The other day I read a post by the incomparable Pete Brown where he discusses beer at music festivals. You can read it here. As usual, Mr. Brown wonderfully articulates something that has been on my mind for some time.
The thrust of his post is to point out that festivals are ideal locations to highlight local and craft beer. Yet, as he laments, most festivals sign deals with the big boys and offer paltry selections to thirsty festival-goers. This is equally an issue in Alberta (across Canada, I suspect). If you attend a music festival, you are most likely going to find the beer tent is a tied house, meaning you are only getting beer from one brewery or brewing conglomerate (an exception is Taste of Edmonton, who a few years ago realized if you are going to promote local food, you should probably offer a range of local beer, too. I know there are others as well, including Shakespeare in the Park). In Alberta, that tie is often with Big Rock.
I completely understand why the festivals sign exclusivity contracts. Beer at festivals is a big-time thing, and the festival can raise a lot of sponsorship money by agreeing to stock only one brewery’s beer. All arts events in Canada are notoriously under-funded and so must find cash wherever possible. I understand their position. Nor do I wish to be too critical of Big Rock, for I know they are very supportive of the arts in Alberta and put their money where their mouth is, which is a very good thing.
What I don’t get is why the festival-goer gets the short shrift in this arrangement? I mean that purely as a rhetorical question because I know very well why. Festival attendees merely buy a ticket, and ticket sales aren’t enough to keep festivals afloat.
But I gotta tell you, after 4 days of drinking the same beer in the beer tent at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival (my personal favourite of the local festivals), I am pretty well beside myself. Big Rock has tried in recent years to extend the range of their offerings, but still the range can’t sustain me, especially since Grasshopper and Trad are the two anchor beer.
I realize I am speaking for a minority, as most beer tent patrons seem quite content all weekend long. But I have had enough conversations in the beer tent to know I am not alone in this complaint (really, I do see lots of music, too. Honestly.). That is why Pete Brown’s post was so fascinating for me. He deftly makes a strong case for diversity and more bold choices at festivals. He points out at the Green Man Festival in Wales they had a real ale tent with 99 different Welsh beer and cider. That tent was packed every moment of the day and the product sold like crazy. The regular corporate beer tent, in contrast was empty.
It makes me wonder what would happen if a festival in western Canada opened up their beer tent to a wide range of beer from different breweries. Imagine going for a beer in between acts and finding a choice of 5 or 6 widely different beer (to be moderate about it – 99 might be too much for the first go). It may not lead to more beer sales, but I am convinced it would lead to happier festival-goers. I, for one, would gladly sip on a Big Rock Saaz Pils and then switch to an Alley Kat Full Moon and then a Paddock Wood Loki (just as an example).
There are numerous upsides for the festival. They would develop a reputation for supporting local craft beer, their patrons could appreciate increased choice, and they likely get to spread sponsorship money around. At the moment what benefit is there for Mill Street or Wild Rose or any other brewery with no beer on site to sponsor the event? I am not suggesting a “pay-to-play” kind of thing. Quite the opposite. I argue you throw the thing open and get breweries to compete on quality and sales. If their product doesn’t move this year, they get bumped next year. then sponsorship becomes about wanting to support a local event and be a part of it. What can be cleaner than that?
The festival can still sell the promotion space – the banners, advertising, branded glasses, etc. But the beer would be about what customers want. I know for the breweries currently on the inside, this is a scary proposition and they will be reluctant to let go of their exclusive access. But I would like to encourage them to think about it from the consumer’s perspective. Your exclusivity means the beer drinker is held hostage for a weekend. They don’t get to choose their beer – you have done it for them. I am convinced that you have little to lose. In all cases the sponsor brewery has great profile and customer loyalty. Lots of people will still keep drinking your beer.
I doubt this happens anytime soon, but someone needs to start naming the problem. The model of tied beer tents needs to be replaced by one that maximizes choice and, by design, emphasizes local and craft beer. It is mostly upside here. Unfortunately the one and only downside is the thing that blocks it from happening. Let the debate start now.