“Radiate Positivity” is one of the core tenets of the Bonnaroovian Code. It sounds goofy. It is goofy. Especially to those who’ve never made the trip to The Farm. But there’s something about parking the car, setting up camp, and marching toward that arch on the first of four unbearably hot June days that causes an involuntary grin and spontaneous high fives.
It’s just what happens when 90,000 people, from all walks of life, converge on a single location. That location, a plot of farmland in Manchester, Tennessee, has been Bonnaroo’s home since 2002, when groups like Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, Jurassic 5, and Ween christened the grounds during that inaugural weekend. Over the past 14 years, every facet of the fest has grown: the attendance, the vendors, the sheer numbers of things to do.
But at its core, Bonnaroo is still about the music. And escapism. It’s an escape from work. From responsibility. From inhibitions. Four days away from the day-to-day. And people consume massive amounts of beer.
And yet, reality has a way of sneaking inside the gates — probably because reality has a huge sponsorship stake. Miller Lite is a dominant presence at the festival, along with the likes of Ford, Red Bull, and Garnier Fructis. The deal includes the “New Music on Tap Lounge brewed by Miller Lite” (a small stage that features up-and-coming music acts), and universal availability throughout the grounds, which all but guarantees it’s the most consumed beverage, water included.
But inside the grounds, like outside, the ubiquitous light lagers are losing ground to craft year after year.
Craft beer has had a place at Bonaroo since that first go-round in 2002. But in 2004, the Broo’ers Festival opened its tent flaps to craft brewers from around the region and across the country. And it’s grown steadily since. This year, there were 23 breweries (plus one cider-maker) in attendance, including 12 national brands, eight regional, and four local — a somewhat inverse proportion of real-world hierarchy.
A handful of the national brands, specifically Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and Angry Orchard, also had sponsorship stakes in the festival, though at a much smaller scale. Instead of their own stage, or co-branded swag, they get to go head-to-head with Miller outside the tent in some of the booths peppered throughout the field. And they have something Miller doesn’t: real-life brewery employees at the festival, shaking hands, talking beer, and telling the tale behind it — doing their best to radiate positivity.
Pat Hazlett, an events manager for Sierra Nevada, made the trip down from Maine to help tell their story. “Being part of an event like Bonnaroo gets back to the grassroots history of craft beer and our company," he says. "Having face-to-face exchanges, explaining the beer, talking about the brewery that made it. It’s a cool way to inspire new fans.”
He also notes the common ground between the brewery and many of the festival-goers. “The same outdoor and active lifestyle behind Bonnaroo is at the roots of our brewery. Whether it’s camping, hiking, skiing or listening to live music, we’ve found our place within this community.” So say they all.
Connecting with the music was a common theme amongst breweries — drawing a direct correlation between their company ethos and a trait inherent to the Bonnaroo lifestyle. Don Chartier, from Lagunitas, explained their connection from a different end of the spectrum. “People always used to come in and ask if they could smoke hops like weed," he says. "I don’t know why they thought we’d know. Then one day we tried vaporizing the hops, and found that the results mimicked how our brewers would do hop rubbings out in the fields.”
Now, Lagunitas uses HopVapin’ as an educational tool at the brewery, and at festivals all over the US.
That “edutainment” component of the Broo’ers Fest can’t be overlooked. Evan Sutherland, the festival’s curator, has gone to great lengths over the last several years to connect the brewers with those who want to learn more. Three times a day, every day, brewery reps take the stage in a smaller, adjacent tent and address a packed house at Broo’ers University. The talks usually cover a brief history of the brewery and a bit about their approach to brewing, along with a tasting of beers not available in the big tent. The sessions close with surprisingly vibrant Q&As, including questions about specific hop varieties, brewing techniques, the three-tier system, and local high-gravity restrictions.
During Don’s BrooU session, he and one of his local reps walked around the tent shooting vaporized hop puffs into the waiting faces of attendees, all while explaining the nuanced differences between the Mosaic and Equinox strains.
