Beer festivals, siphoning gas, and pizza the size of bagels

The craft beer industry is a gold rush.

Or at least, that’s the way it surely looks to an outsider looking in.

In the past dozen years or so, as news coverage of craft brewery openings has leaked into even the shittiest newspapers in Ontario, and as local IPAs have sneaked their way onto menus among the jalapeño poppers and zesty chicken zingers of even our lamest franchise restaurants, there has surely been no shortage of opportunist who has seen the growth and noted, “Hmm, this craft beer thing is really taking off.”

The result is that there has been all manner of “unique and interesting” craft-beer-adjacent businesses that have sprung up as these opportunists channel their inner Bill Paxtons and Helen Hunts to chase the mythical tornadoes of cash they think are swirling around craft beer.

And so the beer industry has become a charlatans’ playground with all manner of snake oil salesman and huckster trying to make a quick buck. There are shady beer delivery services, over-priced beer tours, passports that apparently you must have in order to learn how to walk to various bars and pour liquid into your mouth; even, memorably, that guy who wanted to sell UV protected shaker pint glasses so that your beer wouldn’t get skunky during the precious minutes it spent in the sun on the patio.

But even with all these greasy characters lurking around your local tap room talking about their gofundme pages, to my mind there is little competition for the title of Greasiest; because that honour easily goes to organizers of craft beer festivals. In my near decade of experience as a semi-professional drinks writer, I can confirm that I’ve seen no subsection of craft beer that is more prone to fuckery than the part of the business that revolves around the organization and execution of festivals.

It’s a little known fact that beer festival organizers have very often come to the profession directly from prison. It’s rumoured that Ontario’s penal system has a work release program that lets petty criminals be reintroduced to society gradually, starting with menial jobs selling tokens at the Toronto Festival of Beer, and then gradually working their way up to running and organizing their own waterfront festivals. Sometimes these organizers are country club golf hustlers, killing time in the off-season by starting a local beer fest or they are strung out pyramid scheme enthusiasts looking to diversify. More than a few beer event organizers I know came to the gig from lucrative careers siphoning gas from new trucks at Chevy dealerships. “It’s just easier money,” they have told me, “and it leaves a slightly better taste in my mouth.”

Yes, there might be no character more reprehensible in this industry than the craft beer festival organizer. Even we lowly beer bloggers, with our distended bellies full of free barrel-aged stout and our shoulders slouched from years at an overheating laptop that’s rendered our genital useless, will look upon the shady beer festival organizer and, with hate in our hearts and complimentary cheese in ours mouth, rightfully share our open disdain for this unique breed of leech.

Now, first, two disclaimers: Beer events run by breweries are typically well organized affairs that, obviously, tend to look out for the best interests of brewers. I don’t need to open my inbox to Indie Alehouse Stout Night enthusiasts (or organizers) raging at me. and I’m not looking to pick a fight with anyone who camps out for Witchstock.  When a brewery is in charge, there are minimal shenanigans and so I’m speaking of beer event organizers who offer no more to this industry than the organizing of beer events.

Second, importantly, as a consumer, I’ve grown to hate 99% of craft beer festivals. To me, there is no more unnatural way to consume beer than to line up for a fistful of sweaty tokens only to line up again —and again and again— in order to exchange those tokens for frustratingly small portions of beer, and then line up for the privilege of urinating, and then line up for overpriced food served in a paper dish with a too-small wooden fork. Sure, I’m getting a little older and less patient, but I I loath both line ups and the gamification of drinking so the concept of having to pay someone to do both is less inviting than giving you six bucks to take a meat hammer to my own skull. I don’t want to drink beer in a muddy field with a throng of people clutching a list of must-drink beers in one hand and the Untappd app in the other. No, Kyle, you don’t have to try them all. Beer is not Pokemon. Get to a decent beer bar and drink at a reasonable and enjoyable pace, please and thanks.

So yes, I openly admit my inherent bias for the product these charlatans are offering.

My own distaste for them notwithstanding, beer festivals are demonstrably shady enterprises, and I can prove it. Indeed, with very little effort, a third of a bottle of Makers Mark, and a free evening, it turns out you too can easily find plenty of evidence of beer fest organizers’ unchecked greed and opportunistic gouging. Take, for example, the Ottawa Winter Brewfest, which happens to have just taken place this past weekend. To be part of the event, the organizers were asking craft brewers to pony up $1100 for a 10’ x 10’ space for two days. If brewers wanted the festival to pour their beers at the “main bar” space, craft brewers were being asked to pay $475 for three draft lines or $400 for two lines.

