Should Just The Beer Be Enough For Us? The Brews Cruise Takes Us Somewhere New

Should Just The Beer Be Enough For Us? The Brews Cruise Takes Us Somewhere New

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Walter and I did our rounds this holiday weekend. We hit two festivals, an opening, and tried a pub crawl on the new Red Line in Indianapolis. There was a festival that targeted niched beer, but they added a DJ and food. There was a festival that took place before and during a boat cruise (Brews Cruise), an unusual location and amenity. The anniversary/opening also included several live bands, a bounce house, dogs to adopt, and a food purveyor. Even our pub crawl had a secondary attraction, checking out the Red Line and seeing how it would run and fit in with the city (including with how it got people from beer to beer).

All the events were innovative, with multiple elements for people to enjoy and experience. Each was innovative in its own way, so I started wondering why finding new, ever more creative enhancements were necessary or how this situation had come to be. Why isn’t beer enough for people – or has beer by itself ever been enough?

Our weekend. Our entertainment this past weekend started with the 2nd Annual Carmel Firkin Fest on Friday night. As beer events go, it is perhaps more beer focused than most others. Put on by Union Brewing in Carmel, this is a celebration of cask beers, with a plethora of one-offs served a bit warmer and with a bit less carbonation.

Dan brought the trophy to Carmel Firkin Fest. image credit: Walter

It was held in the Union Brewing taproom and on their beautiful new patio, and this limited the number of patrons who could attend, but the nature of the festival itself also kept it small; not that many people know, appreciate, or are willing to learn about firkin beer. It’s a bit more beer-geeky than other festivals and that, in and of itself, works to keep the affair intimate.

Nonetheless, people traveled from all over for this festival, even from other states. The majority of the beers, available nowhere else and never again, were extremely good. Union Brewing had several of their beers on in the taproom, and outside the patio was full of beer. Traders Brewing brought a version of the Mr. Magoo stout that I was raving about a couple of weeks ago, and Centerpoint‘s Key Lime Gose was great. Perhaps the favorite beers of the crowd over the evening were the Maple Vanilla Old Ale from Wooden Bear Brewing in Greenfield, the Cask Wine from People’s Brewing and the Chai Harvest Ale from Field Brewing.

Yet there were other draws as well. It was held outdoors at night, just off the Monon Trail and on the gorgeous patio. There was a DJ, food from Karma Kitchen, and a blazing fire pit. In this case, the other amenities might have meant less, but they were still there and no one would have contemplated doing the festival without them. It’s necessary for beer events to have added value, something people can be entertained by or enjoy as a group and add to the event.

Saturday afternoon’s festival really pushed this point home. The Brews Cruise on the Madam Carroll and Kopacetic Beer Factory around Lake Freeman. The Brews Cruise was the inaugural craft beer festival on a cruising boat in Indiana. The sixteen brewery participants were located around the two largest decks, with a guitar and drum combo with half the breweries on the lower deck.

A great crowd on the Brews Cruise, but a different crowd – and that’s part of the purpose. image credit: Walter

Many of the breweries were from the west central Indiana area, but there were several from Indianapolis as well. Broad Ripple Brewpub debuted its hard seltzer, Fizzy Lifting Drink – Lingonberry, which is the first in a series of fruited hard seltzers. Kopacetic Beer Factory had their Miso Thirsty collaboration with Teays River Brewing, a sushi beer with rice, wasabi, pickled ginger, cucumber and nori, but they also had bottles of the Murkules from 2018 and several variants (berry, expresso, and Carolina Reaper).

Even though we spent time at Bier Brewery the day before the festival, the Day Tripper was a festival debut, thought the Weizengoot was once again a crowd pleaser. I really liked the Roggenbier from Lafayette Brewing and the Rickshaw Rye’d from Crasian Brewing – yes, I love rye beers. Walter always loves the Confessional IPA from St. Joseph Brewery & Public House and enjoyed the Blood in the Water from Chapman’s Brewing from Angola.

This was a one of a kind craft beer festival, with the Madam Carroll moving along the lake and many people out on other boats for the holiday. The breeze, the rocking of the boat, the changing views; definitely a new experience for craft drinkers. It brought in many people that might not go to a festival otherwise – and from a brewery marketing perspective, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it. They’re looking for ways to expand their reach, and they are needing to be more innovative in their efforts to find new potential customers.

The Four Fathers Brewing 5th Anniversary and the Grand Opening of their new location on Bowman was about an hour north of the Brews Cruise, so after the boat docked an we said goodbye to everyone we took the jaunt north to visit Beth and Jason and the crew. The new spot was hopping with activity, from the full up patio to the bands playing in the brewhouse. The taproom was full to bursting and they were pouring beer from both the indoor taps and the Bomb Shelter, their mobile taproom that was out back for the day.

