Craft Beer Criticism? Part IV

Harvest BeerThis is a continuing series of posts about the "darker" side of the craft beer industry. To catch up on the topic visit the <a href="">last article</a> in the series devoted to pay for play. Also visit <a href="">this page</a> for the entire series.

Last time we discussed the potency of craft beers and the often unexpected inebriation effect they have on eager craft enthusiasts while out drinking.  Nothing like calling a friend sipping a whiskey (neat) a lush while downing a thirteen percent alcohol by volume barley wine one after the other.

This time we are going to focus on the slipping quality of the craft brew fest and how they seem to be sliding into excuses to just get people as drunk as quickly as possible.

Now don’t get me wrong, I of course love a craft brew festival.  There is no better way to get introduced to the often daunting world of craft brewing then to attend a festival where you can sample potential scores of different beers in different styles from different breweries to really narrow down what styles you generally prefer and hopefully find a brewery or beer that proves enlightening; dare I say life affirming.

But as Mike and I discuss in Episode 00: “Wet” Run, certain festivals seem to be designed to encourage binge drinking for the sake of drinking and not encouraging true, thoughtful and discerning tasting.  The Washington DC first annual brew fest had the same symptoms I find more abhorrent; flagship beers from highly accessible breweries served by a dispassionate staff.

Flagship beers: Taking the example of the DC brew fest I was shocked (no pun intended) to see Shocktop at the event.  Shocktop is a relatively new offering from Anheuser-Busch that is immensely popular that needs no further advertising.  Anyone who has any interest in Belgian white beers is going to know of its existence and have tried it.  Similarly having major breweries like Yuengling offering their flagship beers is almost insulting to the festival patrons who spent *forty dollars *(plus processing fees) to attend the festival.  Those who attend festivals should want to try rare or at least experimental beers from smaller breweries for an experience they can’t possibly get going to their local beer merchant.

My point of attracting zealous imbibers was underscored by the fact that the line for Shocktop was constantly the longest of the fest, often thirty to forty people deep while fantastic craft breweries had lines of four or five maximum.  This seems to suggest that attendees were more interested in the idea of unlimited consumption of their favorite beers for forty bucks and not sampling things new to them.

I understand the desire to get your moneys worth when often spending nearly one hundred dollars to attend such a festival. The point isn’t to consume until excess but to select a quality experience of drinking fine and perhaps unusual beer.  While nobody gets to decide what a craft beer festival is other than the organizers it is disappointing to see something encouraged to create a DC beer scene that basically caters to the lowest common denominator and that attendees embrace without complaint.

Dispassionate Staff: While I would demand a higher caliber of attendees when participating in beer festivals I can’t do much about it.  The vox populi is too oft the tyranny of the majority and if the people demand bland, mass market beers at festivals there is little we craft beer enthusiasts can do about it.  On the other hand I find it inexcusable to have a pouring staff that has little to no knowledge of the beers they are serving.

I understand the commitments required to send a brewery representative to each beer festival a brewery might want to take part in. But a festival is often the only time the general public, your consumer base, heck your fan base can interact with the breweries they know and love.  When getting a Victory Hop Devil, if I want to ask about their brewing setup, ingredients, or heck about expansion into new markets I don’t want to be met with an ignorant shrug and a mumbled, “I just work here.”  This a painfully obvious lost opportunity for breweries in interact with their most enthusiastic drinkers.  I find it a sad state of affairs when a beer fest thinks it acceptable to provide their own staff to serve beers.  It shows a lack of enthusiasm for the craft and encourages mindless drinking.

This isn’t all to say that there aren’t great festivals.  Some declare a higher standard.  The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest (sadly sold out for 2013) has an impeachable reputation for inviting only the highest of quality breweries who present experimental or rarer wares.  The Festival in Portland, Maine contains only the rarest and best beers and breweries from around the world.  Were Yards brewing company to attempt to display their Philadelphia Pale Ale they would be laughed out of the festival.  Not because their beer isn’t amongst the Cadillacs of American Pale Ale’s but because flagship beers just aren’t sampled.

Am I crazy or maybe just obscenely pretentious about my beer?  Maybe I am demanding a quality of festival that most people just don’t want or organizers can’t provide on a larger scale.  I tend to think as mass beer market shares decline and craft beer sales increase  we will see a return to a desire for higher quality, if lower quantity, craft beer festivals.

Disagree?  Leave a comment to tell me where I’m wrong!