The Beer Festival Six-Pack


We're heading into what will undoubtedly be the busiest summer of beer festivals yet seen in Australia. Indeed, there's been little need to wait for summer, with large events taking place most weekends around the country since the first days of spring.

And nobody is responsible for more of them than the team behind the BeerFest brand. Already, they've welcomed close to 12,000 people to the Fremantle Esplanade for their first weekender of the 2018/19 season, while ahead lies a pair of BeerFests in different parts of Melbourne, their return to Launceston over New Year, plus debuts in both Perth and Sydney.

Yet, unlike some of their festival running peers, little is known about the two people driving the operation. If you're involved in the local beer world, you'll likely know that GABS is very much the Steve and Guy (and, these days, a growing cast of thousands) show; before the very first Beer InCider Experience, former lawyer Marty Keetels appeared on social media with a rather comical hand-drawn piece of card with which he beamed his intent. 

But James Harding and Stacy File from BeerFest? As they prepare for their second festival in less than three weeks (at Moonee Ponds this Saturday), we chatted to James and discovered a background that takes in pubs, music festivals and a boat made of beer cans that sailed successfully from Darwin to Singapore back in September 1977...

In the wake of Cyclone Tracy, James' dad, Paul Harding, was part of the rebuild and regeneration of Darwin. When Clem Jones, chair of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, decided to shine a light on the city's annual Beer Can Regatta, Paul took the title of "Navigator" in a three man team also featuring regatta founder Lutz Frankenfeld that sailed "Can-Tiki", built from 15,000 beer cans supplied by CUB, on a journey to Singapore that helped bring the Northern Territory capital to greater international recognition.

"He had skippered several Sydney to Hobart races so I think he took over as skipper," James says. "It took them 12 days and one hour nonstop."

 

The Can-tiki sets sail for Singapore in September 1977.

 

With such family heritage, perhaps it's little surprise James ended up in the beer game, initially running venues in his hometown of Launceston before moving into festivals.

"Stacy is originally from San Francisco and, after moving to Australia, was running music festivals like MS Fest and Breath of Life in Tasmania – one day events like Big Day Out," James says. "I had three pubs so knew how to run the hospitality side of things and she knew how to run big events because of the music festival background."

Their first venture was the Tamar Valley Beer Festival back in 2011, which has since morphed into the Launceston BeerFest after a period as the Esk BeerFest. And, as BeerFests have spread across the country, he says: "I sold my pubs; Stacy sold [Hillwood Berry Farm] to do beer festivals."

The beer landscape is rather different now to that in 2011, particularly when it comes to festivals. Many have come and gone in that time – including the Hobart BeerFest James and Stacy decided to call time on after two years – but more appear each year too.

"It's getting competitive," James says, while also revealing he chats regularly with the people running what might be viewed as competitors, such as GABS and the Great Australian Beer Festival team that runs events in Geelong and Albury. 

"Unfortunately for the industry you get a lot of cowboys coming out and running festivals that fail. We've had people pull out of ours as they've come off the back of three really bad festivals and can't afford it, so we've said they can pay us [for their site fee] at the end.

"Hopefully, we'll still be around in ten years; the plan is to be in every state of Australia and then look overseas. We'd like to take Australian beer overseas ... but for now we're pretty happy with rolling it out in Australia."

 

A view across this year's Fremantle BeerFest at sundown.

 

Their flagship festival is Freo, first run in 2013 and unique to date among the BeerFest family in that it focuses solely on WA producers. It's run in close collaboration with the WA Brewers Association, whose members get discounted rates and which receives a dollar from the festival organisers from every ticket sold while helping pull together a team of volunteers to help run the three-day event.

"The stallholders just keep trying to outdo each other every year," he says. "The good thing about having it in the park, you can really take over the space; brewers will take their three by three marque and then take over the 12 metres in front of it too."

Next on their agenda, post Moonee Ponds this weekend, is Sydney. It's a beer scene that has traditionally proved a tough one for festivals to crack, with brands that have been successful elsewhere struggling to translate that success to the Harbour City.

Having attended other beer festivals there, James and Stacy accepted they'd realistically attract around 3,000 for their Sydney debut, "then it started to go really well," he says, with sales now on track to surpass double that number.

As for why, James feels it's down to curating a broad lineup outside the beer and cider. Like the GABF events, there's a strong comedy lineup – "like the Melbourne Comedy Festival," he says – while announcing Sneaky Sound System and Phil Jamieson saw sales spike; the team at Beer InCider will confirm that offering a killer band lineup at beer festival rather than one-day music festival prices can be one heck of a drawcard.

"We started pushing 'music and beer', 'family and beer'," he says, "A festival that appeals to beer lovers but also festival lovers.

"There's a lot of people in their 30s or 40s with kids who used to go to festivals all the time. Now they can go, 'Honey, there's kids' activities' and still have that festival experience but with the family."

With five festivals still to come before the season is out, he adds: "We're lucky that the scene is just emerging and more and more people are drinking craft beer every year."


For the full lineup of BeerFests around Australia this year, head here

For our rundown of beer festivals across the country this summer and beyond, head here.

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