A festival for the rest of y’all

Light-up signage at Beervana 2016 (Wellington Stadium, 12 August 2016)
…and your lightbulbs, just to complete the metaphor

So that was the week that was. The week that was a while ago, now. How time flies when you’re quietly recuperating. Weirdly, given the work I gravitate towards, I’m a natural introvert and crowds of lovely beer nerds are still, you know, crowds. I think exhaustixhilirated just about covers it; sound prediction there, Phil From The Past. You get a strange view of things during festivals when you’re doing too much to do much, but from where I was standing, this is what Beervana — and its satellite events in The Road Thereto — looked like:

The week before the weekend

August has truly turned into an endurance sport in Wellington with the continued evolution of The Road to Beervana — especially considering that the fortnight-long Wellington On A Plate (a food festival with beer as no small component) follows immediately after. There were officially fifty events in the R.T.B. schedule, which is fairly freakin’ overwhelming. It’s already one-fifth the scale of Good Beer Week in Melbourne, which is extremely well-established and takes place in a city ten times the size of ours, making for a crowded little week. Some of the events obviously cannibalised attendance that might’ve gone to others, and you could see a little fatigue set in — so maybe there’s grounds for the occasionally-heard call to curate1 things a little more tightly, but I’m of the opinion that there’s a weird kind of freedom in a calendar so crammed that you cannot possibly do everything.

ParrotDog 'Otis' at (what is, for now) their brewery (11 August 2016)
Nitro Otis (and burgers, out of frame): blatant Philtrap

The only thing I managed to attend2 was an hour or so at PirateDog, the pop-up ParrotDog / Pirate Life bar at the former’s Vivian Street brewery. Which is soon to be their former brewery, since they so-definitively smashed their equity crowdfunding campaign to build themselves a bigger-better HQ a little way out of town. They’d met their $2M target that day,3 so the mood in the place was fairly jubilant, and I’d wandered up there with fellow beer writer Michael Donaldson — who wrote way more timely summation of his experience — to find they were serving my beloved ‘Otis’ oatmeal stout on Nitro; I had two glasses and accompanied each with a stupidly-excellent burger from Serial Griller, the food truck run by former brewer Dave Kurth4 and his wife. I damn near sprained my face from grinning so hard. I can’t even say I’m mad that y’all were having fun all over town; I compressed my own little festival’s worth of fun into two pints and two burgers.

Modern Times 'Mega Black House' (Golding's Free Dive, 13 August 2016)
Caffeinated nightcap

Work had its own rewards, as well.5 The Junk Food Degustation and Cocktail Night were both well-received — the former got a nice write-up from recently-unretired beer writer Hadyn Green — and entertainingly bent people’s brains in various directions. As is the point, surely.6 And Thursday’s Great Beer Debate, which I helped dream up, was pretty well-attended considering we were basically offering a panel show in a party town. The discussion — on the question of independence in the beer business and what all these mergers might do / have done to the landscape — was excellent; our speakers7 were all in fine form, airing a well-worn topic in an illuminating and interesting way. Hopefully our recording of the conversation is broadcast-worthy (it was in boxy room at a long table with just two microphones); I’d like to see it reach a wider audience. I’m a big fan of wonkish beer-related activities like these (perhaps obviously), but it’s always a hard sell, and I am (admittedly) a terrible salesman. It was definitely a worthy experiment, and something I’m keen to work on refining.

Panhead & Five Boroughs at Beervana (13 August 2016)
Way better than that other Subway-themed joint

Twenty-something hours on the concrete

Returning for another year to the often-maligned stadium, but this time taking up the entire circumference of the concourse, it was easy to assume that the plan was basically “same-same, but a little bigger”. Quickly, though, you could see the effect of a myriad other tweaks and improvements, and the general consensus quickly coalesced around “best ever”. That took me by surprise — not because I disagreed, but because previous years had seen the bubbling up of a kind of ‘geek backlash’ which was partially what I had on the brain when I wrote my musing on the beer-festival-mindset; too often people say something has lost its mojo without realising they might’ve just outgrown it in some way.

Pirate Life IPA (13 August 2016)

I often bang on about beer festivals as a place for experimentation — for both sides of the bar — and vaguely in that spirit we also had a rethink of that ‘educational’ side of things I like working in. We took it out into the floor, ditching the seminar room in favour of trying out ‘walking tours’ on various themes (sour beer, U.S. & Australian beer, “weird beer”, and beer basics). Again, that’s a strange, nerdy concept and perhaps a hard sell — and Megan and I were quite the sight leading gaggles of people through the crowds, holding our dorky Tour Guide signs aloft — but they worked surprisingly well. Attendance varied wildly from two dozen to two, but those who came along really to appreciated a chance to ask some questions, hear from some brewers,8 and get a little context for their tastings. With a little better promotion (again; I’m a terrible salesman, and was giving away my time for free) and few modifications to the timing and staging, I think they’d make a great part of any large-scale festival. They took a lot out of me — as much as I love rambling about beer to anyone who’ll listen, I am (as I said) constitutionally an introvert and need good doses of calm solitude between literally parading strangers around. Needless to say, “quiet time” is rarer than riesling at a packed-out beer festival. But I’d do it again.

