Critical Drinking

This, That, The Other — Talking Beer at Bonnaroo

For the seven years that I’ve been attending Bonnaroo, the Broo’ers Festival — Bonnaroo’s own in-house beer festival — has been a constant. It grows, it shrinks, it mutates this way or that. Breweries come, breweries go, but it’s always there, offering a spot of shade and a beer that’s colder than any water in sight. Last year, I had the chance to take a look at the festival within the festival, and inspect its place among the four-day fray.

This year, I was more struck by the absurdity of it all. Why would anyone — a festival-goer or a brewery — subject themselves to the conditions of Bonnaroo? The maddening heat. The unbearable humidity. The undeniable stench of a collectively unwashed mass. What about the weekend makes it worth breweries sending a team of employees on a road trip to camp for four nights for a beer festival in the middle of nowhere that serves a bunch of people who aren’t in their distribution market? 

Sure, the music atmosphere is pretty cool. And you get access to a much wider swath of beer-drinkers. But why does a craft brewery even want to be at Bonnaroo? Is it really worth the time and energy and hassle? Responses were largely dependent on the size and persona of the brewery. Those on the smaller, quirkier end, replied with a resounding yes. Some on the larger, corporate sponsorship side greeted the question with more of a meh.

To get to the bottom of it, I talked with Broo’ers Festival organizer, Evan Sutherland, about the types of breweries he invites to the festival. Then, I asked four different breweries a simple question: Why Bonnaroo?

Their answers varied greatly: from testing out weird beers, to exposure to a large cross-segment of the country, to putting out feelers in the Greater Nashville market, to simply meeting and learning from breweries they’d otherwise never come in contact with.

As it turns out, everyone has their own reasons for being there. And almost everyone wants to come back.

Evan Sutherland / 8th year attending

Evan Sutherland / 8th year attending

Kyle: Tell me a little bit about how you pick the breweries for Bonnaroo.

Evan: On the farm, we’re creating a large community of festival-goers, but within that, there’s smaller communities, whether that’s camping groups or food trucks or the Broo’ers Festival. We try to pick breweries — and participants in the festival at-large — that buy in and align with the overall Bonnaroovian Code, which is to be one with each other. We’re all here at the same place at the same time to experience, collectively, this festival. When these breweries come, sometimes they fit. But every year we get a bit of a turnover when some don’t. One of the reasons they don’t fit is that they just want to be here but not be present.

There’s a big difference for us. There’s a difference between just being here and actually participating — helping another brewery understand how they can get the most out of the experience, or working on a jockey box that’s not your own, or lending your jockey box to somebody else. There’s just so many ways you can show that you’re committed to the community. And that’s one of the things we really focus on.

There’s also a focus on breweries that know and love marketing with music, which is a big deal for us. Overall, what we’re doing here is helping people connect through music. So your brewery has to have shown that you’re committed to music as a way to connect people.

When these breweries come, sometimes they fit. But every year we get a bit of a turnover when some don’t. One of the reasons they don’t fit is that they just want to be here, but not be present.
— Evan Sutherland

In terms of picking the breweries, we have a general knowledge of where our festival-goers come from. For the most part, they come from within a day’s drive of Tennessee. But a lot of people do come from far away — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami. And we know those people want to get a look at local and regional breweries they wouldn’t otherwise see in their cities. At the same time, we know there’s a lot of festival-goers from this region — Tennessee, Northern Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky — that want to get a chance to taste and have a face-to-face with some of the bigger breweries like Lagunitas, Green Flash, or Founders.

So we pick breweries that are both regional and national, but they all buy into this whole experience and the whole community. It’s important to us to make sure that they’re not just coming for one year to say, “I did it! I experienced Bonnaroo.” Rather, we’re looking for breweries that want to be with us for years to come. I think we found some good ones this year: 4 Hands was a great addition. Bell’s will definitely be back next year; they loved it. But there’s always some turnover.

Kyle: There’s a pretty big range in the tent from the small, local-only breweries to the big, national brands. How do you make sure they all fit together?

Evan: The festival itself has become so commercialized throughout. Pantene Pro-V can give you your showers and GNC can get you your supplements. All these areas have become really painted in the colors of certain companies, and breweries have the opportunity to do that too at every point of sale throughout the festival. Except inside the Broo’ers Tent.

