Beer Festivals

Waiting: The Oddly Divisive Phenomenon of Standing in Line for Beer

I don't care if you stand in line for beer.  It's your time on this planet, and you can choose to spend it pretty much any way you want.  Liberty, you know?

This is one of those things, though, that lots of people seem to like to weigh in on, criticize, laud, judge, defend, or justify.  I'm not interested in taking sides here, but that doesn't mean I don't have anything to say on the question.  What I'd like to do is draw a distinction between two different kinds of beer-waiting (at the brewery and at a beer festival) and suggest a general approach.

Staking Out the Brewery

I know some who do this, and if you're that committed, go for it.  I don't, but I also wouldn't wait in line for Super Bowl tickets even though I'm a big football fan: I have a less-challenging option (watching at home) that gives me about as much utility for a lot less cost and a lot more convenience.  Same thing with beer.  I might not get that super-rare bottle of whatever, but I can get something that's probably really close to it (or better, if I'm lucky) without the wait.

If you are going to wait in line for beer at a brewery, I have to say that in my mind the only kind of beer that it makes sense for is for an especially hop-driven beer that needs to be consumed right away.  In that one instance, you're presumably getting it as fresh as can be, which matters if we're talking something with hop character as a defining attribute.  So get your bottle(s), cool to serving temperature, and enjoy!  That seems rational to me.

But as I said, if you're just a devotee of a particular brewery, or really like the novelty of limited-release beers, or just want to show up your not-as-committed beer friends, then that's an end in and of itself.  Set up your folding chair and enjoy.

The Beer Festival Queue

This is the much more fluid and fascinating scenario: what's your general approach to lines at a beer festival?  

I'm an "opportunity taster" at the beer fest.  I don't wait in line for anything.  I'll be there for a couple of hours, and I almost certainly won't get to every booth no matter what I do, so I'm looking to maximize the number of different breweries I can "touch" in the time I have, since I look at these things as a way to test-drive breweries I haven't experienced or check back in with some I have experienced but just didn't like that much.***  If I'm waiting in line at Brewery A, I'm missing my chance to hit Breweries X, Y, and Z in that same span of time.  I know that this could mean that I'm self-selecting my way into less-popular beers or breweries (since maybe there's no line there because their stuff sucks), but I'm happy to balance that risk against the counterbalancing likelihood that these breweries aren't bad as much as they are unknown, and thus don't draw a crowd.  

Which doesn't mean it's irrational to wait at the festival.  It makes sense to me to wait in line if you're at/from a place that doesn't get a big selection of highly-regarded or popular beers.  We're spoiled here in/around Philadelphia because we get damned near everything (hell, during Philly Beer Week you can get two-dollar six-ounce pours of Dogfish 120 and World Wide Stout, Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig, etc.).  But if you're from Nebraska and don't see as much of this stuff and you see a booth that's offering something you might not get access to, then it makes all the sense in the world to wait for it.  

It also makes sense if, like my wife, you have very specific tastes in your beer/alcohol products.  At the Opening Tap Beer Festival at last year's National Homebrewers Conference, Barbara basically just camped out in the Moonlight Meadery line to get a steady-but-small supply of their braggot.  Hell, in that case I was grateful for the line - if it wasn't there, she'd have likely been hammered by the end of the night...

Though, as I said, it's your time and your glass.  Do what you want.  Heck, if you're a line-waiter, you're actually helping us non-waiters, creating a symbiotic and helpful beer fest ecology.

Let It Go

[You're hearing the song in your head now, aren't you?]  In any case, though, maybe don't spend time thinking about this or expounding upon it, either to express your disbelief ("Why would anyone wait hours for a just-OK DIPA?") or disparage the action itself.  And if you're a "waiter," maybe don't take umbrage when your "Been in line since last night!" social media post isn't an immediate hit.  

There's lots of beer out there, and lots of ways to get it, and lots of ways to approach it.  My advice isn't to wait, or not - it's to make a choice and take a deliberate approach to it.  Make a decision about what and how you want out of beer, and then do what flows logically from that.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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***And no, this doesn't make me a hypocrite.  I know that only two weeks ago I argued against the idea of judging beers based on a 2-ish ounce pour of them, but at a festival I don't have any other option.  Requesting a full pour would result in a "Sideways"-esque scene, and/or endangering someone's liquor license or insurance.  But I'd note here that I don't make determinations at festivals - it's just data for the computer, and I'd never write off a brewery or even a single beer based on that one pour at the fest!


What Brewers Wish You Knew: Beer Festival Edition

I think it's worth our while as beer people to occasionally hear from the hard-working brewers that supply us with our beer.  I've surveyed brewery owners, brewers, and staff to see how the world looks from their side of the jockey box, so that we can appreciate their unique perspective on the beer world.  I hope to do this several times per year, for your reading pleasure.  Today's topic: Beer Festivals.  