The final event in the BrooU series, the Broo’ers SuperJam, is an even looser event at the end of the weekend, where a few of the speakers get on stage together, talk about their history at Bonnaroo, and what the festival means to them — personally and as a company — all while the crowd gets to taste the last of their wares. Cider maker Ryan Burk from Angry Orchard talked about how incredible it was to see so many people trying cider for the very first time, but also, their role as the only gluten-free option at the festival. “It’s a big deal for us to be here," he says. "Whether people are gluten-intolerant, or have chosen to lead a gluten-free lifestyle, we’re happy to be available to them and to help educate them.” Gluten, or lack thereof, probably isn’t Ryan’s favorite way to romance the world of cider making, but in a place with 90,000 people, it’s a clear differentiator.
Aside from being a great outlet for larger breweries to educate, the BrooFest is also an entrée for a number of smaller brewers to huge audiences. Hyper-local outfit Ole Shed, joined Yazoo and Nashville newcomer Bearded Iris in representing Tennessee, and drew large crowds all weekend. Bearded Iris, especially, had a perpetual line, as this was only the second time their Habit IPA was available to the public. Founders Paul Vaughn and Kavon Togrye are temporarily contract brewing while their 15BBL brewhouse is being installed.
The attention they received as a yet-to-open brewery was remarkable, especially being so close to their home market. “We ran into a ton of people from Nashville and the surrounding areas that hadn’t heard of us yet, but loved the beer and couldn’t wait to make it to the brewery,” Paul said. But it was about much more than the exposure for him. “Kavon and I grew up in nearby Murfreesboro. And my mom’s side of the family is from here in Manchester, so I grew up visiting when Bonnaroo wasn’t even a thing yet. In so many ways, it feels like coming home.”
Not everything went perfectly for Bearded Iris, though. “We had a guy try to order a gin and tonic from us. Then he tried to order two Miller Lites instead,” Paul continued, “But ultimately, we’re leaving energized by the people we met, the stories we heard, and the insanely talented musicians we saw.”
While “insanely talented musicians” is high praise, it still doesn’t do the Bonnaroo lineup justice. When the brewery employees aren’t in the tent, they get to experience the likes of Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters play a half dozen Led Zeppelin songs. Or the Alabama Shakes thunder through a set on the main stage. They get to see Kendrick Lamar damn near bring the house down. Or Spoon be the consummate rock legends that they are. These brewery folks get to witness the surviving members of Slayer play a live set, and the appropriately-named Growlers bring their garage rock sound all the way from California. And if really lucky, they get to see Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear play an intimate show right before the Broo’ers SuperJam.
Because at the end of the day, the whole point of the Broo’ers Festival is to pair great beer with great music. And for so many breweries, like Brooklyn, that’s the main reason for attending. They’ve been pouring at Roo for 10 years now, and their marketing coordinator, Katie Lynch, explained why they keep coming back.
“Music is inextricably linked to the culture of the brewery and the borough overall," she says. "It’s just part of who we are and the personalities that make up the brewery.”
For Lynch, drinking a certain beer can enhance the concert-going experience. “I saw Solange at Roo in 2013. I was a big fan and went to see her by myself in the afternoon with some of our Summer Ales. Her set was poppy and light and fun, but the lyrics were a bit more complex, and the whole thing just matched the beer — two perfect complements. Now, whenever I drink a summer ale I’m transported back to that show.”
Stefano Daneri, from Birmingham’s Good People Brewing, felt similar: “It’s so great to be part of a festival that gives us the chance to see bands we love, pour the beer we love making, and talk with people who love them both.”
It’s exactly that sort of experience where breweries of all sizes are looking to insert their products. Whether it’s your go-to beer at the baseball game, the six-pack you always pick up on your way to the beach, or the cans you sneak into a concert, brewers are looking to develop an intimate connection with the consumer at the events they frequent and become a part of their ritual. Because if you can be a part of a memory like that, a certain sense of brand loyalty is sure to follow — at least that’s the perpetual hope. This is the same game that macro lagers have played for a long time, where cultural association is as powerful, and perhaps even more important, than the beer itself. At least in that moment.
But craft has the added advantage of making human connections and creating memorable flavors that work at the same level as the artistry they’re surrounded by at an event like Bonnaroo. While brands like Miller Lite have historically relied on their everywhere-all-the-time advantage, a new generation of concert-goers are proving that you don’t have to underestimate your audience to win. Education, personal connections, and beer with intent will find its audience, or create one, everywhere it goes.