THE (LATEST) TROUBLE WITH BEER FESTIVALS

vip-loungeIn short, it’s a matter of beer segregation, or more accurately, division of the festival attendees into multiple groups: “the masses” and “the VIPs.”

This is something I am noticing more and more often as I visit the websites of beer festivals, especially new festival events. And with the exploding national consciousness of craft beer drinkers, it makes sense that a tiered system would begin to emerge. On one hand, you’ve got the “OGs” of the craft beer world, who have played their part in supporting small, local breweries and turning them into today’s regional players. And on the other hand, you’ve got brand new converts to the fold. There’s going to be some separation–what’s important is how that separation is achieved, particularly from a monetary standpoint.

As such, my beef is not with beer festivals having a separate and more expensive “VIP” ticket that attendees can buy. That’s not it at all. My concern is the question of what kind of content differentiates the VIP tickets from general admission. And my argument is this: None of the beers at a festival should be off-limits to buyers of the basic tickets. It is entirely possible to build a “VIP experience” into your festival that doesn’t involve access to brews that no one else will get a chance to sample.

This is what I’m seeing at too many of the festivals: VIP tickets that give the buyers access to something like a “VIP tent” that has a bunch of rare, one-off beers within. Or in other words, all the beers that the typical beer geek is going to a festival hoping to try, except gathered in one place, away from the masses. Because as we all know, once you’ve achieved a certain level of beer geekery, you attend festivals looking to try mostly new and rare experiences. You’re less likely to stop at the Sierra Nevada table to drink some pale ale. It’s nothing against that wonderful beer, it’s just not why you’re there.

Now, to the well-off beer drinker who doesn’t mind spending twice as much money, this form of segregation may be a great option. But to someone looking to be thrifty, as I almost always am, it’s murder. I would rather wait in a long line to try some funky, barrel-aged offering than add another $30-50 onto my ticket price. And worse, it implies that the tiers of drinkers are separated by the kinds of beers they should be drinking, that those buying general admission are “unworthy” of getting to try that new imperial stout unless they fork over heaps of cash. It’s against the largely inclusive aesthetic that the craft beer industry has so carefully cultivated.

Moreover, it’s just not necessary to only offer certain beers to VIP ticket buyers. Those beer geeks who are most passionate about trying specific releases will make sure they’re early in line when a festival does staggered releases of those brews. Festivals like the Great Taste of the Midwest have grown huge on this concept–drinkers prioritize what they want to try and make it happen. There are no “special tickets” for those who can afford to be the “real” craft beer fans.

And as I said before, I’m not against VIP perks for people who do want to shell out cash. Just give them perks other than beers not available to the rest of the attendees. There are plenty of options:

— Early admittance. You can let VIP ticket holders into the event earlier than everyone else to get a head start on tasting. As long as the people coming in later have access to the same product, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

— Give them a VIP area. Give them someplace they can sit down and congregate off the main floor. If it’s outside, give them a shaded tent.

— Give them food. This one is obvious. Where the general attendance people can buy food from vendors, give the VIPs a catered buffet in their own area.

— Give them a beer experience. Panels with brewers and brewery owners are a great perk for VIP ticket holders.

— Give them festival swag. Tee shirts, glasses, that kind of thing.

There are plenty of ways to entice VIP buyers that don’t include withholding all the “rare or limited” beer from regular festival attendees. As one of those attendees, all I ask a festival to do is give me the chance to sample all the beers when I buy a ticket. Don’t render the purchase of a regular ticket effectively meaningless by putting the “good stuff” in a separate tier that I have to buy to feel like I’m actually participating. It’s just not necessary.

carboy

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9 comments

  1. Well said and I whole heartedly agree

  2. Most of the people I’ve come into contact at festivals who have VIP tickets aren’t nearly as passionate about beer as Average Joe Festvialgoer. They know there’s a variety of beer in the world, but the sheer fact they can afford the extra money allows them to have beers they’ll like but won’t appreciate like others might.

    The best festival I’ve been to in regard to VIP tickets was an event in Milwaukee last summer. VIP tickets were only about $10 more – a steal – and allowed VIPers to try four cask beers and have some pretzels. There was also some shaded seating in the VIP area and a chance to talk with brewers. The area seemed to be fairly packed the whole time, which I liked.

