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Industry Report: Beer Festival Burnout?

by Angela Rose on October 31, 2017, 07:52 am MDT

As the number of festivals continues to surge, how do Colorado brewers choose? And how do organizers offer a worthy experience?

Need something to do any given weekend in Colorado? You're in luck: There's probably a beer festival going on somewhere near you.

While the Internet lacks a definitive resource for cataloging every possible opportunity for knocking back mini-servings of suds en masse, a recent visit to Beerfests.com -- which provides event listings nationwide -- revealed 81 beer-centric festivals in the Centennial State thus far in 2017. Add in the virtually countless other organized gatherings that include a beer tent or two and it's easy to see why many brewers -- and more than a few craft-loving consumers -- are suffering from festival fatigue.

To get a feel for how the industry is dealing with this all-you-can-eat buffet of fêtes, CompanyWeek checked in with a range of Colorado brewers and a few organizers who are striving to produce unique experiences for consumers and beer crafters alike.

Size and cost matter, but different is better

Big Choice Brewing, which recently made a move from Broomfield to Brighton, participates in an average of two to three festivals a month according to Andrea Miller, co-owner and events and community director. When choosing where to invest the brewery's product and time, Miller considers whether the festival benefits the local community, if they pay for the beer or ask for donations, how well run they are, and how many other breweries are participating.

"A lot of festivals cost us more than we'll ever see back in the tasting room and therefore limit the number we can participate in," she says. "When organizers promise just a great marketing opportunity for the brewery, that actually makes [their festival] less enticing. And the ones that have grown to become so large that you end up just being a number are not worth our time, effort, and money. You get lost, and it definitely does not help our bottom line."

Leslie Kaczeus, co-founder of Bootstrap Brewing Company in Niwot and Longmont, agrees that large festivals are less attractive than smaller gatherings. "I definitely prefer smaller events as we reach more people. There are only so many samples that an individual can ingest in a few hours, so they have to be selective."

Bootstrap participated in 13 festivals in 2017 and made those selections based on access to new consumers, recommendations from distribution partners, and whether one of their wholesale customers coordinated the event. They also looked for festivals that were offering a unique experience. "Does it have a unique component that makes it super fun to attend?" Kaczeus asks. "We also tend to skip festivals requiring multiple day commitments and extremely long hours."

An event that offers more than just tents in a parking lot is important to the team at Verboten Brewing and Barrel Project in Loveland as well when selecting the 25 to 30 events they participate in each year. "We definitely tend to pay more attention to the well-organized and unique festivals, like BrüFrou, and the large festivals that draw in craft beer drinkers, like GABF and Big Beers," says Angie Grenz, co-owner and marketing director. "We enjoy several of Left Hand's festivals as well; they are fun and quirky, so it's a good time for everyone."

Other factors Grenz considers include festivals that support worthy causes, offer exposure to new markets or audiences that fall within Verboten's target growth areas, and offer wholesale or near-wholesale compensation for the brewery's beer.

"Our ownership team loves to work festivals, but it is easy to experience burnout when there are so many back-to-back in the summer," Grenz says. "We utilize all of our staff to help out, as well, but it can be costly to try and pay staff to work festivals where we make little or no money. We give away thousands of dollars in craft beer, marketing materials, and man hours each year and we are a small brewery."

Compensation also factors into the choices of Mockery Brewing in Denver, which participates in an average of 30 to 40 festivals each year.  "With such a gluttony of festivals in Denver, it was initially hard for us to get a feel for which festivals are most worthwhile and beneficial for us and our community," says Zach Rabun, the brewery's founder. "It is great to see the really successful and deserving festivals grow, however, there are too many new ones popping up trying to capitalize on the sheer number of breweries trying to market themselves."

Rabun says most of the less-reputable festivals he has encountered ask for donations of beer and staff only to benefit the promotion company. "We aren't working to benefit another company," he adds. "They can still be successful and profitable and afford to pay wholesale prices on kegs. Hopefully, enough breweries will realize that without our product these festivals can't continue to abuse a crowded marketplace and make them pay for our product and time."

Rabun is quick to note, "There is always more room for festivals that only seek to better our community through charitable donations. We donate thousands of dollars' worth of beer each year to help benefit charities and groups in our community. I'm sure that isn't helping the bottom line, but some losses are worth every penny."

Tim Myers, founder and head brewer at Strange Craft Beer Company in Denver, also ranks community impact high on the list of important beer festival criteria. "We always look at the designated nonprofit," he says. "Strange is very involved in helping nonprofits raise money and awareness, and we want to be sure the beneficiary fits our profile."

Other considerations include the festival's location and the cost to attend. "We are a small operation and have to watch our advertising dollars closely," he adds. "We've started filtering out some of the for-profit fests unless they pay the brewers for their beer." Strange Craft participated in at least 40 festivals this year.

The bookends: Great American Beer Festival and Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines

"Festivals need to differentiate themselves by providing more than just a commercial tasting," Myers says. "Things like seminars, food pairings, and beer dinners create more of an experience than just tasting beers. GABF has done this well with Paired, the American Cheese Society table, Heavy Medal, and the Meet the Brewers sections, and educational seminars during the fest."

Organized by the Brewers Association since 1982, the nation's biggest beer festival included over 3,900 beers from more than 800 breweries around the country. Commercial tasting tickets sold out in one day, and 60,000 consumers were in attendance.

