Reading article after article about the potential demise of the beer festival has got me thinking, and I have decided that it’s not all doom and gloom.
Yes, the pandemic spelled the end of some beer festivals, but in the years before COVID arrived on the scene, there was already festival fatigue among brewers.
I count myself lucky to have lived through the heyday of craft beer, having gone to college in the late 1990s, with one of the best (in my illustrious opinion) small-town breweries around, Boundary Bay Brewery, as my local hangout.
I moved to Colorado in 1999 and started writing about beer festivals in the mid-2000s. The industry was growing at a rate that was exciting and the craft beer festival scene was booming. These were the days when brewers were at festivals pouring their own beer for the patrons, and chatting about their craft. Educational seminars were a big part of beer festivals like the Fall Back Beer Festival where I attended a workshop on glassware and how to taste beer, and Front Range Rally, where seminars were central to the VIP experience.
The love of the craft was real. It was palpable. And it grew and grew.
It seemed every town and organization were clamoring to put their location or nonprofit on the map by throwing a beer festival, and soon, on any given weekend in the Denver area, there were at least three craft beer events happening. There were so many breweries and so many festivals that I couldn’t keep up. And brewers couldn’t either.
Ryan has been my partner at almost every beer festival over the years, and around 2018, we had begun to notice only flagship beers being poured at festivals, and often the people pouring the beer know nothing about it. At this point, we had been to a lot of breweries and a lot of festivals. The last thing we wanted was a taste of a flagship beer that we’ve already had many, many times.
Prior to the pandemic, brewers were getting selective about which festivals they’d attend. They started to put a lot of emphasis put on the type of treatment they and their staff received from festival organizers. Were they fed? Was fresh ice provided throughout the day? Did kegs have to be schlepped in the heat for multiple city blocks or was onsite parking provided for brewers and their loads? How much were the organizers willing to pay for kegs? And so on and so forth.
Then, of course, the pandemic shut down all festivals for a year in most of Colorado, and some never came back. The loss has been sad for many of us longtime craft beer lovers.
So, are we coming to the end of the craft beer era? I say no.
First of all, breweries are going to have to adapt, and for the most part, they have. The pandemic brought about some changes that were already looming on the horizon. We aren’t going to return to the heyday of beer festivals in Colorado, but there is a way for them to continue and even thrive.
The days of really big festivals may be gone, and that is disheartening. After all, I write about and attend these functions and I love a great big beer festival. But I don’t love what I’ve seen happening. I don’t love the lack of knowledge on the part of beer pourers at festivals and I do not like seeing rows of flagship beers on tap.
Even before the pandemic, we were starting to see smaller festivals that focused on one particular style. An IPA Fest at a local brewpub, for instance. One that I thought was particularly excellent was the Belgian Brew Fest at Bruz Beers in June. We attended last summer. Dozens of breweries set up tents and poured an amazing array of Belgian beers. And the brewers didn’t hold back. They brought good stuff, pouring specific beers at particular times until they ran out.
The fest was like the olden days of beer festivals, except the selection was somewhat smaller. But that was okay. The sun was shining, bands played happy tunes, we went with friends, and for the most part, brewers were there to talk about the beer they were pouring.
I think these focused beer events are educational by nature, teaching us the different nuances of tastes and aromas that can occur in a single style of beer. These festivals are also small enough to not feel overwhelming or to become a drunk fest. They also don’t have to be held at a conference center hotel.
A destination beer festival is also a way to experience the exhilaration of a festival while being in a different environment physically. Attending this kind of event needs to be planned for and perhaps incorporated into a person’s or group’s overall vacation.
Two beer festivals immediately come to mind: Winter Park Brew Fest (currently a HeidiTown client and formerly Winter Park Beer Festival) and San Juan Brewfest in Durango (a past HeidiTown client). Both events are an excellent reason for those of us who live on the Front Range to spend a weekend (or vacation) in a scenic and entertaining destination. Also, as a plug for the San Juan Brewfest, because of the southwest Colorado location, they tend to pull in some breweries that are often new to Front Range craft beer connoisseurs.
The Winter Park Brew Fest supports the Grand Foundation’s G.A.P. Fund. A fund that provides financial assistance to full-time resident Grand County youth. If a festival supports a local nonprofit, it’s an excellent cause for a local resident to show up and support.
Local support is especially important for these mountain beer festivals that look to bring in tourists, too. A beer festival supports the local economy—I not only attend the festival, but as a tourist, I spend the night in the area’s lodging, and spend money on dinner and breakfast. Perhaps I spend two nights and rent a bike from a local outfitter or shop at the local farmers market. Festival buy-in from residents is essential for long-term success.
I also think the formula for a winning beer festival combines beer with something else. For Keystone, it’s their Bluegrass and Beer Festival that’s been happening since 1996. (They are also a longtime HeidiTown client). It’s a beer festival, but 12 bluegrass bands take the stage at this event. Music and beer—that’s a winning combination.
More of this type of collaboration is needed. While we’ve already seen music at almost every beer festival, how about another sort of partnership? I recently heard of a brewery doing an anniversary party with a circus theme. Not a beer festival but it caught my eye because it was unique. Some thought needs to be put towards distinctive and memorable beer festival collaborations.
Education has been a big part of beer festivals in the past, but it has gone away, and I miss it. Do we know everything there is to know about craft beer now? Absolutely not, but I think the learning aspect of craft beer started disappearing from festivals even before the pandemic. If someone could figure out how to incorporate an educational yet entertaining aspect of beer, I believe this would work towards making a beer festival stand out.
I could probably write about 1000 words on this topic, but I will wrap this up. The fact is, smaller festivals can be fun, educational and cost less. A beer festival in a destination can absolutely be worth the trip because suddenly the weekend is about more than just the festival. Those destination beer festivals work best when there’s buy-in from the residents. And, collaborations beyond music must be explored. I’d also like to see the educational part of craft beer brought back to the festival scene.
The celebration of the craft is still alive, it’s just harder to find. And palates are changing—even the Great American Beer Festival is now allowing breweries to bring along a hard seltzer for patrons to taste. Yes, it hurts my heart too, but that’s the reality.
Beer festivals will change and are changing, however, they need not go away. They can still work. It’s imperative that those of us who love the industry of beer and have enjoyed many past beer festivals put some positivity out into the universe.
I, for one, cannot live in a world without beer festivals. That would be a sad, sad summer.