Disclaimer: I do not know how to keep everybody happy at a beer festival. If I did, I would be sitting in my Bishopscourt mansion counting my festival dollars and hiring a secretary to field all the tweets, email and phone calls from adoring brewers and festival-goers. So what do I mean by keeping everybody happy? I mean that at the end of the day/weekend, the brewer goes home with a few more rand than he started out with, the festival-goer feels sad to go to work on Monday morning because the festival was so awesome and the organiser has a Facebook page full of happy comments and a bank balance that’s in the black.
Some festivals get public acclaim for their low entry fees and abundance of free tasters, but brewers leave with a (hopefully non-literal) bad taste in their mouths. Others leave brewers and organisers rubbing their hands but leave customers wondering where their wages went. It’s been said that the current model of SA beerfests isn’t working and I’d love to hear what you think.
Those of you who avidly follow the South African beer scene might have spotted other posts on the topic of beer festivals lately. Matthew Hurst kicked off a couple of weeks back with this piece on his blog, then Ivor Swartz followed up with a controversial post that got a lot of attention. Ivor received heavy criticism from festival organisers, but to be fair, he was simply voicing irks that I’ve heard countless people mumble (not necessarily about those specific events, but about beer festivals in general). After the initial Facebook conversation that got everyone grumbling about festivals, the three of us decided to each write a post airing some concerns, ideas, likes and irritations when it comes to the beer festival culture that has exploded in recent years. I’m going to try and work out the perfect formula for a perfect beer festival.
– You might also want to read Are there too many beerfests in South Africa? –
These guys take a lot of flack at the fests. No, the events aren’t always flawless; yes, there is always someone who’s going to be unhappy but before we get into what can and does go wrong, let’s clear a few things up. Festival organisers are not paying their kids’ school fees with the proceeds from their events. If they’re lucky, they do make enough profit for a nice relaxing beach break and a couple of good beers. I’ve often heard festival organisers insist that year-after-year they make a loss and I must be honest, I have always been a little sceptical of this. “We do it out of sheer passion for the beer”, they say and to some extent I can understand this. I spend an unhealthy amount of hours each month in beer-related endeavours that don’t bring in any cash. But then there is a difference between writing blog posts or hosting beer pairing lunches and organising an annual beerfest.
Putting on a beer festival is a colossal amount of work and if you’re going to end up with a little less rand in the bank than when you started, why keep doing it? Of course, I’m sure those that are lucky to break even would admit that they don’t do it just for the love of it. I don’t write my blog and host my tasting just for the love of beer. I love beer and I love writing. But I live in hope that someday someone will say “hey Lucy – thanks for your efforts, please let us give you a whopping great sponsorship deal so you can put your son through private school just from writing your blog”.
I digress. As I say, I’m not sure that the organisers are making a loss, but at the same time I’m fairly sure they’re not diving into piles of cash at the end of their respective events. As consumers, what we see is the takings – the entrance fee, the monies charged to brewers for a stand, the percentage (in many cases) of the brewers’ takings. These guys are making a killing, it seems. But consider the costs. As well as marketing and signage you have to think about fences and cleaners and toilets and door staff and security; think about the event licence, the stage, the bands, the tent. Those tents that you shelter under could set the organiser back anything from R10,000 to a whopping R130,000 (organisers – correct me if my research is wrong). From assisting with the SouthYeasters summer festival, I know that a toilet. A single toilet can set you back almost R4000. And I’m fairly sure Twitter would explode if a festival decided to save cash by only renting a single toilet…
Yep, organising a festival takes a lot of money and a lot of time. One organiser reported a profit of around R5000 following what he estimated as around 450 hours of work for him and his team. Work that out as an hourly rate and you’d be better off as a car guard.
So what can festival organisers do to help keep the rest of us happy? First of all, don’t overcharge. Entrance fees are now reaching, or in some cases have reached the R150 mark. As Ivor pointed out in his post, once you’ve paid the entrance fee and the Uber there and back, you’ve forked our R300 without having a single sip of beer. In an age when many people can find a bar or restaurant with a few dozen beers on the menu, you have to give someone a great reason to pay that kind of cash just to get through the door. If you can’t do it for any less, consider cutting your costs. As one brewer put it, “find a location that doesn’t require a fancy tent. We don’t really care where they are as long as the beer tastes good.” A fine example of this is the Woodstock Autumn Beer Festival, where entrance was just R50. The festival was in a shopping centre, the free cup at the entrance was plastic and the band played short sets on a simple stage.
Just as important is to not oversell the event. Don’t imply that you can “taste over 200 beers” if tasting them involves a fee. Be honest with what the entrance fee includes – tell us if tasters are included or if they’re not, whether we get a plastic cup, a branded glass or no glass at all. The grumbles begin when people’s expectations are not met, so just let us know what we’re getting and we promise to try and keep our gripes off social media…
There is always a debate on what the point of a beer festival is for a brewer. Is it a marketing opportunity or is it a money-maker? I’ve been told time and time again that when it comes to wine events, exhibitors can expect to lose money, that it’s all about marketing and getting the name out there. Then someone made the point that expecting a brewer to exhibit for marketing is like expecting a writer to write “for exposure”. If you’ve ever worked at a beer festival, you’ll know it’s hard work. On your feet for a solid eight hours, giving the same spiel what seems like 5000 times in a row, dealing with increasingly drunk people, watching everyone have fun while you’re working. It ain’t a picnic, so why should anyone expect them to walk away without making a profit at the end of the fest?
