A couple of months ago I was at the Jo’burg Festival of Beer. It was the Sunday session and I loved it – both from a beer geek point of view and from a ‘mum wth a baby at a beerfest’ point of view. It was chilled, it was quiet, it was easy to get a seat and it was easy to chat to brewers about their beer. It was not, most likely, a great festival for the brewers to be at. And it got me thinking.
I moved to South Africa in 2010. I was at the inaugural Cape Town Festival of Beer. I went to the first Bierfest, to the early We Love Real Beer events (remember those?!?) and I remember how exciting it was when you heard that there was a beerfest coming up. I recall how gutted we were when we found out that we’d missed the first ever Clarens Craft Beer Festival, how glad we were that there would be a second and how quickly we booked our flights and accommodation to that second festival.
Fast forward four years and there are so many festivals I can’t even keep track of them. On many weekends you actually have to decide between the numerous events taking place in your very city. The beer festivals sticky post on my blog is my second all-time most popular post, so there is clearly still a lot of interest, but at the same time, as we saw at JHBFoB, numbers of festival attendees are dwindling.
Is it just that there are too many festivals? Or is it more that the festivals are essentially all the same? Think about the last few events that you went to. Were there beer stands lining the outer perimeter? Were there food trucks? Someone selling pulled pork on a bun? Live bands on stage? A free branded glass to sip from?
I’m not criticising the model – I’ve had a lot of fun at a lot of fests over the last few years. But as a beer geek I want something else. I want a festival just for the beer geeks. A festival that’s all about the beer, a festival that gives tasting glasses rather than pint mugs and that offers more than the usual range of beers I can get at my local…(OK, so I got this at the 2014 SouthYeasters fest – and I want more!).
Of course, I’m a little spoilt since my local is Banana Jam, where there are 28 craft beers on tap at any one time. But still, I think part of the reason that the festivals are becoming a little overlooked is that craft beer is everywhere. A few years ago, the idea of having anything close to 100 different beers to taste in one place was exciting enough to have you paying R100 for without thinking twice. Today though, you can get 99 bottled beers at Beerhouse, you can find a dozen bars in your city each with a dozen taps. The craft beer scene in South Africa has evolved – but it seems that the festivals have failed to evolve at the same pace. If you want people to pay R120 to get into your festival, you’ve got to offer them something that they can’t get at their favourite bar. And I’ve long believed that this “something” is beer brewed specifically and solely for the fest. If I know that there are a dozen beers on tap that I have never had before and will not be able to get again, I’m definitely going to be at that fest.
The other problem, in my humble opinion, is indeed that there are just too damn many festivals. It seems that anyone with a field thinks that three breweries and a band equates to a beerfest. And the really sad bit about that is that people get so tired of the whole thing that the large, well-established events suffer. It was a real shame to see the JHBFoB so empty when the guy who runs it, Martin Tucker, was a forerunner in the craft beer scene. He staged the first Cape Town Festival of Beer when craft beer was the Next Big Thing, not the current craze. But I feel like the beer scene has been so watered down by the bandwagon-jumpers that the likes of The Festival of Beer, Clarens Craft Beer Festival and Jozi Craft are potentially going to suffer.
So what’s my point? I’m not really sure. I think it’s that there’s more to a fest than a half-dozen brewers being in the same room at the same time. That I’d like to see festival organisers offering something dfferent. And that those who pioneered the industry deserve your support.
What do you think? Is there such a thing as too many beerfests? Or is the problem just that they’re all the same? What would you like to see at beer events in 2014?