Most serious aleheads and beer geeks who have been to a large beer fest will tell you two things about the experience:
1. Getting to sample a bunch of new beers is a lot of fun, and
2. There are typically a lot of annoyances to balance out all the goodness of a beer fest.
It’s just the nature of the beast. Ultimately, the positives almost always outweight the negatives, because hey, at least there’s beer at the fest, and you can drink it (presumably).
However, that doesn’t mean that good intentions are enough to run a good beer fest, and yes, there are vast gulfs between “good” and “bad”. This past weekend, I attended a beer fest that I would put solidly in the “bad” camp—The Bruegala International Beer Tasting Festival in Bloomington, IL, nearby to my own central Illinois home in Decatur. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was perhaps the worst fest that I’ve been to, for a variety of reasons that I’ll get to in a moment.* First, however, a note on volunteerism:
*A preview: Maybe you should have the beers at the fest that you’re advertising on the beer list at the door?
I volunteered at Bruegala, and this is basically what I do at any beer fest that I can. I really can’t see why someone wouldn’t volunteer, if they were attending a fest. You get in free, you typically get free beer, you might get a shirt or whatnot out of it, and you get the chance to talk to strangers–interested strangers, a real captive audience–about beer, and suggest tastings that will advance their growing interest in craft beer. Hell, I’d volunteer even if I wasn’t getting in free. So please, consider volunteering at festivals near you. Now, back to the various offenses of Bruegala in 2011.*
First of all, let me say that I am amazed that this festival is currently in its 12th year. Most craft beer fests have not been around nearly that long, so it seems inconceivable that the sort of problems apparent this year would not have been corrected before now. They’re all the sort of things that simply make me ask, “How can I be the first person who’s annoyed by this?” For the ease of reading and digesting these problems, I’m just going to put them into bullets.
*Anybody local, please do not trumpet that because this festival raises money for charity, it somehow means that it’s alright for it to be run badly. We all like charity. Charity is good. Charity being good and the fest organization being bad are mutually exclusive things.
Things Not to Do at Your Beer Festival
— Beer tickets instead of flat-rate admission
Let’s start with the method of distribution–tickets. I’ve never been a fan of the “tickets for samples” method of beer fest brew distribution, for a number of reasons. For one, it makes you decide before you even start drinking what you’re going to have to consume throughout, so you’ll know how many tickets to buy. It slows down the tasting lines as volunteers have to collect exact numbers of tickets (1 to 3 tickets at this fest) for each beer. Half the booths are staffed by people who don’t even know how many tickets to charge, or just ignore the number. People lose their tickets. At Bruegala, this was the first-ever year where actual, raffle-style tickets were replaced by what was essentially a business card that would receive hole-punches. This worked fine—except for all the people handing beer-soaked, disintegrating cards to the volunteers handing out samples, who then proceeded to mangle them at random with hole-punchers.
Most importantly, however, this method of charging people for samples hurts the very purpose of a beer festival in the first place–the fest is supposed to be a place where you are not afraid to TRY NEW BEERS. With the ticket method, people look down at their list and say “Hmmm, well, that beer I’ve never heard of before is charging 3 tickets for a sample, is it really worth that $1.50 if I don’t know I’m going to like it? I could just spend my tickets on that other thing I’ve had before.”
It’s for this reason that all of the best and biggest beer festivals in the country simply charge a flat fee–pay your $25-50, get your sampling glass and try whatever you want, without fear of “maybe I won’t like this.” It’s more efficient in every way–the only excuse I could accept is if Illinois has some sort of law on the books outlawing “unlimited drinking” in any form, which honestly wouldn’t surprise me. The ironic thing with that argument is that tickets ultimately force greater consumption, because you don’t want to leave until you’ve spent every ticket, even when you don’t really want to drink any more. Trust me on that one–many has been the time I’m ready to leave, but I’m standing there with 10 tickets left.
— Not having the beers you advertise having
There is NO excuse, however, for some of the other offenses, chief among them being not having the beers that you claim you have on the beer list you’re distributing to people at the front door. To elaborate, when I walked in and scanned the beer list, here’s what I saw: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Bourbon County Coffee, and Bourbon County Vanilla. Immediately, I was incredulous. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Do they really have Bourbon County Coffee here? Because these people do not seem nearly competent enough to have that on hand, as it would take actual organization other than a trip to the local package store here to achieve.”
