever happening.

The Session #96 : Are Beer Festivals Losing Their Relevance?

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.