Friday, June 29, 2012

Between a laugh and a beer

A funny thing happened along the way to this Saturday's Brew Ha Ha beer festival and comedy show at Six Flags Great Adventure: What it takes for a brewfest to grab your attention changed.

Or at least, is continuing to change. Evolving.

Stay tuned to see if it's a trend with legs. But in a year that has seen the calendar undeniably crowded with more festivals (some well attended, others not so), it does seem like some of the winds steering consumer traits are actually shifting.

Simply having a lineup of brews and breweries for a given Saturday (backed up with some basic musical entertainment and stadium food), then doing some carnival-barking online, in print and on radio to call the masses, in the long run, isn't going to cut it. Competition is tight and growing tighter for the 45 or 50 bucks that festival-goers pony up for three-plus hours of unlimited sampling.

You gotta offer folks who are the craft-beer drinking public more for their money (especially in a sluggish economy), whether it's a distinct theme (Iron Hill's annual Belgium Comes to West Chester springs to mind) or some attractions to complement the beer.

Which is what's going on with the Brew Ha Ha event at Great Adventure: roller coasters, a food buffet, a comedy show, and of course, beers (50) from top names (30, including Stone ) in craft brewing. It's a mix of recreational fun and summertime foods that embrace beer.

And speaking of the beer, the lineup includes Garden State breweries whose labels are synonymous with the first wave of Jersey craft beer (as in the mid-1990s, i.e. Flying Fish), and the newest members of the brewed-in-Jersey family (Carton, Kane and Tuckahoe).

Festival-goers will get to vote on their favorite Jersey-made beer. Also, the comedy show bill features Floyd Vivino, aka Uncle Floyd, a guy who's no stranger to Jersey craft beer – Uncle Floyd once paid a visit to High Point Brewing in Butler.

Organized by TotalBru's/beerheads.com's, Brew Ha Ha is the company's biggest festival yet to be held in New Jersey and the third, large-scale event it has staged in the region this year.

Chris DePeppe, the guy behind TotalBru, is a seasoned hand when it comes to putting on festivals. He co-promotes the annual Philly Craft Beer Fest with Starfish Junction, and two years ago Chris launched Beer on the Pier in Belmar.

Last March, he helped stage the Beers on the Boards food-and-brew event at Martell's Tiki Bar in Point Pleasant Beach, a festival distinguished by featuring foods prepared with some of the beers served. Aside from the beer, of course, you can take that as one of the dividing lines between an average festival and one worth your time.

"As we move forward, events have to have something else," Chris says. "Having a cool venue is huge, (plus) good music and a buffet."

Chris' latter comment refers to the Brew Ha Ha event. But, as more promoters pack festivals aimed at the masses onto the calendar, it's a point that applies across the board.

Beer festivals have been around for decades. The Great American Beer Festival in Denver was started 30 years ago. (The Great British Beer Festival is even older.) The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild has been holding its annual festival for 16 years now; the Atlantic City beer fest, perhaps the state's largest, has been around for seven. Furthermore, upscale food and beer pairings have been around a while, too (think SAVOR in Washington, D.C., for one.)

In the mid-Atlantic region, back in the 1990s, festivals helped craft brewers, whose industry was new to the region, reach beer drinkers and helped build brands. Fests were much more novel then vs. now, and the formula of a lot of beers (U.S. craft and import), plus live music and food (usually concession fare of some sort) appealed to a wide cross-section of palates.

With the GABF being the big exception, that's not so much the case anymore.

Craft beer is popular on its own these days, and craft brewing, as an industry, has outgrown the need to use festivals for branding. Brewers years ago became choosier about which festivals to attend and send staff (who are on the clock, by the way).

And broadly speaking, these days, festivals (again, the GABF being an exception) are more attractive to newcomers than seasoned beer drinkers. Again, that's a generality, not a hard rule. But Chris says the fresh faces interested in craft beer are indeed the market. But there is, he notes, a need for some balance, to also appeal to seasoned veterans.

"New consumers is what industry needs, but what drives things is beer ambassadors," Chris says, referring to to those veterans, people who know and talk about good and interesting beers and steer others to it.

And that makes having some themes or attractions (beyond just music, multiple bands, by the way) to complement the beer lineup more important these days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Next stop, governor's desk

Vote tally, 39-0
Greater freedoms for New Jersey craft brewers, and the subsequent benefits for their followers – beer drinkers, now come down to a tough-talking, ├╝ber Springsteen fan who has in the past shown support for homebrewing and craft beer.

Just exactly how Governor Chris Christie will act on the legislation handed off to him on Monday remains, of course, to be seen.

But the Garden State Craft Brewers Association, the industry organization that backed the bills, is optimistic that the governor will sign the bill, endorsing changes to the rules that brewers say have hemmed them in since 1995, the headwaters of the beer renaissance that has seen New Jersey brewery ranks since swell to two dozen.

Still, as the legislation enters this final phase, the opposition that has trailed it upon its introduction earlier this year isn't going away. The powerful New Jersey Restaurant Association is likely to seek the governor's ear and appeal to him to veto the bill, renewing its complaints that the proposed regulatory changes fly in the face of the three-tier system governing alcoholic beverages.

The association contends the changes would diminish the value – think six and seven figures – of licenses that bars and restaurants hold to serve beer, wine and liquor.

So, supporters of craft beers brewed in the Garden State will just have to stay tuned. But there are some significant things to consider.

Coming on the heels of Saturday's 16th annual guild beer festival aboard the USS New Jersey, Monday's Senate action sent the craft brewing bill to Governor Christie with a 39-0 vote; last Thursday (June 21), the Assembly gave its stamp of approval, 64-13.

Those wide vote margins should play to the guild's favor with the governor's office. And the economics of giving the state's craft brewers a freer hand command attention as well.

For instance, as with the opening of its Maple Shade location three years ago, Iron Hill brewpub projects it will create 100 jobs when it opens its second New Jersey pub in Voorhees around the end of this year. (Iron Hill has nine locations spread among Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

Under the current craft brewing regulations, brewpubs are cut off after two establishments (and thus Voorhees would theoretically cap the number of jobs Iron Hill could create in the state). But the measure (A1277/S641) passed last week and Monday would allow brewpubs to operate up to 10 establishments and sell their beers through distributors.

Outside Senate chamber, after the vote
(The legislation also would allow production breweries to retail beer to tour patrons for consumption on and off-site. Right now, the most you can buy upon touring a New Jersey craft brewery is two six packs or two growlers. If the governor signs the bill, that would retail limit would become a 15-gallon keg.)

Additionally, and this is perhaps a reflection of the continued vibrant national market for craft beer, some of the Garden State's newest breweries, specifically ones launched last (Cape May Brewing, Carton and Kane Brewing), have added assistant brewers, sales staff or tasting room employees on their payrolls, all before crossing the threshold of being in business a full year.

Meanwhile, Flying Fish Brewing is on the verge of launching its new $7 million automated brewery in its new home of Somerdale. (Last October, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno paid a visit to Flying Fish.)

So with that those circumstances as a backdrop, all eyes turn to the governor, an outgoing guy known for batting down critics, tough talk at town hall forums he's held across the state, and his preference for taking in a Bruce Springsteen concert over prepping for a campaign debate.

To his credit, the governor signed legislation in January to dump a 20-year-old state regulation that obligated homebrewers to obtain a permit to make beer in their backyards and garages. In May 2011, he also signed a proclamation declaring the second week of that month Craft Beer Week in New Jersey, to coincide with a national observance.

Again, stay tuned. A new era of craft brewing in the Garden State is closer to reality than it has ever been.