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The Future of Beer Festivals

By Jeannine Boisse


Summer is a busy season for festivals and live events. In regions with temperate climates, the festival season can kick off as early as April. As Summer comes to a close, let’s quickly recognize that we had an entire season of live events and festivals wiped out because of the pandemic. 

We can pretty much anticipate this will be the case for the rest of 2020. Unfortunately, breweries can't really wait until it all "blows over" to participate in events or continue to push brand awareness. Welcome, the virtual beer festival. 

It may sound like a strange concept as beer festivals are widely known for being free-drinking group festivities. Tent after tent of breweries serving samples galore in handy customized mini glassware. How much can you drink in the allotted 3-4 hour timespan of the event? This type of event, with the free-flowing booze, high-attendance rates, unmasked drinkers and servers, cannot comply under local and state-issued regulations for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.



Companies in the event-driven market have had to pivot this year in order to keep their names relevant and potential business revenue flowing in. Festival-goers are sitting at home right now, still buying beer, still engaging via social media with their favorite brands. Why not entertain them virtually with curated content? 

Pandemic be damned! Beer festivals will survive, albeit online. 

Live vs. Virtual


Pros: ACCESSIBILITY

My first virtual beer festival this summer was Fresh Fest, hailed as America’s First Black (Digital) Festival. Established in 2018, this Pittsburgh-based festival has previously been inaccessible to me as I live in California and haven’t done much traveling in the past few years since its inception. This was a huge point on my PROS list: no FOMO. Fresh Fest built their foundation on highlighting Black-owned breweries and collaboration between artists, musicians, breweries, and local non-profits. 

I connected with several other festival attendees - which is another benefit: it promotes connection among beer scene fanatics. However, does the remote location of the festival promote wider accessibility too? I spoke with Dennis Guy from the company 1st Sip Brew Box who also attended Fresh Fest. Like Fresh Fest itself, 1st Sip Brew Box is a Pittsburgh-based subscription box company bringing craft beer gear and unique goods to your door.

On the topic of accessibility, Dennis shared, “we are in the infancy of digital fests in the craft beer industry which has its pros and cons but a major pro is we can make it accessible for everyone from the beginning instead of digging ourselves out of the current socio-demographic atmosphere where you need a flannel and beard to "belong" in some breweries.” This conversation sparked another realization and differentiating factor of live festivals.



Pros: REPRESENTATION

It's been my experience that marketing materials for live beer festivals show a lack of diversity with photos of previous years events. Virtual beer fests typically market with original artwork instead of photos that depict the festival demographic. This way, people aren't excluded before they even buy the ticket to participate.


Representation is important. Fresh Fest is intentional with their marketing to be inclusive to all beer drinkers, creating a welcoming atmosphere where people of all colors can connect through beer. 

Pros: CONTENT OVER CONSUMPTION

My next virtual fest was Oozlefinch & Hop Culture’s FML Fest. Once again, I was able to participate in a festival that I would otherwise have had to travel across the country to attend in a live setting. After participating in Fresh Fest, I was much more open to attending another virtual festival. After a quick browse of the digital content schedule; I was sold on the $15 pass. 



The content was interactive and educational, reminiscent of conference programming. Again, most professional beer conferences are inaccessible to your average beer drinker. That’s not to say the regular folks are uninterested in topics surrounding the industry, like diversity, social media marketing, and environmentally sustainable products. 


The need for virtual beer festivals was unpredicted but necessary due to the pandemic. There were not as many cons to speak of but a few new kinks worth mentioning. “With the internet being involved you have effectively removed multiple barriers to entry albeit created a couple new ones,” says Dennis Guy from 1st Sip Brew Box. “With the infrastructure needed to have access to the internet but much more manageable than traveling, childcare and financial resources needed to be involved/connected with other craft beer enthusiasts.” 

Notable barriers to entry: 

  • Reliance on audience’s accessibility to internet access

  • The ability to reach your targeted audience to market the virtual festival

  • Technical difficulties of managing a live, multi-channel event broadcasting online

We’ve graduated from your average virtual happy hour, so what’s next? It looks like more and more brands and festivals are adopting the digital versions of their namesake events. Even the Great American Beer Festival has announced their digital programming for 2020. Beer enthusiasts no longer have to travel to Colorado to attend the most widely known beer festival and earn the street cred that the name itself comes with. Breweries are still able to send their latest and greatest brews to be judged by the esteemed panel of beer judges for highly-acclaimed awards. 

As for myself, I’m fully on board with more online programming pertaining to topics that stand out and add to my education and personal enjoyment of beer. Next I’ll be attending the Beers With(out) Beards Festival, highlighting female contributions to craft beer. Stay tuned for updates and as always, follow Equity on Instagram for more female contributions to craft beer! 

Invite us to your next virtual happy hour HERE.

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