If you go to the sponsored booths around the stages to get a beer, there’s sponsored POS materials all over, because they’re allowed to do it out there. But inside the Broo’ers Tent, the budgets from some of the breweries we bring in are so small, and they’re coming in with the minimum amount of kegs they can bring. They don’t have the bandwidth to create these marketing materials or to be a festival sponsor. So inside the Broo’ers Tent there’s a level playing field and we try to keep everyone within certain guidelines so the entire tent isn’t painted one brand color. We aren’t promoting different opportunities for bigger breweries than the smaller ones. So Bearded Iris and Lagunitas and Blue Moon are all on the same playing field within the tent.

Paul Vaughn and Chanda Grubbs / Nashville, TN / 2nd year attending

Paul Vaughn and Chanda Grubbs / Nashville, TN / 2nd year attending

Paul: For us, we’re in close proximity. For a lot of people, it’s a haul for them, but it’s right down the road for us. It’s our hometown market.

Chanda: I’m not a huge festival-goer, but there’s something truly singular about Bonnaroo. My first Bonnaroo, we didn’t have the brewery yet, so we were just here for fun. Paul and I were wandering around when this little band just popped up out of nowhere. Some guy had a tuba. Some guy had a trombone. There were drums. They just started playing. And the crowd followed them, moving down the streets of Bonnaroo. And in that moment, I was just like, “This isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. This is happening only here. Only now.” I had never experienced anything like it before, but I understood it. I understood the gravity of what was happening, and just that unfettered joy and energy. So I think if we can get our beer to people like that, in a place like this, we have to. There’s no other option for us.

Paul: It just feels right to be a part of this community, to be sharing our beer with everybody. It’s an incredible thing to be out on the farm with all the music and good vibes surrounding you and trying 50–100 different beers. I don’t know of a lot of places where that exists, so it’s a really neat thing to have in Tennessee. The fact that I grew up around here and I can pour beer here — I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t be a part of it.

Chanda: I think there’s also something that’s really beautiful about the seclusion. For us, we live in Nashville, the business is in Nashville, but once you’re here, you’re here. Your phone may or may not work. You’re going to get grimy. You’re dressing for pure functionality. It’s hot as hell, but everyone is maintaining this joy and this positive momentum and energy. It’s like that’s all that exists in the world for a few days.

Paul: Like Chanda said, we’re not just here for the beer. We’re here for the music; we’re here for the people. It’s all those things converging on the farm and just being there in the moment experiencing it together.

Chanda: It’s a community. And there’s something about being a part of, but also fueling, that community…

Paul: …to really contribute to it…

Chanda: …that’s an incredibly valuable opportunity for us and for the brewery.

Lauren Schurk / St. Louis, MO / 1st year attending

Lauren Schurk / St. Louis, MO / 1st year attending

Lauren: It started with a conversation I had with a friend last summer. He's buddies with Evan, who organizes the Broo’ers Tent, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. Next time he’s in town, come on by the brewery and let’s talk about it.”

Our owner, Kevin Lemp, has always been in the music scene, a handful of folks at the brewery have, and he thought it was cool. But it was just a conversation. We didn’t really think anything of it.

Right now, we’re constantly busy just trying to meet demand. But when we can enter a new market, Nashville is an area we’ve had our eyes on. So knowing that we’d be able to expose our brand to 90,000+ people that are like-minded individuals seemed appealing to us, beyond the fact that we could have a great time doing it.

Plus, I’d say there’s a pretty hefty crossover between the 4 Hands culture and the Bonnaroo culture, just as far as that laid-back vibe. We don’t really like to pigeonhole ourselves with one specific style of beer or genre of music or demographic of people. With Bonnaroo, there’s quite a lot going on as far as the music, as far as the vibe, as far as the crowd. So once we put the wheels in motion and saw that it was possible, we felt like we’d be fools to not take advantage of the opportunity. Just working at the booth, I’d say about 85% of the people have never been exposed to 4 Hands before, so it’s really cool to a). be able to introduce ourselves, and b). know that our beer is well-received.

Our IPA did really well. Contact High, our wheat, did super well. There were definitely some people who are getting it because it’s called Contact High and they’re at a music festival. [laughs] And I think people were super stoked that we have a Sour Ale, Passionfruit Prussia. There were some folks that hadn’t really been exposed to [sour beer] before, but I’d like to think that almost everyone that had it, really loved it. It’s super refreshing, especially when it’s 97F out.

