“A few years ago, it was good enough to show up with amazing beer, a folding card table and a pull up banner. Tasting notes were a nice touch, and some business cards in the back pocket.”
Brewers and punters alike remember these good ol’ days of beer festivals. A marquee, a trestle table and a few humble taps was all it took for a brewery to introduce people to their beers for the first time. Multiply this by five, or ten, or twenty, add a couple of food stalls, and you’d got yourself a festival.
But, as a wise man once said: "Things change."
At most festivals nowadays, if a brewer sets up with just a table, some beer, and a pocketful of dreams, they’ll be passed over for any number of the other stands. Not because any punters are likely to say: “It’s not enough to have good beer.” But because, like moths and goldfish respectively, people are attracted to lights and shiny things.
When one of the other stalls has its own live DJ, another is a haunted castle full of ghouls, and another has a giant beer can piñata, they’re going to draw the punters’ attention.
Just as the beer scene has evolved in terms of styles, venues and label design, there’s been an evolution in brewery stands at festivals.
Is that a bad thing?
“It’s become a bit over the top with some breweries,” says Miles Hull, head of marketing at Good Drinks, the banner under which the likes of Gage Roads, Matso's and Atomic Beer Project now operate.
“Really, it should be about the beer, not about the stand, but that’s the way it is. It’s becoming a bit of a sideshow alley.”
But Miles, like many of us, is in two minds about it. While we may occasionally lament and say: “It should be about the beer”, many of us don’t just go to festivals for the beer, but for entertainment too, with festival organisers often looking to lure attendees with big name bands, cabaret tents and more.
As Miles says: “It’s all about people looking for enjoyment and fun.”
When it comes to enjoyment and fun at festivals, we don’t need to cast our eyes back far to find examples of breweries doing it well. We only have to look at the 2019 GABS events across Australia, where The Crafty Pint team joined forces with the organisers to anoint some of the stands with Best In Show status.
Grifter Brewing recreated the suave character of their brewery home in the form of a full-sized pool table. Bounty Hunter Brewing brought their gamer theme to life in cahoots with 1989 Arcade Bar and Spooning Goats by bringing in a bunch of arcade machines for people to play while they sipped. The BentSpoke stand once again boasted stationary bikes upon which attendees could attempt to set records at Roller Racing.
Not all the stands turned to games for their appeal, though. For others it was more about the atmosphere, the ambience, the aesthetics. Capital Brewing was a verdant wonderland, spacious and full of foliage to mirror Canberra’s green and clean feel.
Stomping Ground’s stand was all walnut timber and bowties, bringing the glamour of the roaring 20s to their cocktail-inspired beers. Feral brought a long bank of taps, burgers and DJs on the road. Garage Project recreated a Milk Bar, while Panhead, well, Panhead reached for the epic.
Meanwhile, Balter’s stand had the clean visual appeal we’ve come to expect from them; in the words of GABS co-founder Steve Jeffares, it was “striking in its simplicity and consistent with their brand design ethos.”
When it comes to the evolution of brewery stands, GABS, like many of the country's larger festivals, is the perfect Petri dish. It encourages breweries to bring their A-game, allowing Steve to be a fly on the wall over the past seven years.
“Most stands at the first GABS were pretty simple and humble efforts, whereas now I think most brewery exhibitors find it fun to come up with more engaging and creative ways to attract the attention of the beer drinker - certainly at the major festivals.”
So, what’s spurred this change?
Faye White, creative director at Wayward Brewing, whose 50s diner themed stand won Best In Show in Sydney, says: “There are so many great breweries out there, and when you're all in a room together you have to set yourself apart from everyone else. Creating great beers is a huge part of that, but what better way to stand out than to create a stall that is a fun place for people to hang at!”
External influences and inspiration play a part as well. Mik Halse, national sales manager of Hawkers Beer and the brains behind the construction (and demolition) of the winning stand at the Melbourne festival, says: “With more of us travelling, we have seen what other countries' beer shows and even other industries – motor shows, wine shows etc – are putting in front of the punters. Like packaging, in what some of us think is a saturated market we have to do a little extra to stand out.”
Miles from Good Drinks, whose new brand Atomic Beer Project won Best In Show in Brisbane – while making their first public appearance – approaches the question with 19 years of experience in the industry behind him, and very much through the lens of marketing.
“I think, as we’ve seen the bigger breweries come in and enter the craft scene through acquisitions and new brands, we’ve seen a lot more money come into stands," he says. "Now it’s become a real branding exercise in presenting a piece of your brewery at these events in the way you dress up your stand.”
As Miles points out, as soon as we’re dealing with the M-word (marketing, not Miles), budget becomes a limiting factor for some.
