With the meteoric rise of craft beer's popularity and availability, there has, naturally, been overwhelming growth in the craft beer festival circuit. For beer lovers, these events, theoretically, should be paradise. On the surface, this should mean more malt-loaded carnivals with rare and nuanced beer (and many different types from a variety of local producers); more like-minded folks eager to dip their tongues into glasses of hoppy wilderness; and, hopefully, more breweries—from well-known big names to local microbreweries—with representatives ready to guide fans to exciting brews. And while partially true, the profusion of craft beer brings big brands with big money. But do these macro "craft" producers deserve a seat at the table?
According to the Brewers Association, an American craft brewer is: "small," or has an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less; "independent," with less than 25 percent of the company owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not a craft brewer; and "traditional," meaning that the majority of total beers produced must have flavors derived from traditional/innovative ingredients or fermentation processes (sorry, no flavored malt beverages allowed). This definition, admittedly, is far-reaching, as it encompasses breweries that nationally distribute their bottles, alongside local players that are just beginning to serve their beers in the taproom.
While beverage titans AB InBev and MillerCoors still dominate the American beer market, since the 1980s—and especially within the past decade—the craft beer community has grown astronomically, also spurring the aforementioned big guys to buy out their craft competition. Per the Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries operating in the United States surpassed 4,000 in the fall of 2015, with little, if any, signs of decline.
In a recent study by Eventbrite, researchers reported an 86 percent growth in the number of beer festivals year over year in 2015, up 59 percent from growth in 2014. Beer Calendar, a website that lists worldwide beer festivals, reported over 1,400 events in 2015, with the majority held in North America. But despite such growth, the question remains: are these newer festivals diving deep into the intricacy and freak show experimentation of the craft beer word? Or are they just aggregating a bunch of well-known "craft" brands and letting people drink the day away?
Are these newer festivals diving deep into the intricacy and experimentation of the craft beer world?
Bryan Roth, a Durham, North Carolina-based All About Beer contributor believes there's a strong dichotomy between true craft beer festivals and events sponsored by major "craft" brands. But he notes, "The idea of the 'beer-in-the-box' festival has been a bit larger in the past, but ... smaller, more intimate ones are becoming commonplace."
When a beer festival is not affiliated with a local brewers’ guild, and rather appears to be an amalgamation of several established and big name craft breweries, it has come to be known, tongue-in-cheekily, as a "beer-in-a-box" festival.
"With beer-in-a-box festivals, there’s one goal—to make money," says Paul Leone, Executive Director of the New York State Brewers Association. "If you look at who's doing them, there are companies coming up and being created to capitalize on the growth of craft beer. It's real easy to get permits for these things, and they’re hugely profitable."
In stark contrast to beer-in-a-box festivals are the micro-scale, niche events that curate barrel-aged saisons, where hop-freaks garb pretzel necklaces as palate cleansers. Such an example is 3 Floyds Brewing Co.’s Dark Lord Day in Munster, Indiana, an event which offers brewery fans one of the most coveted imperial stouts in the craft beer world. For $200, attendees also can taste a variety of high-ABV beers, and engage in in-the-know activities afterwards, like bottle swapping.
"There are obviously some beer geeky events out there, events that are trying to draw in people by having rare beers or beers that you really have to know about the brewer to even appreciate that it [the beer] is so rare," says Alessandro Vazquez, the founder of Brew Avenue Events, a Craft Beer Festival consulting and production company based in Illinois. Small-scale, independently-run festivals often times help introduce local residents to breweries that they didn’t know were within driving distance. For example, the Vlamis Craft Beer Festival in Elkton, Maryland offers patrons a three hour beer tasting for $25. According to organizer Anthony Vlamis II, there's an emphasis on less-known breweries, with a third of them sourced from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region.
"It’s an eye opener to some people, and it’s a good way for people to try beer they like or don’t," he states. "Everyone’s able to find one they like." At the tasting, small-scale and local breweries will go pour-to-pour with well-known "macro-craft" breweries like Stone and Evil Twin, but Vlamis suggests that the little guys do as well, if not better, than their larger, more commercially adept competition.
"With beer-in-a-box festivals, there’s one goal—to make money."