Extra items were also available at a premium. You could, for example, buy a $3 bag of ice for $15 or about $8 worth of beer gas for $60. [edit: I now realize I overlooked the weight of this bag of ice. 12kg of ice costs more than $3]

And what do brewers get in exchange for forking over all this cash? They get the privilege of handing over half of whatever profit they manage to make back to the event organizers. Yes. From the event registration: “Gross revenues will be divided as follow [sic]: 50% to the exhibitor and 50% to Brewfest.”

And you might be tempted to assume that these costs are inflated to cover the event organizers’ overheads. After all, renting space and hiring people to staff this event isn’t free, right? Well sure. Kind of…Maybe? I’d suggest the cost of renting 100 square feet of real estate might be just a tad inflated. Hell for $1100 you could buy this ping pong table.  You could rent out the whole basement of this house in Oshawa. You could even spend a month in a 5-star hotel in Bangkok (find your own links for that one).

It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, but consider that the 613flea, a flea market taking place every Saturday at the Aberdeen Pavilion of Lansdowne Park — where this beer festival just took place — charges vendors $100 for a 10′ x 10′ space for the day. Again, a flea market is a different beast than a beer festival, but it’s probably worth noting that someone else running a small business will be selling their wares in literally the exact same space every Saturday until November for less than a tenth the cost of what the Ottawa Brewfest was charging brewers — and they aren’t being asked to kick back 50% of what they make to the folks who rented the space and built a website.

As for all that expensive personnel, well, it’s definitely true that the event was well staffed. Leading up to the the Ottawa Winter Brewfest, the event’s site had posted calls for people to sell tokens, was seeking a “blanket station” crew, bonfire staff, box office staff, coat check people, game zone staff, greeters, cup-hander-outers — even a communications specialist. The catch, of course, is that every single one of these “job postings” were actually calls for volunteers. Yes, the Ottawa Winter Brewfest, like virtually all beer festivals, was fully staffed with a throng of people who were paid exactly zilch.

This isn’t a new issue for beer festivals, of course. Much ado has been made previously about the fact that beer events often rely on people to shoulder the load in exchange for free admission or, worse, some promise of exposure to the beer industry for those who want to learn more. Because holy shit what could be a bigger draw to work for free than the once in a lifetime learning learning experience spending a weekend working near some real life beer reps?

I submitted an inquiry about being a bartender at the Ottawa Winter Brewfest and learned that in exchange for five hours unpaid labour doling out drinks, I was eligible to receive free admission for one session, “snacks,” an “official tshirt,” and a “secure area for personal belongings.” Ho ho. Who needs things like actual pay when there’s a small space behind a locked door that I can cram my shit in while I labour for free? IS THIS HEAVEN?

Also, it should probably be noted here that, while it seems like I’m picking on the organizers of the Ottawa Winter Brewfest for all the greedy, opportunistic tendencies of beer event organizers, I actually can happily use them as an example of the character of most beer event organizers because, as it turns out, they basically are the organizers of most beer events. The Ottawa Brewfest is run by the same people who have run Festibière in Gatineau since 2011 and who launched the Toronto Winter Brewfest in 2016. Yes, THAT Winter Brewfest. That colossal clusterfuck of a beer event. It’s basically the same handful of people continuing to run multiple beer events every year that make people hate the way beer events are run.

But here’s the worst part: Even with a reputation for event organization that rivals John Travolta’s reputation for pronouncing names and a even with a $1100+ entrance fee and a 50% kickback structure, the Ottawa Winter Brewfest and its cash grabbing siblings are, shockingly, largely considered reasonable business ventures for craft brewers.

Gavin Anderson is the founder of Anderson Craft Ales here in London. As the owner and brewer at a mid-size brewery that’s had to carve out a niche in a traditionally macro-brewery dominated region, he’s been to his fair share of beer festivals. “Although there are a handful of good festivals and organizers, I think that the craft brewery festival situation as a whole is pretty shitty,” he told me recently. “I think every event we went to last year ended up almost breaking even, and that’s with over 950 staff hours and 5200L of beer.”

“So it’s a lot of work for someone else to make a ton of money.  If you consider the ‘retail value’ of the beer sold, we get about 25% of it, for providing the beer, equipment, and staff to pour it.  To be fair, I’m sure the facility rental, security, staffing, and promotion costs a fair amount, but I also don’t think there would be so many festivals if they weren’t pretty lucrative.”