That said, brewers shouldn’t treat the festivals solely as a money-maker. Perhaps that was possible when there were just 50 breweries around the country, but as the number rapidly approaches 200, marketing becomes more important. A festival is a great chance to get your brand into the hands of a wider public and hopefully they’ll remember you at the end and seek out your beers in bars and stores.
So what can a brewer do to keep us happy at beer festivals? For a start, they can offer tastings. I totally agree with Matthew when it comes to tasters. I’ve never been to a beer festival where full pints were the only option, but I have to say that would suck. But I don’t expect brewers to give away their beer for free. Have a standard tasting fee so those who are here for the beers can taste it all. Make it worth your while to sell tasters and try not to be too annoyed if people just want to taste. I know pouring a full pint is preferable, but I know very few people – OK, nobody – who is going to walk around a festival drinking 200 pints over a weekend. I know many people however, who want to taste everything that is on offer and are very happy to pay for the privilege.
Brew something special. I can get your core range of four in my local Tops, so give me a reason to pay the entry fee and to visit your stand. And brew something good. Don’t try and bullshit festival-goers by selling that sour screw-up as a Berliner Weisse or insisting that your Irish Red Ale is “an acquired taste” when what you mean is “it’s a chlorophenolic mess that I wouldn’t dream of drinking myself but am happy to sell to less beer-savvy souls at a festival”. Peddling bad beer at a festival is a sure-fire way to damage the industry for all of us. And sell us glasses. I think Woodstock again had it right when they gave a plastic cup on entrance. Those who don’t mind drinking beer from plastic can spend the extra cash (the cash they saved on the entrance fee because the organiser saved on branded pint mugs and passed that saving on to the consumer) on an other pint. Those who shudder at the idea of sipping from a plastic cup can support their favourite brewery by buying a branded pint or taster glass.
Oh yeah, and if you’re going to hire hot girls to pour your beer, please make sure to teach them what they’re pouring. (This goes for staff in general of course, but there has been a bit of a trend of trying to sell more beers by having someone pretty and with big boobs pouring them).
It’s not just up to the organiser to keep the brewer happy or the brewer to keep the punters happy. We can also do our bit. Here’s a top tip to get you started: Craft beer festivals are not all-you-can-drink piss-ups. I’ve actually heard people ask whether their R80/100/120 entrance includes all the beer and all the food they want inside. Really? If that thought even occurs to you, you probably shouldn’t be anywhere near a beer fest. Even at events where all tasters are included, like CTFoB, the idea is not to go from stand to stand and taste every single beer on show, leaving drunk and without spending anything except your entry fee. Sadly, I’ve seen plenty of people doing exactly this and it’s ruining the festival. The brewers get increasingly pissed off and some don’t come back. I really hope a pay-to-taste policy is introduced this year having heard many stories of brewers giving away numerous kegs of beer over the weekend to drunk folk who have no idea what it is that they’re sampling.
Remember that the brewers are paying to be there (anything from R1000 to R3000 per day) and are paying their staff and possibly closing their tap rooms. They do this because they want to make a bit of cash but also because they want to meet the people drinking their beer. As Chris Spurdens from Apollo says, “For me, a festival has to be a balance between making some money, marketing our brand, and enjoying ourselves with patrons.” So ask questions, show an interest. OK, when the stands get busy it’s tough to talk to the brewers but if you can, ask them something about their beers. These guys are passionate about their brews and would love to tell you a little something about the process. And please, please don’t ever utter the words “what do you have that tastes most like Castle Lite?” If you do, you’ll hopefully receive the response I once witnessed – a brewer handing over a pint of water.
Passionate people and bandwagon-jumpers
If you’re still reading, thank you – I promise I’m almost done. Let it be said that there are some great festivals in South Africa, generally run by people passionate about beer. There are also a lot of bandwagon-jumpers whose goal is just to make money without caring whether the drinkers or the brewers are happy. If you’re in any doubt, take a look at this post regarding a dodgy festival. On the whole I have had some of my best days in South Africa at beer festivals. I love the annual pilgrimage to Clarens, perhaps my favourite weekend of the year is CTFoB, I found Jozi Craft to be an extremely well-organised festival and I applaud the team behind Woodstock Autumn Beer Fest for seemingly keeping everyone pretty damn happy. (I can’t speak for SA on Tap as I’ve never attended)
What I would love to see – and I think I’ve said this before – is a beer festival that is really all about the beer. Taster glasses, booklets to fill out tasting notes, live music replaced by background tunes (I get pretty irritated by music blaring so loud I can’t hear the brewer telling me how many IBUs are in my IPA), a smaller but more passionate crowd who are just about the beer. I think the closest we have in Cape Town is the SouthYeasters fest (Again, I’ve never been to the Worthogs event so can’t comment).
Our beer industry is young and has shown impressive growth in the past six years. We haven’t got everything right, but hopefully we’re heading in the right direction – let’s see the bandwagon-jumpers fall away and the passionate people – be they brewers, bar owners or festival organisers – rise and thrive.
Over to you – what irks you about festivals and what do you love? What can we all do to improve the model? Which festivals really hit the spot for you and which could use a little work?