Alongside smaller, intimate gatherings, larger beer festivals affiliated with a region's brewers guild (a non-profit organization linked with the Brewer's Association) carry a similar mindset to the Vlamis tasting of emphasizing good, local beer. According to Amanda Buhman, spokesperson for the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, the organization highlights the local and regional microbrewery scene at its All Pints North Festival in Duluth, Minnesota. She says that the Guild curates its lineup, with an emphasis on a wide range of regional and local brewers, many of which one can only sample at brewery taprooms.
"I think there's a real loyalty to the Minnesota brands," Buhman says, explaining that the Best of Fest Award almost always goes to one of the local breweries. Additionally, approximately 75 percent of the breweries attending the festival are from Minnesota, with the rest mostly comprised of breweries that have attended the festival prior to sharp growth in the state's craft beer scene. Buhman later adds that like other guild-run festivals, the event functions partially as marketing promotion for underrepresented Minnesota-based breweries, as well as a "fundraiser" for the guild in assisting local brewers.
Unlike the über-specialized beer festivals that offer high ABV raspberry bourbon barrel-aged stouts, or a curation of the most tongue puckering sour ales from the region, Paule Leone of the New York State Brewers Association explains that "beer-in-a-box" festivals typically get by with volunteers pouring the beers (rather than brewery representatives who can explain why that bourbon stout tastes like bubblegum). He also mentions that organizers are extremely flexible when selecting participating producers, referring to commonplace breweries and their beers that one is likely to find at the corner store.
Some of these festivals evoke harsh gut-responses from those deeply involved in the craft beer community, like Leone. Others like Dan Silberman, founder of Drink:Eat:Play, a food and drinks events company based in Los Angeles that puts on nationwide beer events, see the benefit of incorporating macro-craft breweries. For him, these beers can serve as a gateway for newcomers, many of whom might be scared off by phrases like dry-hopped or gose.
"We don’t appeal just to craft beer geeks because we’re not gonna get the kind of beers that you're gonna have at beer week," Silberman says. He adds "we usually ask for them [breweries] to bring a specialty, but for some of them they’re trying to push product so that you'll go to the local bar and ask for a Lagunitas IPA or Sierra Nevada Nooner, which is common, because that’s what one of their goals is: to familiarize attendees with a beer that they can easily find and purchase."
"It's simple economics: macro-craft breweries, in comparison to small-scale microbreweries, have the budget for taking such financial risk."
Roth points out that there are two reasons that often explain the seeming pervasiveness of macro-craft breweries. The first is that, well, it would be weird for them not to be there. Elder statesmen breweries like New Belgium and Anchor helped push the craft beer scene into the mainstream. As such, it is fitting for them to participate in craft beer festivals, both large and small, that celebrate their innovation. The second reason, however, is that there are implicit costs that can make attending a festival fiscally disadvantageous for smaller breweries.
"For some of these festivals, it’s not easy for some of these small breweries to send a couple of kegs and send a couple of people," continues Roth. "This is out of their annual operating budget." He adds that both local microbreweries and larger craft breweries could be using these kegs for their taprooms, where they will make a larger initial profit, instead of hoping the exposure will lead to more patrons of the brewery in the long-run. In terms of numbers, Roth explains that it's simple economics: macro-craft breweries, in comparison to small-scale microbreweries, have the budget for taking such financial risk.
It's not unfathomable for event organizers to conceptualize an intimate, local exposé highlighting local beers, with a handful of staple macrobrews to round out the event, but wind up dealing with the opposite. Rob Precht, founder of the Hot Springs Craft Beer Festival in Hot Springs, Arkansas, explains that when he last put out a blast to local brewers, only a handful from area accepted the invitation.
"Every Arkansas brewery is not just invited—they're recruited," Precht says, admitting that he has driven to brewers in attempts to sway their decision. He adds, "We don't have good participation with Northwest Arkansas brewers because they don't see this as their market, and they're busy, and they prefer to do something else, but I'm still working on them. I call them every year."
Other festival organizers and marketing experts lamented the fact that often, instead of brewery representatives (individuals versed in the brewery's philosophy and style), volunteers will pour the 2 ounce beer samples. And their explanations of beers typically coms from liner notes verbatim.
All experts interviewed for this article concurred that the craft beer market—in particular the craft beer festival market—has become flooded. However, they also agreed that this hoppy wave will subside, leaving behind organizers truly dedicated to the craft movement. "I think the market will take care of itself," Vazquez says confidently. "That’s the natural order of things.