10 May The 8th Annual Crown Beer Fest is Coming – And the Planning is as Impressive as the Festival
Walter and I haven’t been to the Crown Beer Fest before, but we are looking forward to going this year. The 8th annual festival in Crown Point takes place June 10th from 2:30-6:00 at the Lake County Fairgrounds. VIPs get in at 1:30, but it’s too late – all those tickets were sold by mid-April, although they do have a few GA tickets remaining.
The festival will have fifty breweries offering over 200 beers, many of which are difficult to sample unless you are in the northern part of the state on a regular basis. Walter and I have never had any Wildrose Brewing (Griffith, IN) or Windmill Brewing (Dyer, IN) beer before, although we have heard good things. We have tried a few beers from Bulldog Brewing (Whiting, IN) and Burnt City Brewing (Chicago), so we look forward to these as well.
Then there are the breweries we are more familiar with. HopLore Brewing is making great beer, although they haven’t even opened yet in Leesburg. The region breweries are all killing it; many people know Crown Brewing, 18th Street, and Three Floyds, but you should also try out St. John Malt Brothers and Pokro Brewing. Add to this the breweries coming from Illinois (Revolution, Flossmoor Station, Brickstone, One Trick Pony, Destihl), those from Michigan (Tapistry, New Holland, Round Barn, Saugatuck, Shorts, Greenbush), the stalwarts central Indian brewing (Upland, Sun King, People’s, Centerpoint) and you have makings for a fine afternoon.
It’s the details that give a festival the best chance to be successful, and Barb Smrecansky and Zack Bryan (along with all the other folks at Crown Brewing) have had several years to hone this festival into a smooth running machine. I had intended to enumerate all the fine points of the Crown Beer Fest that attendees can look forward to, but I then started thinking about the sheer magnitude of organizing a craft beer festival.
Because Crown is one of the more established festivals in the region, I decided that this would be a good place to look for insights into just how difficult it is to put a craft beer festival together. The obvious issues are there; secure a location, find breweries willing to bring their beer, find ways to publicize the event. Yet there are infinite details to attend to – how big will the samples be – what kind of glass will you use for samples, clear, plastic, glass, mug?
Before The Festival – Barb told me that her team starts working on the festival a full six months in advance each year. Many things are already worked out and are carried over from the year before, but just as many or more need to be reinvented or revisited. Take the date for instance; this year they backed the date up into June to give a better chance for good weather. But this one change affects other factors – will the venue of their choice still be available, does it preclude some breweries from coming, do some sponsors have date specific issues that means that they will be unable to work with the festival? Any one change brings a host of possible issues to be dealt with.
Each year, Barb starts by reaffirming the vision of the Crown Beer Fest – to represent craft beers of the Midwest in the best light and all in one location. With this always in mind, they then start to put the pieces in place for this year’s festival.
The money to put on a festival is not inconsequential, so Crown Brewing looks for sponsors that can help defray costs in exchange for advertising on the website, handbills, etc, as well as at the festival. This is a crucial aspect – you can’t really put on the festival without the sponsors, and if the festival comes off less than successful, it will be hard to bring in sponsors again. Because my inquiries have shown how important sponsors can be, I want to include them as a way to acknowledge their input (Bosak Auto, Calumet Breweries, Wise Guy Discount Liquors, The Country Malt Group, Calumet Harley Davidson, South Shore Brew Bus and Berkshire Hathaway)
Their investments in money or services then have to be put to the best use, including crucial items such as obtaining the proper permits, buying proper insurance for the event, and renting the venue, if necessary. It isn’t uncommon (probably less common these days) to show up and find out that a festival hasn’t obtained the proper permits – it even happened to Oskar Blues in 2015! Since it is the breweries that bear the brunt of the responsibility because it was they who served at an unlicensed event, it is always good to get this done first.
Just as people have learned from Oskar Blues’ experience, it is possible to get help organizing a festival, especially if it is an inaugural event. There are companies that will partner or consult with festivals (BrewFest Partners, Indiana On Tap itself is well versed in this discipline), and the internet is also full of information, good and bad. The Brewers Association has a posted checklist with no fewer than 65 categories to help festival organizers avoid missing the important points or the easy to overlook details.