Garage Project's fifth birthday 'Traffic Light' (13 August 2016)
An unusual restorative

Between tours, I mostly sought refuge at the big colourful birthday-cake-themed bar of my old comrades from Garage Project — who were a) conveniently located, b) plying their usual festival wizardry, and c) sympathetic to my slightly-dazed state — so I didn’t get to try much else, beer-wise, other than a few glasses here and there late on the Friday night. You can see the skew in my perspective if I tell you that my stand-out flavour experiences were Garage Project’s sour traffic light (above) with fairy bread, the Nitro cold-drip coffee each morning, and a cheeseburger spring roll from Five Boroughs. I’m very much not the person to give you a quasi-objective view of what was on offer this year.

Base Camp 'Ultra Gnar' at the Oregon bar (13 August 2016)
Welcome visitor

But everything was looking pretty great. Breweries continue to dress up their stands in ways that make it more carnival than trade show,9 and keep finding new ways to do so; indeed, one of my only criticisms is that the Beervana-hosted bars now look a little sad. A dedicated sour beer bar and the Pink Boots bar were both excellent ideas — and poured great beer— but both needed a little love in the design department to keep them from being overlooked. The brutal concrete stadium itself is often seen as the ball around the ankle of Beervana. Hell, I’ve said so myself. But now I’m seriously tempted to change my vote.10 The ‘full loop’ is absolutely the right thing to do and opened up vastly more elbow room as well as obviously getting rid of the need to constantly backtrack, but it was more than that: they’ve figured out how to dress the place, getting rid of clutter at ground level, having many bars face seating rather than other bars, and so on. GABS Auckland, which looked good despite its anonymous and boring showground location (and when the gorgeous spaces available in Melbourne and Sydney really set the bar absurdly high), proved that you can do a lot with nothing bloody much in terms of a venue. Beervana did a fine job of rising to that, this year.

So I’ll be back. You couldn’t stop me, really. Please just remind me how thoroughly the week kicks my ass, and I’ll try to be better prepared.

  1. Can we even say that word any more, in the beer business, without shuddering and being ashamed of ourselves?
  2. In my civilian capacity, as it were.
  3. For completeness’ sake: work for ParrotDog occasionally, writing label text and a few other things. I didn’t do any substantial work on the campaign itself, and didn’t buy shares.
  4. Formerly of Hot Water Brewing in the Coromandel and previously of West Coast Brewery. We’ve raved about his beers on any number of occasions in various podcast episodes, but most-enthusiastically when we had his semi-mythical barleywine.
  5. In addition to, you know, the wages.
  6. Though, to be fair, what was (on paper) just a ‘standard’ tap-takeover-and-a-food-truck affair on the Saturday turned out to be our busiest day of the year. Not that I was any help; I was at Beervana Day Two and just loped in right at last call for a sneaky (and somewhat guilty) nightcap.
  7. Dominic Kelly from Beer Without Borders, Nigel Francisco from Ninkasi Brewery, Beer Nation author Michael Donaldson, and Kevin Sinott from the Brewers’ Association.
  8. Massive thanks, here, are owed to the good people from Stone & Wood, Pirate Life, Base Camp, Crux Fermentation Project, Fork & Brewer, Kererū, Eagle, Garage Project, Choice Bros., Beer Baroness, Craftwork, Liberty, North End and Funk Estate.
  9. People often credit Garage Project’s influence, here, and they’re right to. But they often also forget that our first appearance at Beervana (back when I worked there, hence the pronoun shift) was on a very sparse trestle-table-and-posters setup. Nailing festival beer — like the smash hit Ziggy’s Carrot Cake — definitely preceded festival showmanship, and always should.
  10. Not that there’s a wealth of viable candidates, but that’s Democracy Metaphors for you, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “A festival for the rest of y’all”

  1. I think your dreaded C word could actually be used a lot more in the industry. Particularly by bars keen to throw on the new and different. New and different is laudable, certainly, and is what most beer geeks seem to desire above all else, but curation would certainly fix many commonly witnessed issues. For example: too many high octane taps, all rare, all at once. A nightmare for the OCD completist – or is this just me? 😉 Too many “tap takeover remnants” crowding out choice and variety. Too many beers from a brewery which, for any given reason, has lots of buzz but nobody stopped to check the quality, too many variants on a single style. The list goes ever on.

    But yes, in context, I agree completely. I love the “freeing chaos” of Melbourne’s GBW, knowing you can’t get to much (or afford to, in many cases) means you can flit about town, enjoying otherwise packed bars while everyone else is off eventing. Or simply choose a couple of events that mean the most to you and feel a part of something which definitely has a life of its own. It warms my heart knowing Wellington is getting a little of this treatment.

    Great post. My “other FOMO” enjoyed it a lot. I hope to finally make it back to Beervana after a couple of years off next year.

    1. I actually completely agree that a lot of bars need to do a lot more work on balancing out their lists — across styles, breweries, intensities, novelties and dependables. We try very hard at Golding’s, but I do know that sometimes best efforts are ruined by freight or weird rushes on things you thought would last ages, etc.. But yeah, some places just obviously aren’t trying much — or aren’t making clear they aim to be lopsided in some direction. I guess it’s a nice macro-micro scale difference, isn’t it? Bring on the overwhelming options at the City-wide scale, but please make each place make more sense.

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