“It does cost a lot. You have to put some investment in. Anecdotally, I know there are a couple of breweries that choose not to go, because the stands have got more expensive and it poses a challenge for those smaller breweries.”
At the same time, he adds: "I think you can see some interesting breweries having fun behind their stand, but not having to spend huge amounts of money to do that.”
Creativity and innovation can help, too.
“I remember being very jealous of bigger breweries and the budgets they had," Mik says. "Now, we see a lot of creativity, not always matched with big budgets, showcasing the brewery, telling the story, and creating interest… We don't have a huge marketing spend, so we had to make the budget stretch.
"Beer is a great contra tool.”
But, as the old saying goes, sometimes you’ve got to spend money to make money, and the people running festivals know that as well as anyone. “More and more [breweries] take the view that reaching a large - and hopefully new - audience is actually worth spending marketing dollars on,” Steve says.
But before disillusionment sets in; before we decry the whole thing as an arms race and start grumbling about the cogs of the capitalism machine; before brewers stand before the unwashed masses and shout: “Are you not entertained?!”… let us stop and recognise that many of those brewers who spend the marketing dollars on stands, with no guaranteed return, still get plenty of satisfaction from their creations.
When talking about Wayward’s stand, Faye uses words like “fun” and “could not have been happier”. She speaks of the genius of the artist – “the stand almost designed itself” – and beams: “I’m so proud of what we were able to achieve”.
This isn’t the language of necessity, or of marketing in a saturated market. It’s the language of creativity and passion; the same creativity and passion that characterises the craft beer movement as a whole.
The evolution of brewery stands at festivals is somewhat of a microcosm of the beer industry. It is getting bigger, and more flashy and complex, and it’s getting harder for breweries to stand out… but at the same time, it’s retaining its passion, and showcasing the creativity of thousands of people all working together to bring their own personality and spark to the industry for the enjoyment of others.
Then there's the small matter of their own enjoyment, too - despite initial skepticism, the big boss of Hawkers had a maniacal grin on his face as he wreaked havoc upon the cardboard brewery at Melbourne GABS.
Winners of the The Crafty Pint Best In Show 2019
Brisbane - Atomic Beer Project
“We’ve just launched Atomic Beer Project, so we decided to put a little more marketing spend into our stand than in the past. Our motivation was to present our brand and our brewery in a way that would connect the consumer to the whole background of the brand, to give people insight into what we’re up to.
"We recognised we have to step up a little bit, but we still wanted a stand that focuses on the beer, and a backdrop that tells our story. It was really just a strong representation of our packaging. We went to a group that specialises in stands to help us get the right design done.
"It wasn’t anything extreme or novelty; just about building a practical stand that was going to last us a long time that we can move around. It’s expandable, so we can use it as a 3x3, or a 6x3.
"The ultimate goal in attending these shows is about presenting your beer to interested beer consumers. It’s about the stories we can tell, the interactions and the connections you make with the consumer at the stand, not just what it looks like.”
Melbourne - Hawkers Beer
“The Boxwars stand started with a 7am carpark chat with Alex, our head of QC and cellars. He said he'd spoken to the guys at Boxwars, who were interested in a brewery event... it took about half a second for me to reply... GABS stand!
"Ross, the genius talent behind Boxwars, was amazing to work with. We shared many beers over his visits to the brewery, and our visits to their Fairfield workshop.
"For me, working the stand, the compliments I got from brewers over the details that Ross and his team had put into the design was my real highlight. Valves, sight glasses and pumps, all gave the cardboard stand a terrific sense of realism.
"Mazen, the boss [at Hawkers], was not on board at first with the idea of smashing a stand. But he came round to it, gradually, and I think on the day, he had the biggest smile out of all the Box Warriors.”
Sydney - Wayward Brewing
“When I was creating the artwork for the Coffee & Donuts Milk Stout label, I thought it would be fun to have a colourful vintage diner sign as a nod to our brand's vintage travel theme. So when we then came to create the stand, the 1950s diner theme felt like a bit of a no-brainer!
"The stand almost designed itself: bright pinks and blues with a chequered floor, and of course we couldn't leave out the Coffee & Donuts sign.
"It was a lot of hard work; everything was hand-crafted, stuck, nailed and painted by the Wayward team. The entire stand was made in-house with a lot of ingenuity, from the bespoke seat covers to the padded walls - even the neon sign! We finished it off with vintage style photography from the brewery and our mates Toby's Estate Coffee and Grumpy Donuts, who we collaborated with to make the beer.
"When we put it together on the Friday morning before GABS I could not have been happier. It looked exactly as I'd envisaged, and I'm so proud of what we were able to achieve!”
There's one last chance to attend GABS in 2019 – in Auckland this Saturday (June 28).