"Brewer interest in our festival continues to increase," says Ann Obenchain, marketing director for the Brewers Association. "This year, in particular, we had more demand than we had space. We also had 150 new breweries at the festival. I think that speaks to the continued growth of the small, independent craft brewery."

She notes that the BA continually considers both attendee and brewery feedback when planning the festival's future. "We'll continue to tweak the event as we go, and I'm looking forward to seeing continued diversity among the breweries we have at the festival," she says.

Big Beers -- photo courtesy David Foxhaven

Held in January each year, Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines found its beginnings as a trade show in 2001. "In this case, the trade show was open to the public," says Laura Lodge, the festival's event coordinator. "It was conceived to educate bartenders, buyers, liquor store owners, and employees and also to create demand [for specialty beers] from the public by giving them the opportunity to try these beers a little at a time to see why you'd want to request them at your local liquor store. Its strategy was to create demand through education."

Since its inception, Big Beers has grown from a small afternoon tasting hosted in a Vail bar to a multi-day celebration of craft brewing featuring a commercial tasting, brewers' reception, beer dinners, homebrew competition, workshops, seminars, and many affiliate events in downtown Breckenridge. "Interest has increased exponentially," Lodge says. "I think some of that has to do with the fact that the number of breweries in general has increased exponentially. We're starting to not only see skyrocketing interest throughout Colorado, but more out of state interest as well."

Lodge recognizes the challenge breweries face in selecting festivals to participate in and notes that one of the biggest benefits of attending Big Beers is the opportunity to network with peers. "This is definitely a brewers' festival," she says. "There are so many breweries here that want to talk about brewing, and we have educational opportunities for the brewers themselves. The consumers who come also know more than the Average Joe. They have a plan and specific people they want to speak to and beers they want to try. It's a knowledgeable base of people ranging from homebrewers and industry folk to really serious craft beer aficionados."

Grenz agrees. "Big Beers is a particular favorite [of Verboten's] every year, even though we donate all the beer," she says. "We get to spend part of a week with some of the best brewers in the nation, and there are both education and social events that we enjoy."

Lodge expects to have about 120 breweries represented at the next festival -- scheduled for January 4 through 6, 2018 -- and for commercial tasting tickets to sell out well in advance. While the size of the tasting is unlikely to increase any further, as Beaver Run's conference center has a capacity of 1,900 and room for 128 tables, she does anticipate the festival growing in other ways. "We'll continue to add other events to our weekend, like the affiliate events we created last year in downtown Breckenridge," she says. "We'll also continue to add other events to our main events schedule. But we probably won't increase the size of each individual event very much."

Left Hand has brewers' backs

Many of the brewers we spoke with listed beer festivals organized by Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont -- including Hops + Handrails held each March -- as favorites. These events appear to hit all of the notes, from size and uniqueness to community impact and compensation, that breweries seek when allocating time and resources to festival participation.

Hops and Handrails, photos courtesy Eddie Clark

"We're always striving to create new, inspired events that uphold our town, industry, beer, and peers in a positive, fresh light rather than just another collection of tents in a parking lot," explains Joshua Goldberg, Left Hand's community and events manager. "We think all the time about what we can do to make a different experience from whatever everyone else is doing."

Goldberg says Left Hand has been organizing events for about seven years. While they began hosting fundraising gatherings in their tasting room for disasters such as the Four Mile Canyon fire, they quickly realized that they could do even more to inspire guests to do good.

"We were committed to be an invested member of our community, both Longmont and craft beer, so we decided to keep putting on events," Goldberg recalls. "They grew from our tasting room to our parking lot, and now most are hosted at Roosevelt Park."

Hops + Handrails was conceived as something entirely new in the world of Colorado Beer festivals. "We decided to do a winter festival and that helped us formulate our theme," says Goldberg. "We also wanted to highlight the best that Colorado has to offer. Our belief was that some of the things that Colorado does really well included craft beer and winter sports."

Now looking forward to its sixth year in 2018, the event has grown from a small snowboard ramp in Left Hand's parking lot with 50 riders, 24 breweries, and about 800 consumers in attendance to a much larger beast. "In 2017 we had 70 breweries," Goldberg continues. "We had 18 dump truck loads of snow hauled in. We're bringing in bands that would normally play Red Rocks, the Fillmore, or Boulder Theater. The experience has grown and so, hopefully, if we keep doing things right, the brewery interest will continue to grow as well."

Left Hand never asks participating breweries to donate beer. "When we sat down and said let's do these festivals, one thing that we wanted to make sure we were doing was protecting our industry friends," Goldberg says. "You don't have to go too far to find out that breweries are growing fatigued of being asked to donate beer for events."

So Left Hand set themselves some rules, the first of which was to pay every brewery $100 per keg. "We decided to take it a step further and be even more respectful of the reps," he continues. "If they're coming from greater than 30 or 40 miles away, we offer them a hotel room. We feed them. And we make sure that they feel appreciated while they are at our events. You'll see that whether it's Hops + Handrails, Leftapalooza, Oktoberfest, or Nitrofest. That way folks can really come in and have a positive experience."

He notes that the proceeds donated by Left Hand's events are sizable, but the brewery isn't looking to make a profit. "To date, we're at over $600,000 raised for charity as a result of all these events," he says. "But we're taking a marathon approach, which means we're not trying to get everything for free. We want to make sure that we're taking care of our volunteers, breweries, and bands, and offering a full holistic experience for everyone."

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