It’s just really nice to see all the people that are truly interested and scoping out the different breweries and checking out all the different beers.

Stefano Daneri / Birmingham, AL / 5th year attending

Stefano Daneri / Birmingham, AL / 5th year attending

Stefano: The whole experience is kind of crazy. Bonnaroo is a little wacky. Breweries that come here are a little wacky. From a sales perspective, it’s an awesome opportunity to try to sell some beer. But it’s really awesome for team-building as well. From a marketing perspective, it’s an even ground; all the breweries are on the same level. It’s an opportunity for people to be exposed to brands they’re not familiar with, re-acclimate themselves with brands they are, and keep going back to those beers you have at ‘roo year after year.

Outside of the farm, we have our brewery and our taproom and all of our staff. But being on the farm, it offers an opportunity for the hustle and bustle of the day to be separate, and we get to have a good time, we get to meet new people, we get to see familiar faces, and we just get to spend time with one another.

I think that’s a huge part of it, and a huge win for us, is the time spent with our staff that’s a little bit different from the normal day-to-day. For four or five days out of the year, we get to come to the farm, have a good time and meet new people.

We met so many different people, and for many of them, we’re probably never going to be in their market. But for one weekend, we’re all a part of the same market — we’re all a part of Bonnaroo. We get to talk to people about different styles. We always bring our Coffee Oatmeal Stout because, generally, it’s one of the only stouts here. Plus, we’re able to experiment and bring some small batch stuff.

It’s also really cool to meet some of the bigger brands, to hang out with them, and to learn from them. We set up camp next to Green Flash. So in my mind, we’re camping next to the 41st largest brewery in the U.S. and there’s only information to learn from them. On the other side, we camped next to Hi-Wire from Asheville, who’s a lot smaller. But there’s only information to learn from them, too.

For us, it’s just a huge advantage that we get to pick the brains of some of these other brands. There are just so many tools you can use by learning from the other breweries. So we take that experience on the farm and bring it back to Birmingham to figure out how we can put the Good People touch on it.

Chris Frosaker / Asheville, NC / 1st year attending

Chris Frosaker / Asheville, NC / 1st year attending

Chris: We’re a pretty young company that’s growing really quickly. We distribute in three states now, including Tennessee. We really feel that to continue our growth trajectory, not only do you have to have really good beer, but you have to connect with people. And for us, Bonnaroo is really the first time we’ve gone all out and done a really big event.

It’s not often you have the potential to interact with tens of thousands of people, and it’s kind of the perfect setting. Bonnaroo has become such a diverse festival over the years. There’s people from all walks of life, from all over the country, all ages. To us, it’s the perfect canvas to spread the word about who we are.

We’re a super laid back company. We have this lighthearted circus theme. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to have fun. Our hometown, Asheville, is a little bit of a circus as well. For us, we fit in to that laid back, fun vibe, and that’s all Bonnaroo is.

And to be honest, I think it’s one of the best events we’ve done. It’s not every day we get to talk to people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, California. We talked to a couple people from Canada. It’s just a really unique experience to talk to such a diverse group.

We’ve meet a ton of people — a lot of potential customers. But getting to know the bigger breweries, picking their brains, gaining their respect, having them get to know us and get to know our beer, that’s priceless. I think that’s almost been the most valuable part of the whole weekend.

I feel like I really got to know a lot of people from all over the country and learn from breweries I respect tremendously. Just being able to see how they carry themselves at big events like this and seeing their philosophy.

We tried to come into the weekend with a mentality of how we operate our business, which is, “What can we do that’s different than the 4,300 other breweries in the country?” So we tried to make a statement. We make a lot of lagers. We love lagers. So we brought two lagers. We were the only brewery in the tent that did that.

We also brought a Randall, so we were running our hoppy lager through a different food item every day. We did watermelon, mango, blueberry, cucumber, and I think that really resonated with people and started a lot of conversations.

That’s what we were going for, and I think we pulled it off. And that’s the same mentality we’ll bring to it next year, just trying to do something that’s a little different. If we’re invited back next year, as long as there’s a spot for us, I think we’re going to be here in perpetuity.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec

Kyle Kastranec

Kyle is designer in Columbus, Ohio, telling authentic stories through branding and marketing. He was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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