Elysian Brewing in Seattle, Wash. throws a Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, which in 2014 featured 92 pumpkin brews, a costume contest and 1,200-pound pumpkins filled with beer. Dick Cantwell, formerly of Elysian, said it’s important to have unique ideas for festivals. Photo courtesy of Elysian Brewing Company
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“Staging a Kickass Beer Event” takes planning, planning and more planning, according to the four presenters of the “DIY Beer Fest” at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference, held in Portland in April.
Dick Cantwell, former head brewer and co-founder of Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, said it’s important to differentiate the event and make it special. “If you don’t have a unique idea, it’s not worth doing,” he said.
For example, Elysian certainly brings plenty of unique elements to its two-day Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, which features pumpkin beers front and center, a costume contest and giant 1,200-pound pumpkins filled with beer.
“We try to retain the Christmas-morning effect,” he said. “Last year we had 92 pumpkin beers and 18 were ours. We have beers people have never tasted before or heard of before.”
Cantwell helps guest brewers with beer ideas for the event with only one restriction — they have to contain pumpkin. The brewer from Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine, named last year’s contribution Drunken Promise in reference to his promise to Cantwell to make a pumpkin brew.
Barnaby Struve, co-founder of 3 Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, Ind., said to, “plan ahead to manage the crowds. Our Dark Lord Day is the only time to buy Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout.” He recommended coding tickets with different groups, such as A, B and C, to control times and lines for pickup “if you have a special beer release at your festival.”
Other considerations: “Know what is legal in your municipality. Check for permit requirements and get the necessary ones. Go to events as a consumer and take notes. From the customers’ perspective, they are experiencing what you’re all about,” said Struve. “Make sure that your customers leave happy. It’s important to have this goodwill experience.”
Just the opposite happened last year at the Cigar City Brewing Hunahpu’s Day Festival in Tampa Bay, Fla., said director of marketing Geiger Powell. Named for a Mayan myth, the festival is a release party of Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout. In 2014, they tried something different. “We wanted to streamline the event and shrink the population. The $50 ticket included all the beer from the festival and the opportunity to buy beer bottles,” said Powell.
Originally, the attendees name was required to be on the ticket. “We changed our mind because so many people complained,” said Powell. “We should NOT have changed our mind.”
They had many fraudulent tickets and ran out of bottles. People were unhappy. “Riots broke out and yes, you can watch it all on YouTube,” he said.
The next day, Cigar City offered full refunds, free beer in the tasting room and paid out $200,000. “Ultimately it was positive with lots of press, and the next month we had our best sales ever,” said Powell.
This year was a different story. The tickets cost $200 and included food and four bottles of stout, plus access to more than 200 beers from 60 different breweries. “We insisted the name on the ticket match the ID of the attendee. We treated our brewers in town right. That’s essential because brewers will tell everyone,” he said.
Beau’s All Natural Brewing in Vankleek Hill, eastern Ontario, Canada holds an authentic Oktoberfest for two days in early October that swells the population of the small town. CEO and co-founder Steve Beauchesne said, “We have 8,000 people and 2,000 cows in town. Last year we had 20,000 attendees.”
They also had a big problem last year with their shuttle service. Since Beau’s is 50 minutes east of Ottawa, they offer a shuttle option as an add-on to the base ticket price.
“Last year it poured rain all day, creating a real mud fest,” said Beauchesne. “At the end of the day, everyone wanted to get on the bus at the same time and go home. But we had people waiting in line for more than an hour. We had mistakenly decided to go with less buses because we could loop them.”
He said they have a full-time person now in charge of Oktoberfest. “When we did our first one, we pulled it off in six weeks. Last year was our worst because it was the latest in the year that we started planning for it.”
Cantwell said planning for the Great Pumpkin Festival begins the minute the current one is done. “We have to pick a date and people want to plan,” he said.
He also recommends a thorough, detailed checklist, before and after. “We always underestimate the peak,” he said. To keep lines short, they split the beer into 25 serving stations, each with three or four beers. They also have a roving special beer.
Struve said they begin planning in December for the Dark Lord Day in April.
The group had different opinions on volunteer help. Powell said Cigar City has all their staff work the festival as well as volunteers from homebrew clubs. But Struve said that 3 Floyds does not use volunteers, only paid staff because of liability issues, regulations and required licenses. And Cantwell said Elysian does use volunteers, but they have to be licensed pourers. However, all agreed on the importance of paying participating breweries for their beer.
The takeaway? Diversify with food, music and other breweries, so it’s good for the whole industry.
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