  3. Unfortunately most of these festivals are put on to make a profit, not to promote or evangelize craft beer to the uninitiated. So more expensive VIP tickets aren’t going anywhere. If you let the VIP folks in first, aren’t they just going to drink the rare beer first anyway?

    1. Well yeah, naturally. I said that with the expectation that there would be enough on hand that the VIPs weren’t going to drink their way through it in the hour or 1.5 hour head start that they’re getting.

  4. Agree for the most part with your points. I think everyone who attends with a “basic” or “standard” admission ticket should have the opportunity to sample anything they like. Frankly, many of those who are there for the “wrong reasons” (i.e. frat party mentality/as much beer for the buck as possible) won’t be interested or patient enough to wait on a long line for the truly special one-offs or more esoteric sours – that’s not why they’re there).

    That said, a VIP experience for me would focus on access to the brewers and others on the craft beer industry including the writers. I was fortunate to be early enough to the inaugural AC Beerfest several years ago and that allowed me some time to chat with Sam Calgione. Soon enough, the floor was filled with a rowdy and decidedly less “academically” interested clientele.

    Anyway, that’s my two pours.

    Cheers!

    1. I agree with you completely. I just like having the option to buy that VIP ticket if I want to see the guests/brewers, but not worry about missing any of the more esoteric stuff if I’m only getting the regular ticket.

  5. I don’t even go to LA beer fests any more, as the ones here seem to have lost focus. Rather than focusing on special or unique beers, you get 50 booths pouring beers you can get anywhere (including macro lagers) and crowds that aren’t there for the beer, but rather the opportunity to get blacked out drunk at noon on a Saturday, however that may happen. Plus, the actual brewers don’t show up, instead you get the sales reps, who often times can’t tell you the first thing about what they are pouring, or aspiring actors doing their weekend gig, who can’t tell you the first thing about what they are pouring. I’d much rather go to a brewery, do a flight and speak to the folks who make the stuff and avoid the hoi polloi.

  6. Beer festivals are the new Fun Run.

  7. I’ve attended a few festivals where the VIP tickets only offered two things: early admission and “VIP” beers. But the VIP beers weren’t special. The breweries simply offered one of their seasonals or something they put in 750’s instead of regular bottles, or in some cases just something that had higher alcohol than their flagship beer(s). At both events, there was literally nothing I hadn’t already had or couldn’t get. Granted, in my area, craft beer is still a bit of a fad as opposed to part of the culture, but maybe it’ll catch on over time. I got free passes though, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

    VIP tickets should definitely include more than just early admission and possibly-not-even-that-special beers. Food is my #1. Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore holds spring and fall real ale festivals, and their VIP tickets have included a decent buffet of food, not to mention the early admission, plus panels with brewers, and sometimes even a t-shirt. The very fact that it’s a real ale festival also cuts down on the Joe Schmo’s. Festivals and events dedicated exclusively to styles and types of beer help keep things exclusive and interested (I know there are a couple barley wine festivals that are popular as well).

    My absolute favorite festival to go to is Brewvival in Charleston, South Carolina. It has been held every February for the past 4 years (2014 will be it’s 5th year). Co-sponsored by two local companies, one a brewery (Coast) and the other a retailer (Charleston Beer Exchange), the beers that the attending breweries bring are purchased by the Beer Exchange and they are encouraged (more like required) to bring stuff that is rare or even brewed or aged in some way exclusively for Brewvival. Plus, way more brewers come to work their stands because it’s a chance for them to meet up with other brewers and of course, try beers they may not have had the chance to otherwise. After growing to over 2500 attendees with a ticket price of $50, for 2013 they cut the attendees to 1800 and increased the price to $75 to keep it more exclusive to dedicated craft beer people. Steep for some, but for someone like me who knows what to expect, it’s more than worth it. It’s a great model and I hope it’s being done elsewhere.

    In the end, the biggest problem with the average beer festival is that, VIP or not, most attendees don’t have a 24/7 interest in craft beer. There’s good beer, they’ll try it, but really they’ll just go to hang out with friends and get sloshed on a Saturday afternoon and only have to pay $40-50 for it.

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