From the Editor
It's happened to us all. You enter a familiar room in the dead of night, flick on the light switch, and nothing happens. Pitch black. Feeling your way through the dark, you measure your steps and extend your arms as you feel for the next room's entrance. Suddenly: smack! -- your toe connects with some unexpected object at floor level. Shards of pain and annoyance surge to the fore.
Similarly, beer festival organizers these days seem to be groping through a dark room, looking for the light at the next threshold. Yet they boldly move forward, pledged to dimly illuminated plans. The result for many is often a painful connection with reality at ground level. Alan Moen's column addresses the frustrating extremes of festival experience (p. 98), suggesting a core of confusion, a dim vision of what festivals should be about. Missteps are inevitable. Unfortunately for all who care about beer, the greatest injury is to public opinion.
One damaging consequence of dimmed vision is the mixing of for-profit and nonprofit messages. Some festivals are organized by nonprofits and give 100% of after-cost proceeds to the cause. Others are organized by entrepreneurs seeking money-making opportunities. Both are legitimate enterprises, separately and even in partnership. Nonprofits offer communities win/win solutions, and for-profits can lend expertise and a level of organization to volunteer efforts. But when professionals perform like amateurs, it reflects badly on the craft beer culture. And when for-profit companies use nonprofits as a front to increase turnout and their own profit, public opinion turns a deeper shade of jade.
Another incongruity can be found within the format of the event itself. Consider the traditional Oktoberfest, for comparison. In its native land, Oktoberfest is anything but a sampling and promotion of boutique beers. It is a party, plain and simple. According to the Encyclopedia of Beer, "In 1994, 10 million pints of beer were consumed, along with 60 whole oxen, 750,000 chickens, 65,000 pig knuckles, and more than 830,000 wursts of all shapes, sizes, and colors."
Such revelry is too non-PC for contemporary American sensibilities. American festivals are far more sanitized, the net effect of which is closer to a wine tasting than to an Oktoberfest -- dozens of beers from which to choose, small samples in small glasses, water for rinsing glassware, palate cleansers, and experts talking the vocabulary of beer appreciation. All this incongruously unfolds against a backdrop of loud music, greasy food, and merchandise tables hawking T-shirts and screen-printed pounders. What emerges is a strange mix of rigid and raucous, genteel and free wheeling.
The message is mixed, and what's worse, the beer itself is becoming less of a drawing card. With craft beer widely available on supermarket shelves and at pub taps, people are less intrigued by beer festivals. In most of the less-ambitious events, the same beers are already locally available. The festival is no longer the only place to find great beer. To keep people coming, the focus must shift from the beer to the event. Or, better yet, make the beer more of an event (see Daniel Bradford, pages 82-85).
What does the public want? Whether the festival organizers are motivated by profit or charity or whether they want to promote a selection of regional microbrews, organize an educational tasting experience, or simply put on a party that rocks, turn-out is essential. Does the present mix of eclectic elements fire the popular imagination, or does it flip the switch while failing to turn on?
One of the great things about Oktoberfest is that it knows what it is. Until the craft brewing industry can cast a clear and simple light on its own floor plan, organizers and the public alike will continue to stumble along looking for the switch that delivers the real turn-on. Let's just hope that the door they finally find is the one that leads deeper inside rather than the one that leads to the exit.
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