As long as the American craft beer movement has been around, there have been beer festivals. Some are organized by individual breweries, some by consumer advocate groups, most by third-parties to the brewing world such as distributors, retailers or other organizations. Festivals are generally planned for the good weather months of summer but may be found at any time. They can be of any size or held at any setting, some with a specialty focus, and in almost any state across the country.
But what is the purpose of these festivals? What can the organizers hope to accomplish by putting beers and beer drinkers together in the hot sun or the occasional summer shower? The immediate and cynical answer would be to earn a little cash but there are many easier routes to that end. The legal liabilities and licensing alone quash most proposed festivals at the concept stage.
What do the brewers and brewery representatives get out of the experience? For them, the festival provides a showcase for their beers, a means to get samples into the hands of a potential consumer base. Yet the fans of craft beers are already loyal followers of many of these same breweries, and exposure to these consumers is either a foregone conclusion or future certainty. Craft beer regulars tend to seek out the beers and brewers that interest them, so using festivals as an advertising medium is a wash.
Likewise, what does the public gain from beer festivals? Although a festival can draw the uninformed beer-curious, the primary attendees at festivals are already craft beer consumers. They may encounter beers they have not seen or tried previously but these customers are already the target market. They are the most likely candidates to make a purchase from a retailer and need no further convincing to make the sale.
Are beer festivals about educating the public? Possibly, although the primary draw and audience for beer festivals is already the craft beer fan. Macro beer drinkers tend to tire of craft beer quickly, and easily revert to their favorite mass-produced products. The craft market demographic is usually already well educated about craft beer styles and flavors, so the festival as a venue for public education is not a substantial argument.
The real purpose behind beer festivals is community. The average craft beer consumer rarely, if ever, encounters a professional brewer or brewery employee face to face. They know their products, they follow their business and history online and through other publications, but personal interaction is rare. Breweries are industrial workplaces and although most welcome the public with regular tours, the restrictions are many — primary among them being time and location.
The point of the beer festival is to put the brewer at the tap handing a sample glass to one of their patrons. This personal arrangement allows the brewer to feel rewarded about their hard work and vision and receive direct feedback from the consumer. It also allows the public to meet the tireless employees behind the label and brand, demystifying the industry for the customer living outside the system.
Beer festivals bring people together from all aspects of the craft beer industry, from brewers to distributors to retailers to shoppers. They provide a basis for relationships and communications in an industry that can be professionally isolated but also uniquely personal. No matter the organization behind them, festivals are collectively the craft beer village that everyone gets to visit for a short while every year.