And therein lies the rub. Beer festivals –even the shitty ones– are time consuming but, for the most part, are a pretty sound investment. The business model is simple enough that if you’ve got the time, even someone suffering from recent head trauma can probably make money off of one. The formula is straightforward:  Solicit lots of beer variety, or at least the illusion of it, bring in food that’s best enjoyed while moderately to extremely inebriated, and mix in a shiny marketing campaign. Fire up that twitter account, order the food trucks and ice, copy and paste your brewfest website theme from last year and let the volunteers run the show and the brewers pay for everything. Sure, your event might be a colossal bust, but who cares? By the time you’ve gouged all the breweries in attendance and pissed off the attendees with the poorly run nature of your event, you’ve already made your money. I can picture you now, back at your condo in Liberty Village in front of a pile of cocaine, deleting negative facebook comments, cleaning an antique rifle for some weird reason, and, presumably, masturbating into a pile of cash and unused beer tokens.

And shit, why not do it again and again? It clearly works and these drugs and vintage firearms don’t pay for themselves. Lay low, keep your full name off all the marketing material, and then do it all again next year. People clearly have a short attention span and will be back. The organizers of the Toronto Winter Brewfest basically threw the fucking Fyre Fest of beer events in Toronto in 2016 and have still been back every year. And the hazy-beer-sucking donkeys keep coming back. In 2019 they charged many of the same Toronto beer drinkers who were pissed about the the first event between $21 and $56 to line up to attend one session of essentially the same fucking event. It doesn’t appear that they’ve improved the model much. Take it from this guy, for example.

How do you fuck up pizza?

And yet, brewers are still willing to pay $1100 to give these goons their profits. It’s a little fucking bat shit.

But small to medium-sized brewery owners often feel compelled to be at events like this as one of the few ways they can get their products into the hands of a large swath of beer drinkers. With a retail system that’s, let’s be real, still fucked up and lawmakers that don’t seem to care much about regulating the licensee environment, breweries still need to attend festivals to help push their products.

And beer fest organizers know it, and that’s why they’ll be back, year after year like a seasonal illness. Sure they’ll mutate slightly to try and trick your immune system — changing up their website, moving to another city, adding yoga or throwback bands or some other gimmick, but you can count on them coming back every year like a hard to kill virus and you can bet the effect will be the same.

And speaking of viruses…

Hell, maybe there is a very real chance that the beer festival model is due for a shake-up very soon. We’re entering spring and summer festival season and even a passing awareness of current events would tell you that the prospects for those hoping to profit from large crowds — touching and exchanging beer glasses no less — might soon find themselves out of luck in 2020 and beyond.

Or maybe I’m just an optimist.

Nevertheless, beer festival organizers might need to rethink their career options, and soon. But of course these slimy buggers are resilient creatures of habit and if they lose this steady income source they’re very likely to slink back to what they know. So steer clear of your local brew fest this summer, and maybe tell your local Chevy dealership to hire some extra security.

11 thoughts on “Beer festivals, siphoning gas, and pizza the size of bagels

  1. I work in a brewery marketing department and for the last little while we’ve been constantly having the “is it worth it?” conversation.
    Sure, people are making money off these events, I’ll concede that, but as far as actually making an impression on the average consumer goes? I don’t see where the ROI is. Like you mentioned in your Vegandale piece- maybe the pendulum is due for a swing the other way when it comes to these big events.

  2. Interesting article on craft beer festivals, Ben! I had successfully blocked the Toronto Winter Brewfest from my memory until now. 🙂
    Just curious, what’s your background with the Kingston Whig-Standard to get the “shittiest newspapers in Ontario” label?

    1. I don’t think that paper is THE shittiest. It’s among the shittiest though, along with The Toronto Sun, The Edmonton Sun, The Calgary Sun, The Winnipeg Sun, The London Free Press, The Woodstock Sentinel-Review, The Sarnia Observer, The Chatham Daily News and The St. Thomas Times-Journal.

      1. I was kind of joking. I actually just listed all the newspapers you’ve written for — in the same order that you list them on your website — to see if you’d notice.
        But, since you asked, I do think Postmedia generally has suffered as of late given that they purchased and then dissolved dozens of insightful and important local news outlets in favour of a cost efficient syndication model. The result is that most of Canada’s print media landscape is now more focused on “click worthy” and sensational stories over traditional, well-researched journalism, they are openly biased toward stories that support one political point of view, and their standards for writing quality are demonstrably very, very low.

      2. It’s all good. I thought it was a good burn. But I should probably update that to avoid getting dunked on further. And yeah, I get you with their decisions, or more appropriately, the private equity fund that controls the company. Dissolving those papers crushed so many local markets left without next to no local coverage.

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