The Big Issue: The Future Of Beer Fests

With thousands of beer drinkers, hundreds of beers, long lines and a shared sense of merriment, one aspect of the beer world we know and love that could easily be lost this year is the beer festival.

The Good Beer Week program had already been printed when the festival had to be postponed, then replaced with an online version, and now won't celebrate its tenth anniversary until what should have been its eleventh. The associated Indie Beer Showcase was cancelled days out, as was the inaugural Carwyn Collaborational.

Brewsvegas crawled over the line in Brisbane as restrictions tightened over its ten days. This year's GABS festivals have been pushed back twice, with Auckland cancelled. The Independent Brewers Association’s BrewCon was initially postponed to November before 2020 was cancelled and 2021's event pencilled in for August 2021. Adelaide's Beer & BBQ Fest typically runs in July but is now scheduled for the end of the year and Bendigo On The Hop should be taking place later this month but we’ll be waiting until winter 2021 to enjoy roaming the streets of that regional city again.

And on it goes.

Yet a steely determination, careful planning and the sort of cleaning operations that would impress the love child of Mr Wolf and Ed Galbraith mean other festivals are still set to take place later in the year.

Early next month, beer fans lucky enough to live in Western Australia will be able to attend the country’s first physical beer festival since COVID-19 swept the country as Perth Craft Beer Festival (pictured above) returns to its original home at the Claremont Showgrounds.

Aedan Buckley, co-founder and director of Bar Pop, which runs the festival as well as a host of other major events, is unsurprisingly happy to have been given the all clear. The organisers haven't even had to delay the event either with Father’s Day weekend always the preferred date. Now, with WA recording no locally-acquired cases for more than 100 days and enjoying relaxed regulations, everything looks set fair.

“The stars aligned where it gave us the perfect window of long enough a lead for the announcement and marketing campaign, which gave us the ability to do it,” Aedan says, while acknowledging risks remain.

“If a border opens the day before the gig, or a case happens the night before, or people cut across the border, that’ll cause us all sorts of strife – that’s the risk you take.”

Furthermore, as with many businesses trying to adapt to the new normal, major beer events are taking place in a landscape that can change quickly, and in which health advice and regulations are constantly under review. 

“You’ve just got to stay educated, be informed and bring the right people together,” Aedan says.

“The idea right now is minimising risk.”

 

Perth Craft Beer Fest's IPA glasses are a victim of new COVID-safe guidelines.

 

As a business, he says the Bar Pop team typically like to have as much certainty as they can before committing to any event and, while they’d written off this year’s festival during the early stages of COVID, WA emerging from lockdown relatively unscathed saw them decide to push on, aware that health advice could change at any time.

“That has been explicitly communicated to us and we are 100 percent aware that if something goes pear-shaped then obviously it’s off,” Aedan says. “And there's sunk costs and there’s losses and all these things that you’ve got to weigh up.”

He also serves on the board of the Events Industry Association of Western Australia and says they’ve been working closely with all levels of government to put plans in place for COVID-safe major events, and to ensure those ideas are effectively communicated between all stakeholders.

For the Perth Craft Beer Festival, it means they’ve moved from last year’s site at Northbridge's Ice Cream Factory to the Claremont Showgrounds, the festival's original home. They made the decision early to ensure they’d have enough space so people would be able to keep apart.

“We were obviously at capacity and we were jammed,” he says of the Ice Cream Factory. “It was so good being in Northbridge but it was tight.”

WA’s current requirements are for events and venues to operate with one person per two square metres; however, Aedan says they wanted to allow more room for their 5,000 attendees.

“We obviously wanted to tread really carefully and give ourselves a bit of a contingency,” he says. “We booked a site with four square metres per person."

That translates to a footprint a little over 21,000 square metres and a capacity per session of 5,000. 

With WA's borders closed for the foreseeable future, it does mean Perth Craft Beer Festival is missing one key element from past years: interstate and international brewers, although many are still sending beer.

“While the brewers can’t get over themselves,” Aedan says, “we’re really trying to step up by saying, ‘Send us your good quality juice and we’ll educate our team and our staff to make sure it’s on offer.’

“Garage Project can’t physically get over to WA but they have sent us a list of some cracking beers. We’re moving heaven and earth to get them, too. It’s a really quick turnaround from [refrigerated] transport and we’re collecting kegs from the depot to get them on the day of the event.”

He says one of the toughest decisions was having to remove one of his favourite aspects of the festival: the reusable IPA glass.    

“The additional contact points, where the punter is holding the glass, giving it to a brewer and the brewer is handing it back to the punter... The risk is as high as you can get for reducing COVID touch points [but] I’d rather have the event on and drink from a crappy cup then not have it on,” he says.

It seems beer fans in WA are eager to attend too, with Aedan saying ticket sales are up on the same time last year. 

It's a sentiment shared by James Harding, one of the founders of the national BeerFest Australia series of festivals, and who was sounding particularly cheery shortly after tickets to the Freo leg went on sale yesterday.

 

BeerFest founders Stacy File and James Harding.

 

“We’ve been on sales for 34 minutes and we’ve already beaten day one of last year’s ticket sales,” he says over the phone.

The BeerFest team count themselves fairly lucky in terms of timings and the pandemic, having been able to run six out of the seven proposed BeerFests across the country during the 2019/20 season. Now their first two festivals of the coming season are in Western Australia, with Perth set to run on October 2 and 3 and Freo locked in for November once more.

Those two will be followed by the New Year’s Eve BeerFest in Launceston, the city where their beer events began in another state where COVID numbers have remained low and regulations have eased accordingly. However, the subsequent festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra early next year look to be more problematic. 

