Strength in Numbers

The World of Beer Festivals and Their Advantage of Breweries

By: James Burt

When asked about partaking in beer festivals, Rebellion Brewing Company’s Mark
Heise of Regina, Saskatchewan distinguished between participation and patronage
with slight humour.

“I actually don’t enjoy festivals as an attendee,” he said. “Too crowded. But we built
brand awareness for Rebellion out of taking part in them, so they are important. If
you want people to know about your beer, a festival is an inevitable option.”
Not many months pass on a Canadian calendar that a beer festival isn’t in operation
in some city or public space. Given that so many breweries have risen within the last
decade, Canadian beer festivals are as plentiful as ever. They aren’t just industry
events either—many parlay new and established breweries with musical
showcases, food trucks, and even children’s activities akin to a circus or country fair,
something Heise has witnessed several times.

“A lot of Saskatchewan beer festivals are ‘cabaret’,” he said. “They are held in halls
with music or performances. It’s a great excuse for people to get out, go to a hall, and
try some beer while seeing a show you can’t get anywhere else.”

With many breweries seeing increased number of beer festivals in Canada and the
United States, many have opted to pare down which ones they attend.

“They’re all the ‘liquid-to-lips’ situations, where you have a lot of people under one
roof trying beer. That’s great,” said Red Thread Brewing Company’s managing
partner Carl Milroy of Newmarket, Ontario. “But we’ve been approached by many
festivals to come and take part but there are only so many you can realistically be a
part of.”

Beer and brewery festivals are unquestionably communal, exciting events, but many
breweries, especially newer ones, need to make note of key concepts when
attending them and what strategies to utilize if they wish to simultaneously join the
beer festival circuit to gain attention to their wares while seeing any success for
themselves.

“You’ve got to get the right information down before you even go,” Milroy said. “How
much is it going to cost? How much is the sample size? The festival organizers often
underestimate how many people are going to show up so you should always bring
extra beer. The only other downside is that certain organizers start charging more
to be part of the festivals due to their own increasing popularity year-to-year.”
“The costs can be huge,” added Heise. “In Regina, you’ll likely spend a good two
thousand dollars at a weekend festival and get only five hundred dollars in revenue.

You’ve got to pick festivals case-by-case and be wary of the festival snake oil of,
‘Well, you’ll get exposure of two hundred people if you come to our festival.’ That’s
not always going to pan out as they describe, so you have to choose the festival you
want to be part of. Whichever one fits your needs and budget, you want to
(re)attract loyal fans.”

Increasingly, breweries themselves are hosting their own festivals and giving a stage
for their own local brewing and artistic creativity. This includes being the festival
organizers and/or brewing special beer for that particular festival.

“We put on a cask festival every April,” said Heise. “We’re very proud of that—there
wasn’t much cask culture in Saskatchewan before our festival and we include
breweries from Manitoba and Alberta in attendance. We also host an IPA festival
which we brew a special cask IPA for.”

“We’re launching our own festival in mid-June,” added Milroy. “We’ve got a good
space in Newmarket with a kind of small town feel. We’re expecting a good turn
out.”

A look at upcoming events in a calendar year helps many new breweries create their
own beer festival strategy, even right in their own areas and in terms of how much
preparation to do beforehand.