Welcome to the Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest

(In response to a call for writing about the perfect festival. More about that below.)00-thesession150

Welcome to the Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest! You walk into a pleasant park on a perfect sunny day for the spring beer festival you’ve been waiting for, and it goes something like this. First, you are delighted to see a genuinely diverse crowd with a rainbow of happy faces and bouquet of ages. People are lined up to try beers but you notice that the longest lines are only about six deep.

There is plenty of interest in all the brewers, so nobody is twiddling their thumbs looking desperate behind the jocky box. Which my spelling program tried to correct to cocky box. By the way, it goes without saying. Plenty of women. Whoa, are there more women than men? And women brewers and female beer industry folks are happily pouring a rainbow of beer flavors. Queues move at a moderate pace, but nobody seems impatient. Everybody seems to be relaxed and engaged in conversation.

Looking around, you feel like you are in a dream. It’s easy to see which brewer is at which table. Because of clear signage, you can see what is pouring before you get up to the front of the modest line. Fumbling with a phone is not necessary or even all that fun in this environment. So maybe there’s no cell reception at all! (You haven’t even checked – you can post a few selfies later. You are ridiculously in the Now.)

There are attractive drinking water stations everywhere, and dump buckets without shame. While the brewery reps can spritz your glass with a spray bottle of water as they pour, or let you rinse with a glass of clean water from a convenient pitcher while you take a drink, there are also rinse stations you can use yourself. They’re cleverly designed to avoid spreading viruses and the like. Oh, and the water is delicious. There’s also free iced tea with lemon and sugar optional. Some other non-alcoholic drinks seem to be for sale over yonder.

Food. First, one simple free item and plenty of it. Near each cluster of brewers is a table laden with baskets of bread, freshly sliced as it comes to the table. Beautiful, varied bread. Dark and light, crusty and soft, with a basket or two of crackers and breadsticks for crunch. Cheesy breads, raisin breads. Bread that could be called artisan if we were going to go there. Bread that needs no topping. All naked, simple and free. What, is this a wine event? The bread is included with the beer? If you forgot breakfast or want to reset your palate, you’re golden. If you are drinking a little too much too fast, here’s mercy for your system. My god, is this a dream? Oh, wait, it’s my dream. And one reasonable kind of free food is in it.

Want more food choices? OK, that can cost extra. Cheese can be purchased. Food trucks are fine. There’s variety so that veggies and foodies and people on a bit of a budget can survive. And anybody who thinks bread is adding carb insult to caloric injury can buy a salad. Options are good.

beerfest drawing
Dream of the ideal festival. In a park setting, how about?

There are things to do and see and hear, too. You can talk by the beer booths or venture to a stage. Stages, maybe. For varied music and perhaps some kind of spoken word. Beer-related panels can be interesting. So there they are. You can sit at tables by the stage and a server will come by pouring tastes of something easy-going from a pitcher. Oh, designated drivers get lemonade served. And they can get back massages. They are having a great time dancing in a strangely graceful and coordinated cluster near the stage. I think they all wish this festival was more frequent, but the annual timing is part of what makes it feel memorable and ephemeral.

There is a signature style at Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest. Hey, it’s my dream, so the style is mixed fermentation (American sour, lambic or mixed fermentation saisons, how about?). However, brewers have been invited to offer one beer in the invited style and, if they wish, a different beer for the second tap. So after that funky beer there’s a malty or hoppy beer for contrast. For beer-on-beer pairing purposes.

There are scores of toilets. Armies of portable toilets march over the landscape, accompanied by hand washing stations that don’t run out of water. No, wait. Wait. There are plenty of indoor toilets in attractive clean buildings. Hmm. Buildings that would disrupt the park-like environs. Well, whatever they are in this dream there are many of them and trash is being collected during the fest. Soap and toilet paper are kept stocked. Waits are short for both men and women. Seriously, how difficult is this?

While we’re at it, this festival involves some time travel. There isn’t a whiff of desperation or greed in the air, and nobody cares about global beer giants because the big corps just don’t get it. This is an alternate history of dare-we-call-it-craft beer where it’s still the darling an intense subculture, but an open and diverse one…

Dammit, that woke me right out of the dream. I didn’t even get to how nobody is behaving extremely badly or drinking vomitous quantities.

So, the Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest is not something I’d try to create. But it does make me wonder what I want in a festival.

I do seem to have unreasonable demands. When I travel, I want a locals-only event. At home, I like to see some visitors in the line up! Most of the time, anyway.

[Disclosure – I can’t stop thinking about the SF Beer Week Opening Gala, an imperfect but beloved festival I look forward to every year though it is Northern California/Greater Bay Area local. So I guess that local and travel equation isn’t true for me. I’m working as part-time publicist for SF Beer Week, meaning I’m hoping others will write about all the related events. So getting into the pros and cons of a massive distributed regional fest like Beer Week or looking at any of the fests it includes would feel a little awkward right now.] But yes, I can think of local-only gatherings of the beer community that are meaningful, rewarding and not to be missed. So I seem to like beer events like I like beer styles. Meaning that a variety of approaches means adventure means I’m in.

While alternate history beer science fiction could be a cool festival genre, let’s look at the attainable parts of Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest.