Let me state at the outset that I've "sanitized" the quotes and comments I've received, to protect the innocent (I assured the people I spoke to that they would have anonymity).  Also, much like a biopic that needs to cover a lot of ground, I've also taken several quotes and made "composites" of them.  So if you have a problem with any of this, don't blame your local brewer - blame me.

Let me also say that, by and large, brewers don't have any real issues with the vast majority of their customers and festival-goers.  They're not huddling in corners, shit-talking you.  I asked.  I poked.  I probed.  I wanted to know how we can make their lives easier, and pass it on, and here we are. 

Now, back to the show.  Beer festival time!  To you, it's just a field or hall filled with beer.  It's a wonderful social event.  It's a potential learning experience.  It's a way to see what's new and different out there in the marketplace.  

To the people pouring beer, it's work.  Most of you appreciate that, and you're polite and courteous.  Others...aren't.  There seem to be three areas where a lot of brewers wish you were a little more understanding.  In no particular order: The Beer, The Attendee, and The Brewer.

A (Limited) World of Beer

You've bought tickets to an event about beer.  You're surrounded by beer.  Presumably, you like to drink beer (or know someone who does - welcome to the party, DD!).  So it's a little surprising to some brewers that some of you don't seem to care about the beer...or care way too much, given that breweries can't bring every beer with them!

"A lot of events don’t pay for the beer, so please don’t complain if we don’t have the styles you’re looking for.”  This was a common theme - please keep in mind that in many cases, these breweries are simply giving away beer.  Yes, they get publicity and exposure, and yes, YOU paid, but you're getting this stuff at a reduced rate; $40 worth of beer isn't that much anymore.

IPAs also took a bit of a hit from our brewers: "IPAs aren't that hard to make - a lot of you are making way too much of how great so-and-so's IPA was..."  "Learn that there are styles other than IPA."  "Yes, I make an IPA.  No, I don't have it with me."  "Stop referring to every beer by whether or not it's 'hoppy' just because you think every craft beer is an IPA."  Long story short?  Try to appreciate the diversity of beer styles out there, even though it does seem, at times, like every table is pouring an IPA.  This is a vicious and unhealthy cycle of addiction: you keep asking for them, so breweries feel like they need to have them even though they might not be their most interesting beer and you might actually be sick of them.  Secretly, many of these brewers are hoping you'll go for the other tap (whatever it is).  Take them up on it and make their day.

"No - I can't just 'open another keg' for you."  If you want their full range of beers, go ahead and visit the brewery!  “We only bring a couple of beers to festivals.  We might change kegs out for new styles, but that’s usually over the break between sessions.”

And what might have been my favorite expression of beer style frustration: "No, I don't have anything like f***ing Blue Moon..."  Some brewers have a real sensitive spot about these "crafty" beers - maybe just go with a general description of what you're looking for rather than trotting out what might be a loaded name for that particular brewer!

The bottom line here?  Try a variety, and realize that "variety" is probably best had by visiting lots of tables.  The brewers thank you.

The Spectre at the Fest

Alehole behavior at beer festivals is one of the principle reasons this blog exists in the first place, so I can attest to this at first hand as someone who has poured at these events: there's a pretty significant number of folks out there doing some pretty obviously alehole-ish things.  But our brewers also noted some things that aren't as obvious.

"Tell me outright if you don't like my beer."  Brewers have (or should have) pretty thick skins - you don't need to protect their feelings (much).  If you don't like it, they want to know.  Maybe there's another beer they're pouring that you might like better.  Maybe your expectations of what you asked for were off, and we can work through it.  Smiling politely and saying "that's great!" before going to dump what, to you, tastes like backwash sweetened with rotten peaches, isn't helping them (or you).

"The state mandates pour sizes - so no, I can't give you a full pour."  I didn't even know this was a thing people asked for.  But knock it off.  Or at least don't get mad at the brewer for it!

"The beer servers are not there for your viewing/cat-calling/flirting pleasure."  No further comment necessary.

“Don’t just walk up and ask for ‘whatever.’  If you don’t know what I’m giving you, you won’t remember my brewery.  You also won’t know what to expect when you drink it.  So I’d rather not waste that two ounces on you.  It's different than saying that I can pick for you – that’s fine as long as you can give me a little guidance.”  Do people really do this?  Another brewer offered this gem: "Don't walk up and just ask for the strongest beer."  