The Four Fathers 5th Anniversary/Grand Opening was packed, but was it loyalty or amenities? image credit: Walter

But that wasn’t all they had going on. Lakeshore PAWS had dogs that are/were up for adoption, Prime Smoked Meats was on hand to provide food, there was a bounce house in the shape of a pirate ship for the kids, and then there were the three different bands. Four Fathers has made it through five years by making great beer and connecting to their patrons via their story of service to the community and love of country. But despite that, they still brought in other amenities for their celebration. Was it an effort to reward their loyal patrons or extend their reach to new people? Probably both, but inventing new ways to connect is a must in this environment.

We took Sunday off to write and recuperate, but then we tried out a pub crawl with the extended family on Monday. We started at the north terminus of the new Red Line in Indianapolis and planned on traversing the entire route, stopping along the way for some beers… laid plans. Let’s just say that the Red Line isn’t ready for prime time yet. A broken down bus, long waits, crowds (that’s a nice thing, people were using it), and traffic not used to letting people into the middle of the street to get on; we’ll try again soon.

We did manage to get from HopCat down to Half Liter, and then to Upland-College Ave., and the Sinking Ship. It was great company, but the unique portion of the day, an electric bus pub crawl just didn’t pan out. I think eventually we will be able to use it for craft beer trips, but it isn’t going to take the place of brew buses.

Over the weekend we took part in four different craft beer events, each of which was different in scope and focus, yet the one thing they all had in common was that they had something(s) meant to draw people in, to be value added, to be unique. These weren’t festivals out of the mainstream either; every festival does something to draw people in – dance groups, unique locations, specialty beers, releases, outdoor festivals in winter, music festivals, art festivals, glitter beards, etc. Anything and everything goes.

Even away from festivals and into the weekly events at taprooms, the number of things that breweries do help bring in people and then keep them there is astounding, and apparently necessary. We’ve discussed them before – speed dating, science seminars, tarot card reading, terrarium making, painting a portrait of your dog, trivia, hymn singing, karaoke, live bands, poetry readings. The question is, if these people are making great beer (and by in large they are), then why do they need all this other stuff?

Why should beer be different than other products? Beer is social, and social situations are helped by shared experiences – something to discuss. But shouldn’t the beer itself ? Many companies and products have disappeared with that kind of thinking.

Dish Night packed the theaters during the depression – when people didn’t have money. image credit: Beaux Monde Designs

It’s not just about providing some entertainment, it’s a way to bring new people in. You can appeal to potential patrons with beer or with beer and “X”, where “X” can be any of a thousand things. Of course that second item is going to bring in people that might not otherwise have come. It’s necessary because of the increased competition and because breweries have become good at providing added value. Taxman makes great beer, but do you think they would sell as much beer if their food wasn’t so good?

Other brands and products do things to attract and keep customers, things that don’t relate at all to their product. Goes back many decades, with things like premiums used in the 1930s. The Great Depression could have killed the movie theater industry, but “dish night” saved it. Manufacturers would sell their sets to theaters at cost, and then the cinemas would give away one piece per week. People came every week to complete their set and saved countless theaters. Loyalty marketing, like S&H Green Stamps were an added value designed to bring people in, just like baseball cards in gum, or prizes in Cracker Jack. Why begrudge beer the methods that work for all other products.

In history there have been giveaways, co-branding, and sales from the moment that two companies in the same area starting selling the same product or service. These are types of marketing and advertising, and that’s as old as the ancient Egyptians. And another thing that’s old – taking other peoples’ ideas and making them work for you.

Just like the NFL, craft beer is a copycat league. Something that works will be imitated and riffed upon. Think of how trivia nights caught on, and how many different companies now run brewery trivia. Today you have to go farther; sing along trivia or bingo, drag bingo or trivia. The need for constant innovation doesn’t just apply to beer styles. I’m sure someone somewhere has done a festival on cruising boat before, but not around Indiana. It was successful because it offered a new type of added value and could bring in people that might not otherwise have purchased a ticket. This is how it is in craft beer now.

No one opens a brewery because they want to be a party or social event planner, but that’s what they have to be. It’s not the favorite part of the job for most brewery owners and brewers, but many do like flexing their creative muscles in the social arts as well as the brewing arts. Certain breweries will hire someone to plan events and take care of finding ways of putting more, and more new, people in the taproom, while for other breweries it’s an all hands on deck kind of approach. The realize it is a necessary thing, so most don’t resent finding new ways to reach customers.

Festivals and breweries will continue to innovate as a matter of survival, just as every other product has been doing since the beginning of advertising competition. Just this week a brewery started talking about a possible event or series of events that will be unique in the Indiana or national craft beer scenes. I can’t mention what it will be, but you haven’t seen anything like it before. But, if successful (or even if not), the latest thing won’t be the last thing. As soon as people get used to it, we’ll demand something new.

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