Easy aspects include:

  • Many toilets, cleaned and resupplied during the festival. Oh, and empty the garbage cans, too. (Beer. It’s really a janitor thing all the way!)
  • Honor the dump bucket. Brewers can help by suggesting a taste and dump so that nobody is chugging a beer they don’t love to try the other one fast. Or even chugging a good beer when they know there are too many good beers to try.  Ok, that’s going to make me make a shirt that says I AM NOT A DUMP BUCKET. Dump proudly and kindly!
  • Water, water everywhere. Yummy water. Hydrate!
  • I like getting my glass rinsed. There are sanitation issues with cold-water rinsers used with dirty glasses (as opposed to sanitized washed glasses in a bar with a rinser) but that can be sorted out. We need rinsing, and it should be safe. Festivals such as Zythos, in Belgium, offer hot water washing before rinsing, for example, though it’s hard to imagine brewery peeps doing that on a Sunday afternoon. Innovation, please.
  • Sunday afternoon! In California, a law prevents distributors from delivering on Sundays and the beer delivery biz likes it that way, which I get. But this leftover blue-law prohibitionism is maddening. Alcohol and religion should both be optional choices for responsible adults. America is awash in stupid leftover “blue law” restrictions that solve no problems.
  • How do you get all the brewers to see plenty of interested beer drinkers line up? There is the option of the curated, elite fest. They are fun! But the joy of an inclusive beer community vibe is part of the Memorable Ephemeral Dream Fest allure. And newcomers are interesting! Some are good out of the gate and others evolve magnificently over time. What if there was a giveaway of some kind based on stamping a passport when you try the ingenue breweries’ wares, amplifying interest in unknown breweries as a kind of treasure hunt? We know there’s flawed beer in the marketplace, so another service a festival could offer would be to have skilled blind tasters screen beers the morning of a fest. “Sir, that keg is a butter bomb so we’ll pull it aside. Let’s sample your backup.” (That’s a crazy thing. It could be useful if done well. but who’d want to put up with it?) Perhaps there’s no foolproof fix to varied beer quality and open call festivals.
  • Let’s make things fun and good for designated drivers in places without public transportation. Then their tickets don’t have to be so cheap that it concerns producers if there are too many of them, right? Give value to DDs.
  • I have gone to wine festivals (well, years ago) where there were mountains of glorious free bread near the water. Why not? If I do have to buy food, please have mercy on those of us who don’t eat meat. Omnivores like the vegetarian options, too, if they are good food.
  • Having music adds to costs, but it gives us another festival element to enjoy and makes a longer time frame more comfortable.
  • I asked my husband, Steve, what he wishes for and he suggested better signage particularly where there will indeed be big lines for some brewers. Who is this line for and what are they pouring? Oh, and can you come up with an insignia that means this stand will have timed releases so that is obvious, too? After that, we can all spread rumors in the queue, but some baseline info really helps.
  • Keep brewers happy. That’s another article entirely, but in the near-dream world you offer a brewer’s vacation retreat behind the scenes, buy their beer rather than finding a non-profit partner and getting a donation (unless you the producing entity are a non-profit, natch) and get the load-in time, ice and supplies, break time coverage and such worked out with brewer consultation.

Now we get into the hard stuff. There are charity festivals that cost a lot and raise nearly nothing for the charity. This is a hard one to think about. I have written about festivals, and often don’t ask about that, or I ask that day and get a vague guess about the gross and not the costs. Maybe this should matter.

For-profit festivals that make nothing or lose serious money are less concerning to the patrons. But it’s hard to see people of modest means put together a festival and take a drubbing that extends to their personal savings. And that does happen.

I’m paying how much and there’s no [fill in the blank]? Grumble, grumble. Maybe transparency about costs would be useful. What percent of that big ticket price goes to the venue, the insurance and the portapotties? A staff worked on this for how many months? The costs are a mystery to all.

Nobody behaved badly in my fantasy. People happily paced their consumption. Designated drivers weren’t sneaking in flasks. Beer drinkers weren’t guzzling until they fell over. Those are not easy problems to address in the real world. Two strategies help, but neither is as pleasant for the responsible partygoer. In general, festivals that cost a lot or have you purchase tokens after you use up your initial allotment seem to offer fewer issues.  Fewer wretchedly drunk participants at last call, to be specific. But high prices and the need for token purchases are annoying to practically everyone. This, too, is why I am not producing fests. Some seem to want to plop down a a fist full of twenties on a beer fest and then still feel they only get value by passing out on the floor. Or they miscalculate and the effect is the same. What can we do about that?

And then there’s beerfest fatigue – outside of the people doing it for a living, where it’s understandable. If you are a crusty, grouchy burnout at any age, STFU. Festivals are no longer mandatory. You can go to a taproom and let beer fest people be happy elsewhere without you. If you are still eagerly exploring beer, go forth and enjoy. But if you are not jaded, but you no longer feel the community connection to people attending and people pouring that keeps a lot of us going back, perhaps there are things to be done. Talking to people really helps! Have a mission, like learning about new breweries first or finding out whether people made their own pretzel necklaces, even.

I hate those necklace things though I know that’s trivial and unfair. (Oh, god, maybe I’m a bit jaded, too?) But the artisan bread baskets provide a solution to this scourge… there is hope, I swear.

-Gail

This is part of The Session – which you can learn about at Brian Yaeger’s blog.

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