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/'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.

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