With beer fans deprived of festivals celebrating the beverage for the last year and a half as the Covid-19 pandemic lingered, aficionados and brewers are now welcoming them back, cautiously optimistic that the events can succeed in once again highlighting beer’s varied styles while also maintaining social distancing among attendees.
Urban South Brewery’s Houston branch successfully hosted its first-ever beer festival this summer. According to brewery general manager Dave Ohmer, the Boom Shaka Lager Fest sold out. “We received an extremely positive response from brewers and attendees,” he says. The one-day event, which showcased craft-brewed lagers, featured 31 breweries and attracted 430 attendees. “Coming out of the pandemic, we were challenged with what we could do, but we were very pleased with the response,” Ohmer adds.
Indeed, for much of the pandemic beer festivals were relegated to virtual events. Beer Advocate’s popular Extreme Beer Fest, presented by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and in partnership with retailer Half Time Beverage, went virtual earlier this year. Still, Half Time COO Jason Daniels says the results for virtual tastings have been amazing. “We’ve been able to attract thousands of participants,” he says. As a retail partner in the most recent Extreme Beer Fest and other virtual beer festivals, Half Time handled all shipping, freight, logistics, and coordination with breweries, Daniels notes.
For many craft breweries, participation in and sponsorship of beer festivals has become a vital marketing tool. St. Louis-based Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. has been hosting beer festivals for the last ten years, and co-founder and brewmaster Florian Kuplent has seen the events grow from small gatherings to multi-day parties attracting more than 30,000 guests. “They’re great ways to promote our beers,” Kuplent says. To keep the momentum going even during the pandemic, Urban Chestnut scaled back its Oktoberfest celebration last year to a series of outdoor “Oktoberfest Lite” events. “People were ready last October,” the brewer says. “Everyone was well-behaved, practiced social distancing, and wore masks when needed.” At press time, Urban Chestnut was planning the return of a large-scale Oktoberfest to be held this month.
In addition to breweries, some on- and off-premise beer retailers have been heavily involved in beer fests. Washington, D.C.’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), operator of beer-focused venues such as Rustico and Bluejacket brewery, held the ninth edition of its Snallygaster Beer Festival for October 9th. Paused last year, Snallygaster 2021 is set to feature 450 different beers from U.S. and foreign breweries, all served up on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the Capitol Building as a backdrop. First held in 2012 with about 1,000 guests, Snallygaster—named for the mythical beast that terrorized the D.C. region in the early 1900s—has grown over the years, attracting as many as 9,000 attendees in 2019, according to NRG beverage director Greg Engert. “I’m enthusiastic about this year,” he says. “We’ve seen a massive response, twice that of 2019.” VIP tickets, priced at $120 each, sold out just two weeks after going on sale, he adds. Proceeds from Snallygaster benefit NRG’s nonprofit Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.
With one successful beer fest under its belt this year, at press time, Urban South was considering another event, a hazy IPA festival in the late fall, according to Ohmer. The future of beer festivals at Half Time Beverage, meanwhile, is likely to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual events, Daniels says. “People are still requesting Zoom events, as they allowed people to connect during a tough time and to have fun,” he notes. “At the same time, we’re looking forward to in-person festivals again.”