Critical Drinking

An Ounce at a Time — Are Festivals Fatigued?

At 7:53 p.m. on Wednesday, July 25, 2012, I sent myself an email.

“Call vet. Figure out GABF tix.”

I do this a lot. Rather than set a calendar reminder, I know if I leave an email unread, I’ll see it every time I check my inbox. Five years later, I couldn’t tell you why I needed to call the vet. I’ve got two happy, healthy cats, so that obviously worked out OK. The ticket thing? That’s more clear—it was obviously important.

Two weeks earlier, I’d joined the American Homebrewers Association for one specific reason: to get early access to some of the most sought-after tickets for beer geeks. I wanted to attend the Great American Beer Festival for the first time.

Back then (a relative lifetime in beer geek years), there was rumor of how quickly tickets were going to disappear. In 2011, tickets had sold out in a record one-week timeframe.

“I’m not saying the GABF will sell out in minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold out in less than a week,” one blog told me. Not long before, Avery's Sour Beer Festival and Ommegang's Belgium Comes to Cooperstown both sold out in less than two minutes.

In the end, I got my tickets just fine. During the public ticket sale session, thousands of admissions sold out in a then-record 45 minutes.

“Demand for tickets outstripped supply, simply put,” Barbara Fusco, sales and marketing director at the Brewers Association, told The Denver Post at the time. “Like a lot of large events, like the Super Bowl or big-name concerts like Phish shows, simply more people were online all at once than the quantity of tickets available.”

In 2013, public tickets were gone in a still-standing record of 20 minutes. And 2014’s allotment? Gone in 32. For 2015, the Brewers Association expanded their space for the festival, adding 11,000 more tickets for a total of 60,000. Still sold out in 77 minutes. Last year it took 67.

While GABF is never likely to have trouble getting rid of all its available tickets, 2017’s sale was different. After 255 minutes (four and a quarter hours), it finally maxed out.

“Looking at the same-day sellout in the big picture, we believe that shows how GABF remains popular with beer lovers who are excited about what the festival represents: the opportunity to come to Denver—from all over the U.S. and even all over the globe—to sample all types of beers from all types of breweries from every corner of the country, in a fun and educational environment,” Fusco tells GBH.

But what if there’s more to it than that?

“Really just this year, what I’ve noticed and actually heard a lot, is [beer festivals] are having a little more trouble selling tickets in advance,” says Mark Garthwaite, executive director of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. “The novelty of the beer festival isn’t quite what it used to be. In the heyday of beer festivals - whenever that might’ve been - it was really the only opportunity you had to get beer in front of people because nobody was paying attention to these smaller breweries. Now it’s not necessarily the case.”

There’s a very real sense of oversaturation when looking at the number of festivals that take place across the country and realizing it averages out to three or four per day. According to BeerFests.com, which tracks events in all 50 states, there are just over 100 reported on their calendar for August alone. Between April and September, Garthwaite estimates there are at least three or four in-state festivals every weekend. If we find a fest whenever we’d like, there’s certainly a risk for overstimulation and overspending, minimizing the excitement around once-a-year programs that were once the main attraction that breweries and drinkers alike could look at as their big celebration.

“We’re definitely at some kind of inflection point and I can’t quite wrap my head around it,” Garthwaite says.

This year will mark the 36th for GABF, and while it’s clear beer fans will always snatch up all entries available into the event, the jump in time for this year’s gathering feels a bit significant. The move from 20 minutes in 2013 to 67 in 2016 represents a 235% increase, though it’s sort of arbitrary in the grand scheme of things since a sellout is still a sellout.

In past years, scalpers were suspected of playing a part in the shortened timeframes, with tickets appearing on StubHub or Craigslist the same day as the sale, priced at double, triple, and quadruple face value. There are already a few dozen listings on the Denver Craigslist, but all for about twice the $85 entry fee with three months to go before GABF itself—practically a guarantee that prices will come down.

This kind of footnote may not seem like much, but it does speak to a larger issue at hand regarding interest. Even SAVOR, another production of the Brewers Association, held annually in Washington, D.C., has suffered from lagging ticket sales. In 2010, the beer-and-food pairing event sold out in 10 minutes. In 2016, $135 general admission tickets were still available two weeks after being released to the public. This year’s event included a variety of targeted email marketing and giveaways, including one email with an ironic use of quotation from Washington Post writer Frtiz Hahn. The email pulled a comment about SAVOR from a column calling it a “gold standard” for beer festivals, but it was under a headline not included in that marketing email: “Why one of the nation’s premier beer festivals seems to have lost its luster.” 

Events like these now find themselves in some kind of programmatic purgatory, where they are too upscale for average drinkers or somehow too ordinary for enthusiasts willing to shell out $100 or more for four hours of drinking that doesn’t include cult names like Tree House, Trillium, or Hill Farmstead. Why not grab a six pack at your local store and pay your cable bill instead?

While this isn’t an indictment of the Brewers Association or their events, which continue to draw thousands of passionate beer lovers from all over, it does raise the question of what it means to measure success for two of the country’s flagship events. Similar to changing interest in the craft beer category at-large, there seems to be growing interest in more curated, special, and authentic experiences closer to home, instead of on a national scale.

In June, one of the largest beer festivals in Virginia was held during the second-annual IPA JamBEERee at Crozet, Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery. For a general admission price of $25, attendees could enter the four-hour event to sample around 60 different IPAs from 25 Virginia-only breweries, including 20 hop-forward beers from Starr Hill alone.

Jack Goodall, Starr Hill’s marketing manager, notes that large, national events are nearly impossible for small breweries to attend without relying on sponsorship or lotteries, and can feel corporate, standardized, and “not at all the experience folks are looking for when it comes to something unique and new for craft beer.”

“To have these smaller events where everything from the breweries, music, and food is being hand-picked by brewers, and not folks relying on massive sponsorship checks, is really just being consistent with what folks are looking for from Starr Hill and craft beer in general,” Goodall tells GBH. “So it really benefits us by giving the customer a better experience. At the end of the day, that's really the thing that sets it apart.”

This is the exact sentiment behind the Firestone Walker Invitational. While its cost parallels tickets to GABF at $85, its curated list of just more than 50 breweries and the beers they pour fill out spots in any online rating site’s collection of “best” beers. Rare seasonals and one-offs were shared at this year’s event from Arizona Wilderness, Jester King, Other Half, Societe, Fonta Flora, Trillium, and more. Food samples from around 30 restaurants were also served. It’s the carefully-selected participants, an expectation for rare beers, and a tempered crowd of 3,000 that makes the Invitational one of the hottest tickets in the country among beer geeks.

“There’s a community vibe to the event that is wholly unique,” says Sean C. Weir, a spokesperson for Firestone Walker. “Any clamor that you hear is purely word of mouth, and it’s thanks to all of the breweries who have helped us create a distinct culture around this event.”

So is there some kind of panacea for the artificial ills that have befallen GABF and SAVOR? In a very real sense, they don’t need one. Just because it takes a few more hours or days to sell out an event doesn’t mean it’s unsuccessful—all those tickets are still being bought, after all. And yet, there’s something still poking at that process and feeling. A change in sentiment is incremental and these small adjustments in how and why people may be excited about these national beer festivals isn’t going away. What matters then, is getting new beer lovers to see these events as as an option and dedicated enthusiasts to view them as opportunities for something unique.

I didn’t send myself an email reminder about the Great American Beer Festival this year. And what I’m wondering is: how many people still do?

Words by, Bryan Roth Graphics by, Michael Kiser