I can remember when the prospect of a beer festival was not accompanied by a sense of dread and foreboding. A handful of years ago, the number of local breweries was nowhere near the century mark, and the entire scene still had a bit of an innocent, niche quality to it. There were new breweries to discover, friends to meet and interesting, one-off beers to sip and contemplate. At the risk of sounding like a jaded, moustache-twirling hipster lamenting craft beer’s catapult into the mainstream, it has got to be said: This shit has gotten way out of control.
Festivals were once few and far between, rare opportunities to sample specialty beer only brewed for the occasion. Today, it is not uncommon for breweries to truck out the same beers sold at Vons or 7-Eleven. It makes a certain amount of sense. It must be tiring explaining the nuances of barrel-aged Kopi Luwak coffee stout with toasted coconut and golden fairy dust to barely upright dude-bros just looking for the highest ABV beer to crush. Why waste good product?
Last year, the men’s room at a Balboa Park museum was converted into a veritable vomitorium by the third hour of an unlimited-pour festival I attended. Later, during the summer, as a volunteer server at an outdoor festival, I witnessed this bad behavior from a pair of stone-sober eyes. Lines of red-faced, boisterous inebriates snaked from each station. Many cared little for my description of what I was pouring, their only concern was that I “top er’ off, bro!” The final insult, just before last call, was when a fellow volunteer stumbled to my station to brag about ditching his hours and drinking all day, for free.
Before ponying up for the next fest to catch your eye, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are there unlimited pours, and are the tickets reasonably priced?
This is a big red flag. Any respectable festival will have a punch-card tally system for pours, or, if unlimited, be discriminatingly expensive. That premium is to keep the binge-drinking proletariat out, and is worth every penny.
2. Is there a theme to the festival?
A specialty fest will attract a specialty audience. A general fest will attract a general audience. You are so warned.
3. Who is organizing the festival?
Not all festival organizers are trying to cram their space with sweaty drunkards. A little Google research can go a long way in forewarning what type of festival is on the horizon.
The devolution of the beer fest is not an unavoidable effect of craft beer going mainstream. Organizers should be cognizant of over-selling their events and of over-pouring their patrons. Until they are reined in, either legislatively or by their own volition, the onus is on consumers to be aware of the type of event they’re attending. Without organizers taking responsibility beyond the mere collection of entrance fees, the popularity of festivals may continue to rise, and the quality will continue to fall.