Sampling Soirées

Brewers and beer lovers rejoice over the return of beer fests.

After a two-year hiatus because of Covid-19, many large-scale beer events—like the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival in Paso Robles, California (pictured)—returned this year.
After a two-year hiatus because of Covid-19, many large-scale beer events—like the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival in Paso Robles, California (pictured)—returned this year.

You know a beer festival has made it big when it’s hosted on the same hallowed grounds where Woodstock was held more than 50 years ago. That was the case for TAP New York earlier this year, when New York State’s longest-running craft beer festival was staged for the first time at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the non-profit performance venue and site of the iconic 1969 Woodstock music festival. According to Paul Lloyd, general manager of Bethel Woods, response to the two-day festival—now in its 23rd year after its humble beginnings at the Culinary Institute of America—was “terrific, with more than 3,500 guests enjoying close to 400 carefully crafted beers from more than 100 breweries across New York State.” 

Indeed, after a two-year pause for numerous beer festivals around the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the events have largely resumed this year, and brewers and beer lovers couldn’t be happier. “After a handful of chaotic years, it was reassuring to see old friends share traditions and remind ourselves how much we love our craft tribe,” says David Walker, co-founder of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., which resumed its invitational beer festival in Paso Robles, California this year following a two-year hiatus. 

Among a sea of beer festivals, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival is one of the more highly regarded, as breweries from around the world are invited to participate. Proceeds from the event benefit a local non-profit organization. “Pride of ownership” helps to make the California beer fest stand out from others, Walker says, while the goal of the one-day event is to “expose people to beers they wouldn’t normally find on their beer travels in the West.” More than 50 breweries participated in this year’s invitational, along with some 30 local food and restaurant purveyors. 

This year’s TAP New York, meanwhile, featured performances by bands like the Wallflowers, Almost Queen, the Nude Party, and Black Dog, along with a presentation of several brewer and beer awards. Eric Frances, CEO of Bethel Woods, says the festival’s inaugural year at the site was a success. “We look forward to this continued partnership,” he adds. 

Where appropriate, beer retailers and on-premise operators are increasingly getting involved in beer festivals, as the events provide wide opportunity to promote and market their offerings to craft brew lovers. Flatstick Pub, a chain of casual, beer-focused pubs, has been a presenting sponsor of the Washington Brewers Festival for several years, in which it serves as a ticket outlet, as well as an exhibitor at the event. “It allows us the opportunity to connect with the local breweries and customers outside of our physical locations,” says CEO Andy Largent. “Supporting local breweries is extremely important to us.” At the Firestone Walker Invitational, hotels and restaurants are among its primary partners, Walker notes. “They get behind the event in a big way, knowing it draws attention to the region.” More than 40 local restaurants participated in this year’s festival, he says. 

The Roots on Railroad eatery in Paso Robles was among the local businesses to participate in the invitational—serving up its popular lobster rolls—and according to owner and chef Chris Beckett, the experience has brought notoriety to the venue. “The invitational attracts enthusiasts from around the world, introducing us to people beyond our local base,” he says. Following the festival, some attendees even sought out Roots’ brick-and-mortar location for a more full-service experience. 

With beer festivals becoming more commonplace, brewers and event organizers say successful fests must strive to be unique. “The beer needs to be rare and beautiful, and the festival needs to deliver a supremely satisfying vibe to those who attend,” Walker remarks. With the proceeds from the Firestone Walker Invitational directed to the non-profit Paso Robles Pioneer Day celebration, the brewer says, “in our case, the invitational isn’t a commercial venture, so all the goodness generated goes to local charities or back into the experience.” 

Lloyd from Bethel Woods advises festival organizers to be innovative. “It’s important to keep the traditions of annual events while at the same time making changes to keep festivals fresh and attractive to both new and returning crowds,” he says.