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Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

Having completed my post-Edmonton Folk Festival recovery 2017 edition, I have had some time to contemplate the state of beer at one of Canada’s largest and most successful folk festivals.

I appreciate the Folk Fest is mostly about the music, and every year there is plenty of great music to go around, but I write about beer. Plus this year the beer gardens were the major topic of conversation on the hill, even by those who don’t spend much time in there. The crux of the controversy was the organizers’ decision to eliminate pitchers and limit patrons to two beer per purchase, but I think it is a symptom of a larger dilemma facing the Festival around the appropriate place for beer in the events of the weekend.

I want to address both the narrow issue of pitchers, but also contemplate a way forward for the beer garden more generally.

The stated reason for the elimination of pitchers seemed to shift as the weekend went along. At first they were saying it was a logistical issue of keeping up on washing the pitchers. Then provincial regulations became the culprit (although I can find no rules restricting pitchers). I think the two reasons are one in the same – they are referring to concerns by Alberta Health Services around the sanitary quality of the pitchers.

However, only after the weekend did, I believe, the real reason emerge. In the Edmonton Journal’s wrap up of the festival (found here), Artistic Director Terry Wickham indicates that pitchers were dropped to address the issue of over-consumption. I think that is the real reason. The decisions the organizers made about the beer tent this year, including expanding it by 1/3, are all designed to make it harder to over-consume. They made it easier to come and go (by increasing capacity and thus reducing lines to enter the beer tent), but created longer line ups to buy beer and restricted the amount one could buy at a time.

Discouraging over-consumption is a good thing. Except that to address, as Wickham himself admits, the problem “100 people at the end”, he has frustrated thousands of responsible imbibers. The most common complaint was that pitchers are a more socially friendly way to consume. Four or five people can share a pitcher or two without having to get into line three times. They can also be more flexible with volume. Say I only want a half a beer – I can’t easily do that when there are no pitchers. Pitchers have their value, even at the risk of allowing some to more easily over-consume.

In short jugs are not the problem; segregating beer far away from most of the music is the problem. It creates an atmosphere where you must choose between listening to music or partying in the beer tent.

The Folk Fest is trying to navigate a challenging dilemma. They are a music festival and the vast majority of attendees want a pleasant listening experience. But it is also a festive atmosphere and people want to visit with friends and enjoy a beer or two, especially on a hot, sunny afternoon. Responsible consumption can enhance the overall festival experience. To date the strategy has been to increase the size of the beer tent and enact rules to discourage excessive drinking. They have been only moderately successful.

A better solution is to shift the culture and integrate beer and its responsible consumption into the listening of music. Ideally, that would mean an all-site license, where beer could be purchased a number of kiosks and consumed on the hill. I appreciate, though, there are significant logistical challenges for a space as large as Gallagher Park, the biggest being the AGLC requirements around security.

So how about this for a workable compromise? A series of smaller beer gardens scattered throughout the site, most near a music stage. Rather than corralling beer drinkers into one large pen on the fringes of the site, the gardens could integrate beer into the overall experience, which I argue will cut down on over-consumption. If each garden is a modest size, the scale of each operation will be smaller. No more 25 minute line-ups to buy beer (which happened this year), as the number of people in each garden will be smaller. And guess what? If buying another beer doesn’t require a highly organized expedition, you likely don’t need pitchers and that whole debate disappears.

I know this proposal also has logistical challenges. Decentralizing increases challenges of supplying beer and keeping it cool. But it is not impossible to solve those issues. The value of my proposal is that it begins a process of normalizing responsible consumption. The drunks are not tucked into a far corner of the beer tent only to be released at closing time on an unsuspecting hill. Beer will be consumed in the open, which I argue will lead to more responsible consumption.

The Folk Fest needs to do a re-think of the whole role of beer at the festival. And if they do so, they should also re-visit their commitment to serve Big Rock exclusively. I have written about this before (such as here), but it is long since time to provide a wider range of options to festival goers. This is not a slight at Big Rock, but after four days of alternating between Traditional and Citradelic IPA, I got pretty bored and was pining for something different. Offering more options also feeds into a new culture of respect for beer.

I am doubtful my proposal will be seriously considered by the organizers. If they insist on having only one beer garden, then they need to bring back pitchers and instead institute other rules (such as cutting of pitcher sales earlier than glass sales, or stepping up enforcement of refusing service to those who have over-consumed).

But I believe it is time for a grander vision for how to handle beer at a music festival. Mr. Wickham, over to you.



4 comments to Beer Tent Blues and How to Cure Them

  • Quibble: Terry Wickham’s official title is Festival Producer.

  • Mike

    Agree on most every count. If going for multiple smaller beer gardens, why not let a different local brewer manage each one?

    My comment though, is that It’s an open secret at the festival that everyone sneaks their own booze in. With two young kids the beer garden is a definitive no go for me – that didn’t prevent me from enjoying cans of Tool Shed and Blindman on my tarp though. A couple cans at the bottom of the cooler each day isn’t hurting anyone. Most everyone around me was pouring innocuous unlabelled water bottles into their cokes/tonics/fruit drinks as well.

    Anyone who wants to enjoy a drink at the fest but doesn’t necessarily want the party atmosphere of the beer tent is going to keep doing that regardless of any changes to improve the beer tent.

  • Terry Wickham here. I never have hidden agendas when it comes to the Folk Festival. The reason the jugs were eliminated was that we would have needed a second dishwasher ( $25,000? ) but more importantly another crew. We are bursting at the seams as it is with 2700 volunteers approx. We have to feed and transport volunteers plus all the other musicians and guests ( another 1000 ) Eliminating the beer jugs had an unintended consequence i.e. last call to some did not mean buy 2 drinks, but buy 2 jugs, this led to problems for our security when they tried to shut down the beer tent each night.
    Our thinking is not closed on the subject, up to an including an all site license. Your could say our thinking is constantly evolving. Big Rock provides us also with the infrastructure for the Beer Gardens. We considered a second Beer Garden at the west end of the site but it is just too cumbersome in the number of volunteers. There are some excellent suggestions in the article and we will take them under consideration, thanks, Terry

  • Patrick Nugent

    Great suggestions Jason. Could the multiple smaller beer gardens idea be combined with more diversity in the selection by, for example, having brewer-specific beer gardens at different stages (where you could properly see and hear the musicians)? Would brewers be prepared to provide the necessary logistical support for their own beer gardens to take some of the burden off the Festival itself?

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