“I don’t need your credentials.  Telling me you’re a homebrewer or a judge isn’t really telling me anything.  Tell me what you like to drink and why, maybe – at least then I can evaluate your reaction.  If you hate IPAs, and tell me mine sucks, then maybe that’s not going to weigh as much.”  No need to go around the fest "credentialing" all over the place.  And even if you are well-credentialed, so what?  As another brewer put it, “Drinking beer doesn’t make you a beer judge, and if you are I don't necessarily want you to judge the beer.  Tell me if you like it or not, but don’t tell me it’s good or bad.”

Finally, we get that this is a beer event, but that's no excuse to treat it like a frat party.  “If you’re a drunk asshole, you should get a ride home instead of acting like a drunk asshole.” Also, “it’s OK to be a little drunk, but if you’re sloppy I’m going to stop serving you just like I would at the bar.”  Breweries that participate in festivals can still be held liable for over-serving, and they're going to apply the same standard of responsible alcohol service.  You're at the Anytown Convention Center, not someplace where the law doesn't exist like international waters, or north of The Wall.  [How excited are you that GoT is back?  Oh, not at all?  Fine.  Your loss.]

That is the Question

By far the most conflicting comments I got were on the question of questions.  Literally the same brewer would often include, "we’re there to talk about our beer, beer in general, beer styles – don’t be afraid to ask us questions!” and, “sometimes they ask too many questions.”

The contradiction seems to come down to a question (no pun intended) of etiquette.  On the one hand, yes, brewers are absolutely happy to answer questions for days about beer (for the record, I contacted 22 brewers for my little impromptu survey, and got 20 responses.  Long ones.).  They just want to be able to do so while continuing to serve samples to the people in line behind you.  “There’s a line of people – if you want to chat, please step aside so we can pour for the people behind you while we talk.”

So, if I may, I would like to propose a standard maneuver: if you're going to be asking questions, take a half step to the side so the line can keep moving, and limit yourself to two questions.  And as you ask questions/chat with the server or brewer, be respectful of others who are doing the same as they're getting their pours.  Don't monopolize the table.  You can always contact them later - as you'll find out if you spend any time with brewers, they almost never shut up about beer and brewing, which shouldn't come as a surprise.

Brew Life

Brewers are people, too - not just robots in rubber boots who persistently smell of boiled hops and beard cream.  And they're often surprised by your misunderstanding of their lives.

“No, I’m not drunk all the time.”  Brewers have heard every joke there is about being surrounded by beer all day, but this go-to seems to be a very common one.  If they drank all day, when would they brew?

Then there's the work itself - lots of brewers feel a little under-appreciated.  “I don’t have an easy job.  My job is hard, physically and mentally, and doesn’t pay all that much.  Don’t act like I’ve somehow gotten a pass on life because I make beer – don’t forget, I’m working at 4:00 on a Saturday.   You’re not."  That goes for the others at the festival, too - “Most of the people working here are either volunteers, underpaid, or doing it after working crazy hours.”  

And it's a potentially very long day of work.   “Even though the event might only be a couple of hours for you, for us it might be all day.  Two sessions, plus set-up and break-down time, means a 9AM-9PM day at some events.”  

The event itself is also out of their control.   “We don’t control availability of water, dump buckets, or restrooms.  Please don’t get mad at us for things the event does!  Take it up with the organizers.”  The brewer is bringing beer - the rest isn't up to them.  I did, though, love one brewer who told me that s/he was asked if s/he could "do anything about the temperature in the hall."  "I said, 'sure, I've got the thermostat right back here!'  With no sense of sarcasm or irony at all, the tipsy dude gave me a thumbs up and a hearty 'Thanks!'  I hope he wasn't going to be driving - even sober."

And finally, if you liked the beer and you want more information...   “It’s the 21st century.  If you want to remember the brewery, make a note on your phone – don’t ask me for a business card."  What's funny about this to me is what this brewer wrote next: "But if you do, I have business cards.” Analog wins the day.

Good News

I hope that this hasn't come across as too snarky or whiny.  Nearly all of the brewers I heard from also told me that, by and large, they love going to festivals, talking to beer lovers, and seeing their colleagues.  Good news rarely makes headlines, so yes, a lot of this has been the negative stuff.  Most of the time there aren't significant issues.  But.....

There's always that "but."  Brewing is a pretty "cool" industry.  Most of the people in it are obsessive about beer and brewing, but pretty easy-going about most everything else.  They don't want to complain about you (or me).  So it helps if we, as beer people, are proactive.  

Enjoy the festival responsibly.  Try a lot of different styles.  Be understanding if your preferred beer style isn't on tap (yet).  Ask questions courteously, as you would of any other professional.  And the best piece of advice/commentary I got?

“If you’ve just had a cigar, don’t bother me.  You can’t taste anything right now.”

Keep it simple.

JJW

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