Barb told me that along with having a good roadmap for the event, one of the most important items is to have a good volunteer staff. Crown has people they have been relying on for years, and this is part of the well-oiled machine that is the Crown Beer Fest. The volunteers have pourer licenses so that they can serve beer for the out of state breweries (thank you Indiana alcohol laws); without the volunteers setting up before hand, providing needed assistance for the breweries, keeping people in water and ice, and solving the inevitable problems that arise, Barb said that the festival would not be possible.
At the Festival – The brewers are at the heart of creating a great beer event, so you are going to want to take care of them – and Crown Beer Fest treats the brewery folks well. There is a welcome bag when they arrive, food during the festival, an after party, and a complementary hotel room with breakfast. These perks get you upper echelon brewers and employees, which then helps the festival because these people will be able to talk the beer and the business of beer with the attendees. And just maybe they’ll bring more beer and rarer beer.
As mentioned above, many of the choices a festival makes will affect other choices. Perhaps no interrelated group of factors is bigger than number of brewers, and how much beer each will bring, the amount of space available, the number of hours in the festival, and the number of tickets that will be sold. Change any one of these, and it will affect the others. Use a venue with slightly less room, and you may have to limit the number of breweries. If you want to sell the same number of tickets, they you might have to ask brewers to bring more beer (almost always this is a cost the brewers bear themselves), or cut the time of the festival. Either way, this may increase line lengths and decrease the enjoyment of the attendees.
If you want to sell more tickets to help meet costs or give more to a charity partner, then you will need to increase the number of brewers, the space needed, and perhaps the amount of beer. Or you may increase the cost of the ticket, but this is usually a factor in and of itself based on the festival’s history, reputation of breweries, and estimated demand for tickets in that area during that time of the year.
Get the idea? – this isn’t easy. Take how much beer you need, for example. There are formulas that may or may not be useful. The Brewers Association formula for how much beer you will need looks like this: minutes of festival × pour size × 2-10 pours/min (and more people means more pours/min) = ounces of beer needed. Divide this by the number of breweries and you will have an estimate of how many ounces you will ask each brewery to bring. If a couple of breweries decide to drop out at the last minute, you better have a back up plan.
Breweries are some of the most connected businesses when it comes to the community. Because of this, there is almost always a charity partner for a festival. Barb said that their partner changes each year; the 8th annual edition selected St. Jude House, a local shelter and services organization for victims of domestic abuse. They will have a booth at the festival showing how they work for the community and handing out information.
Food is a must for people sampling lots of beers (there will be burgers, pizza and pieorgis this year), the advertising and artwork (Crown has the art in house by the very talented Ashleigh Wiatrowski), and how to handle pre-sales of tickets – these are all details that must be addressed and executed successfully.
Getting into the festival is the largest bottleneck of any event. People have a tendency to show up early or just as the event begins, and this makes it necessary to have a lot of lanes for ID and ticket check. The VIP category can help with this a bit, although it creates a first, smaller bottleneck. Staging areas can work, but you have to make sure your technology will hold up to your crowd. Have a second and third plan in place in case something goes down.
Now that people are wandering around from booth to booth, the volunteers are again top priority. They bring ice to the brewers to keep the beer cold, spell servers that need some time off, make sure the dump buckets are empty and water coolers are full. They check IDs, they make sure the band is happy, they solve plumbing problems – they basically do what no one else is willing to do. Praise the volunteers when you see them. Buy them a beer…. wait, it’s a festival.
After The Festival – While you go home to take a nap or continue the night at a local brewery, the Crown people will still be hard at work. It takes more than two hours to break down the physical part of the festival, even with 20 volunteers and everyone from the brewery working. Making sure that the venue is left in good shape is a priority, since the attendees don’t feel any ownership of the space and have frequently had too many samples.
The rented tables, canopies, Port-O-Lets, ice bins, pallets, and everything else has to get back to the proper place over the next day or so. Some people come pick up their stuff, but someone has to be on hand to get them what they want and check everything off. Not least of all, the bills must be paid. Meanwhile, Barb and Zack are deconstructing the festival to see if they met their measure of success – did the guests walk away happy? For Crown Beer Fest this is invariably yes, that’s why so many people come back each year. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t learn something, fix something, or add something. And in six months when they gear up to do it all again, they will have a new roadmap to follow. If you get a chance this June 10th, come see where this year’s roadmap leads – it’ll be an adventure.
Beaker’s words of wisdom – stop making hoppy Belgian wits, it’s just not right.