It was a strange feeling to be standing outside a beer festival, only minutes from its opening, and seeing no lines to get it. Maybe I’m too used to the feeling of Dark Lord Day or GABF where, even if you have tickets and have been allotted a time to enter or pick up beer, there is still a massive line hours before the doors open. And in such lines, people traditionally are sharing beer and beer war stories: bottles are exchanging hands, travel tales are being related, mentioning of other festivals attended can be heard (“Oh yea, I was there in ’09 when you could ten bottles and bathroom lines weren’t long”). Community gets built while standing in line. Waiting in line changes the nature of a gathering of “let me in” to “tell me about your beer history.” I’ve bonded with many strangers while waiting in a beer line.
Alltech’s Craft Brews and Food Fest, held on May 18th and the Lexington Convention Center, began in silence. Just me and a couple other people sitting around, checking our cellphones, waiting for noon to roll around for a festival with an eight hour block setup indoors for the day. I was lucky enough to have been invited to the event. It’s not often that professor of writing gets a “press” pass for a beer festival. I felt special with my credentials. But as I sat just outside the fest’s entrance, where an electronic display greeted visitors with images of Alltech’s image and its beer, no one else was around. The building that joins the Convention Center with Rupp Arena is a silent building to begin with. The mall like atmosphere is often barely inhabited. One or two people eating a Subway sandwich. The stores fairly empty of customers. The escalators carrying no one up or down the three floors.
When I arrived for the festival, Lexington Craft Beer Week was coming to an end. We had already spent time at Arcadium, Country Boy, West Sixth, Lexington Beerworks, and The Beer Trappe earlier in the week. After a day of sampling beers at the Alltech event, I’d be back at Country Boy and West Sixth once more. The Alltech event would help close out a week of craft beer drinking throughout the city. And it would do so in grand style. This is only the second year Lexington has hosted a Craft Beer Week.
By mid-afternoon, the silence at the Lexington Convention Center had changed, of course. A reported 4,500 people made their way from booth to booth, maneuvering around Alltech’s larger, circular, bar shaped booth in the middle of the site, sampling beers as rock bands played on a small stage, and impromptu gatherings were encouraged at small Alltech tables and barrels placed throughout the hall. By the time I had left, the longest line I had yet to see was a thirty person deep wait for a pour of Bell’s Black Note. Having experienced events elsewhere, I can attest that a thirty person deep line is nothing in the grand scheme of beer festivals. In that line, I bonded with a fellow from Colorado in town for a wedding. Or we bonded as much as is possible while waiting ten minutes for the 2:45 tapping. This kind of bonding involves me recommending places to visit in Lexington, and he commenting whether or not he has time. Or me remembering places I’ve visited in Denver, and he reminding me that those places are still in business.
Alltech, no doubt, wanted to insure a bonding over its brand name at the festival. To enter the festival’s site, one had to first walk through a giant Alltech barrel. Along the walls, Alltech images were projected, and Alltech’s name graced each brewer’s booth. Alltech’s position in the Lexington craft beer scene is an interesting one. Established before any other Kentucky brewer who is currently enjoying interest and growth (Country Boy, Blue Stallion, West Sixth), Alltech sometimes seems on the outside looking in regarding the local craft beer community. No tap room. A smaller portfolio. No one offs or special releases. No fanboy culture. Thus, it’s difficult not to think of the Craft Brews and Food Fest as a response to this overshadowing by smaller beer operations with even smaller operating budgets. “We’re still here, guys,” the event seemed to say. “And we’re still important.”
Beer festivals, in general, are about presence, the presence of an emerging market focused on consuming liquid. And such festivals are about the presence of people. The beer festival, wherever it may occur, seems to toggle among a number of potential audiences.
- The nerd. Aka, the enthusiast. The one who is quickly looking for new ticks or ratings, rare tappings, unique offerings. That’s me.
- The generalist. The person who likes beer, is into craft beer, but doesn’t buy enough to really know all the offerings, even if they are fairly basic.
- The curious one. The person who knows: “There’s a beer event downtown. Let’s go!” And shows up totally new to everything.
Since it’s difficult for me to view any beer event except through the lens of the nerd, as I first made my way around the Alltech festival, I wondered about some of the fairly basic offerings from representative breweries and their reps. Does a festival need to showcase 60 Minute IPA or Goose Island 312? On the other hand, when I look at the event through the lens of the other two potential audience members, I see a very good display of offerings, stretching from the local (Kentucky beer) to the national (Kentucky distribution from other states) to the international (Shelton/12 Percent distribution). If only a small percentage of the 4,500 people in attendance left thinking: wow, I didn’t know beer could taste so good; where do I buy this stuff, the festival would have done its other job. That job would be building growth and awareness overall for local beer sales.
In many ways, beer festivals are giant commercials. People pay to consume 3-4 ounce samples of beer, but they also pay to be exposed to a new product. While beer enthusiasts and many industry folks believe that the world revolves around craft beer, few people who drink beer drink craft beer. Even if 10% is an actual representation of national sales, that still means that 90% of beer drinkers don’t know what craft beer even is. Maybe in baseball you can hit the ball less than 30% of the time (70% of the time you fail!), but that kind of percentage shouldn’t be deemed a total victory in any industry that survives on sales.
Still, we feel compelled to influence or spread the gospel as fanboy festival attendees. It’s difficult for me, as well, to not talk the talk as I meet people or interact with booth representatives while I’m enjoying my 3-4 ounce pour. “Are you in the industry?” one brewer asked me after we talked for a few minutes about his brewery’s offerings and possible future offerings. “Nope. I just like beer,” I replied. It’s not a secret that fanboy influence on craft beer has created, at times, a bad image or conclusion to the beer event. The 2014 Cigar City Hunahpu debacle might be craft beer’s Altamont. When fanboys and nerds are about to riot over beer, a problem exists. When brewers have to fear for their lives because a bunch of people didn’t get to take home $15 bottles of imperial stouts, the time, we’d think, has come for self-reflection regarding release day, beer festivals, or related events.
These are the pivot points, the metaphoric moments where it feels that a narrative has shifted. With the Cigar City fiasco, we might think that the glory days of craft beer events are over. In such grandiose statements that pin history on one or two events, we quickly summarize our situation as either: We’ve lost our way or we’ve gained our spirit. Whatever Hunahpu means to the overall craft beer industry’s never ending fascination with one day releases, Alltech’s event could mean the complete opposite for Lexington and Kentucky. The Craft Brews and Food Fest could be the moment where the average beer drinker woke up and realized that there is a lot of good beer in town and it’s not called Bud or Lite. We might look back on the Alltech extravaganza in a year or two and think: that’s the pivot point. We gained our spirit.
Our have we? I’d rather view the event through a different lens altogether. I’ll call this lens the “nice gathering” lens. It offers no pretentious summaries or statements regarding the future or the past. It’s not about overshadowing local brewers or trying to reclaim the crown of local beer king. It’s not about hyperbole or hype or rarities or special anythings. The nice gathering lens merely reflects on the enjoyment those who attended a day like the Alltech fest,no doubt, felt.
When it was all done, I headed home. I had a sandwich. I watched Adventure Time with my kids. I dropped the kids at a friend’s house. And my wife and I, along with our friends, went to Country Boy to try the new Alpha Experiment #291. Another nice gathering occurred.