Sure enough, when I walked over, the guy manning the Goose Island table informed me that no, they didn’t have those beers. It was the same story at plenty of other tables as well, and not even just with with the rare stuff—North Coast had no Le Merle, Stone had no Sublimely Self Righteous, etc. I’m sure there were plenty missing that I didn’t even see. One entire table of homebrewers listed on the program weren’t even in attendance–I presume they were only attending the Saturday session, or perhaps they just heard that the Bourbon County was MIA and decided not to show. Everyone I talked to at the fest about this agreed with me that this is basically the beer equivalent of a bait-and-switch. Why list it if you don’t have it? When were these lists printed up?
— HAVING beers that you DON’T advertise having
Incredibly, other tables had the exact opposite problem at the same time, stocking bunches of beers that didn’t appear anywhere on the program. Sierra Nevada, for instance, had its Ovila Abbey Dubbel and Estate beers on hand without any mention of them in the program. Therefore, all the people scanning the beer list to find which brews were worth their time (which you had to do because of the ticket system) likely would pass that table right by…especially because Sierra Nevada was sharing space with “Twisted Tea”. Honestly, why else would you stop there? No alehead at a beer festival where he/she is paying for tickets is going to use one of those tickets on a sample of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, however much we like it.
Between this and the previous bullet, just how and when were these lists constructed? A month ahead of time, based on “What we would really like to be able to get” for the festival? Is this a wish list?
— A staff that has no clue how much to charge
I will be fair–the organizers explained to us initially exactly how the sampling was supposed to work. With that said, you probably need to make sure people actually do things that way throughout the festival, because people are idiots. Every other table I visited had a different, arcane way of charging for beers. At one table for instance, the math had become completely screwy–they were charging 2 tickets for a full taste, and simultaneously giving out two half-tastes (equaling one full taster glass) for 1 ticket. So essentially, they were giving out twice as much beer, as long as you drank it 2 oz at a time instead of 4 oz. So let that be a lesson to you–buying in bulk doesn’t always pay, at least when someone who can’t multiply is in charge.
— Impractical, time-sink tables
There was one homebrewer’s table in particular that was a good idea, but very poorly executed. It had 11 beers on hand, but due to the low sample price compared to other tables and having only one person serving, it built quite a line. As in, it took about 15 minutes to get a sample–one sample–of the 11 beers. Then, because there were other people behind you who had been waiting 15 minutes of their own, you had to clear off. Better get back in line if you want a sample of a different beer! At 15 minutes per sample and 11 beers, that’s only…3 hours to try them all, at only one table of 35 tables at the fest. EFFICIENCY! For reference, that’s over half the time the festival grounds are open in a day.
And here’s the kicker–the one beer I had from that homebrewer’s table was one of the best things I had at the fest. I wasn’t able to try any more, however, because I didn’t have time to keep waiting in line over and over.
— No water. Not for drinking*, not for glass-washing
This is the first beer fest I’ve ever intended without some kind of water distribution system. Most just have a table of free water for people to stay hydrated. Likewise, there was no way to rinse out your glass between samples—there wasn’t even any way to dispose of a sample you didn’t want to drink! I made the mistake of getting a strong Rogue beer that I didn’t care for whatsoever, and ultimately ended up taking it to the bathroom to dump out in a sink (should have picked the urinal) due to the fact that there was simply nowhere else I could take it. To remind you of something from earlier: This festival has been operating for TWELVE YEARS. How could someone not have suggested “water–for drinking and washing!” at one of the planning sessions in 12 years of festivals? Does that not seem impossible to you? I cannot be the only one thinking of these things.
*They were selling water outside the festival grounds, if you think that’s better.
That’s all, folks. I hope this has been helpful to anyone out there planning their very own beer fest. I feel quite certain that this will all be taken the wrong way, most likely as Kid Carboy Jr. picking on some poor, defenseless festival that was just trying to raise a little money for a good cause. “Hey man, shut up and drink the beer, and if you don’t like it, you can GIT OUT!”, the commenters will surely say, refreshing their browsers to their Sarah Palin homepage in disgust.
But why shouldn’t these things aspire to be better? Simple guidelines like “don’t tell people you have beer you don’t have” or “give drunk people some water” are not that difficult to follow. Are you really going to argue that either of those things are bad ideas? If so, I welcome your contrary, possibly deranged, perspective on this matter.
EDIT: I should have mentioned that this is not meant to be some kind of claim on “worst beer festival” or anything of that nature. I know that there are many that are much, much worse. Consider this simply a listing of the typical pitfalls that you run into at these events—you’ve probably seen some yourself. What offenses have you seen at your own local beer fests?