“If it’s looking like it’s going to be too challenging and not safe enough to do those festivals then we’ll give them a miss for 2021,” James says.

“For us, [this year] hasn’t been too different because we did get six of our seven festivals completed and winter is the time we do all of our planning.”

It means they’ve spent the last few months working closely with stakeholders – including police and local councils – to plan events as they do every year. They have a risk management plan in place for each event they run; this year it's a little denser. He says they’re working hard to find a balance between crowd numbers, entertainment and what’s safe to ensure BeerFest attendees can still expect the same sort of festival experience.

“It comes down to the old craft saying of quality over quantity,” he says. “It’s the same with the number of patrons: it’s all about having a safe, reduced number while still providing the kind of festival people are used to.”

Jedediah are booked to headline Perth which makes things a lot smoother considering band members are locals and don’t need to worry about crossing state lines. It’s more of a challenge for James and fellow BeerFest founder Stacy File who live interstate.

“We’ll be quarantining for two weeks prior to the event and then have a week delivering the event,” James says. “So, it’s three weeks away from our home to deliver them.

“That’s assuming that we will get in and if we don’t then that’s OK because we’ve run these festivals for ten years and we have a great crew in each state.”

 

The circus at GABS 2018. Ain't no mask going to work with this guy.

 

He suggests the biggest change punters will notice is around hygiene.

“We’re looking at implementing what we call hy-genies, people walking around with hand sanitiser, plus more cleaning stations,” he says.

And, as with Perth Craft Beer Fest and cafés across the country, COVID means reusable festival glasses are out and more brewers serving cans.

Each state’s BeerFest will have fewer interstate brewers but James remains positive about the future of such events, pointing out the manner in which the beer industry has been able to adapt and evolve in the face of changing circumstances.

“We’re extremely passionate about our business and it’s our livelihood," he says, "so when you have those things driving you each day you do have to be hoping for the best.

“We can just try and control what’s in our control and everything else is outside our control.”

One beer festival that will look vastly different to the way it was intended is the Carwyn Collaborational. The team at Carwyn Cellars announced today they'll be taking their event online in partnership with The Crafty Pint and delivering the experience to beer lovers within their homes.

Originally it was set to run on March 28, a few days after the national lockdown was announced and one of Melbourne’s sunniest March days in recent memory (a fact that still seems to haunt festival founders Ben Carwyn and Ben Duval).    

“We got two weeks out and obviously had to postpone due to the first lockdown,” Ben D says. 

“We postponed it until October 24, thinking – like most people – that it would probably be safe but with this second lockdown it’s very obvious that it’s not.”

 

Ben Duval and Ben Carwyn of Carwyn Cellars.

 

The decision to take the festival online and put the international collaborations into people’s hands across Australia was driven by the fact they knew Carwyn Collaborational 2020 would have to look too far removed from their original vision. The plan had been to fly in brewers from across the world and put the focus purely on those brewers and their beers rather than making them just part of a program of entertainment (something we explored here).

“Part of the whole festival is that it’s an international beer festival and there’s just no way we can do what we promised,” Ben says. “So we decided to plan something we knew we could execute and do really well and look to next year or even the year after to do the festival as planned.”

The Collaborational At Home Beer Box features eleven beers from 22 breweries, most of which are those originally lined up for Melbourne (look out for the lineup announcement tomorrow). Making excellent mixed packs has become a big focus for Carwyn, from their regular beer subscriptions to the annual Canvent packs and the Quarantinnies released at the start of the first lockdown.  

“We can do this with the confidence that we’ve done similar things really well before,” Ben says.

True to its origins, Collaborational At Home will still feature a festival booklet and will include an invite to the virtual festival, to be hosted by the Carwyn team and The Crafty Pint. Ben says, if possible, some of those brewers will be at their Thornbury venue on the day for live streams, but if government guidelines haven't eased enough in time people can still take part from home.

“We still want it to have a festival component – it’s not just a box of beer you drink at home,” Ben says. “Plus a lot of brewers are really keen to explain how they’ve come up with the collaboration and talk a bit about the brewery.”

The move to online events is one that’s been readily embraced by BentSpoke, with the Canberra brewery team connecting with fans via Bent Brewers Live, which launched when a lot of other breweries went online during the nationwide shutdown but has continued to this day.

The brewery’s national sales manager David Ward says they’ve kept them running due to their popularity; they also allow the brewery’s founders Richard Watkins and Tracy Margrain to engage with a wide number of beer drinkers.

“We’re having four to five thousand people, sometimes six thousand, watching these videos and the content is there forever,” David says.

“It would take Rich and Tracy a long time to get to reach that many people through tastings.”

 

BentSpoke were able host their first sizeable event recently according to strict guidelines they suspect will remain in place on the East Coast for some time.

 

A few weeks ago, BentSpoke hosted their Winter Feast at The Cannery, their production site in Mitchell, welcoming guests across multiple sessions on the one day. David says they went "over and above" when it came to following COVID guidelines and they feel it’s how events will look on the East Coast for some time to come.   

“We did as much as possible because we think this could be the future of events: small capacity and in our venues or maybe in a few others which we can talk to our on-premise partners about.”

As for 2021 and beyond, Ben also believes online events have a place no matter how long things develop over the coming months.

“We’re fully prepared to do this again next year if we can’t do a physical festival, we just want to get better and better at it,” he says.

“We could be in this situation for a long time and we’ve seen quite a few virtual things happen and slowly they’ve gotten better."


Tickets are still available for Perth Craft Beer Festival here and for BeerFest in WA here.

We'll announce the full lineup for the Carwyn Collaborational At Home tomorrow. And we kick off online events for members of our beer club, The Crafty Cabal, in early September too, with a pre-release tasting of a very special beer from 3 Ravens.

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