Raise a Glass to Beer Festivals

This fall, a first-of-its-kind event will unfold in Sacramento. The California Craft Beer Summit & Brewers Showcase, sponsored by the California Craft Brewers Association, will bring producers and consumers together for two days of hands-on demonstrations, classroom-style seminars, tastings of new releases and rare beers, a job fair and a closing festival featuring more than 200 breweries pouring at the same time. It’s the latest expression of an increasingly sophisticated public’s growing fascination with an age-old beverage.

“Nothing like this has ever been done in the industry before,” Tom McCormick, the association’s executive director, says of the event’s goal to deeply integrate the producer- consumer relationship. “A lot of it is geared toward serious enthusiasts, but it’s meant to appeal to anyone who wants to learn.”

Increasingly, McCormick and other industry watchers say, consumers do want to learn, whether in the course of visiting one of the state’s 550-plus craft breweries or attending one of the hundreds of beer festivals staged annually throughout the state. While some of those festivals cater, in the style of German Oktoberfest celebrations, to raucous crowds swigging from oversized mugs, a growing number are targeted to craft beer enthusiasts who value quality over quantity and can converse knowledgeably about the nuanced difference between, say, a Pliny the Younger triple India pale ale from Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, and a Flanders Drive sour ale from Green Flash Brewing Co. in San Diego.

“We talk a lot about the craft beer drinker,” says Scott Scoville, co-founder of BeersInSac.com, a company that plays a social media, marketing and advisory role in many regional events involving beer. “There are a lot of levels. There’s someone who has never had anything outside of Bud or Coors who is dabbling, getting their feet wet and challenging their taste buds. And it progresses to different levels of understanding. Then, on the other extreme, you have that 1 or 2 percent who are only drinking craft beers and have a lot of interaction in the industry.”

No matter what the focus of the festival, beer aficionados share one outstanding characteristic: They hate standing in long lines, both at the entrance to the event and at pour- ing stations.

“We’ve realized that, whether it’s a small-scale event or one the size of Sacramento’s Cap Beer Festival, with more than 5,000 in attendance, infrastructure is a big part of it,” Scoville says. “Wait times and lines are something we’ve worked hard to solve. This year at the Cap festival, we had multiple entrances and expanded by a couple of blocks. We didn’t cap attendance. We had about 3,000 presale and the rest were sales on-site.”

The Capital festival, which served as the grand finale of Sacramento Beer Week, featuring about 200 restaurant and brewery events, included extra-fee areas for rock-ribbed devotees, Scoville says.

“Not everyone is inclined to pay an extra $10 to enter a limited area and taste rare beers,” he explains, “but it’s one of the ways we’ve found to address the interests of serious enthusiasts. Typically, beer at festivals is served by volunteers who don’t know much about where it came from, what kind of hops was used, the name of the brewer. And now, what we’re finding is the consumer from A to Z wants to know everything about how it was made and where it comes from.”

Knowing your audience is one of the most critical aspects of putting on a beer festival, agrees Jennifer Irwin, event director and producer of the Art of Beer Invitational, a fundraiser that combines craft beers, food pairings and an art auction. This year’s event, geared to serious enthusiasts, drew about 1,000 attendees to the McClellan Conference Center in Sacramento and featured 42 breweries, five cideries and five restaurants.

“Not everyone goes to a beer festival for the same reasons,” Irwin notes. “At some festivals, people show up to get as drunk as they can for as cheap as they can. At others, like ours, the audience is supreme beer geeks. They know beer, and you have to step up your game and make yourself stand out or you’ll end up with some very unhappy guests.”

Also key to a festival’s success is keeping the brewers happy, emphasizes Irwin. “That’s a big one. If they’re not happy, they won’t send beer to the next festival.” For one thing, she says, planners should make sure the brewers have plenty to eat. “Hire a person who does nothing but manage their needs, from setup to teardown,” she says. “Do everything you can to make the experience easy for the brewers.”

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