Back To The Future - The Rise Of Small Festivals

Trestle tables, jockey boxes, sunshine (not guaranteed) and hot chips (again, warmth not guaranteed). 

You’re in a large park, or maybe a shed, and the beers you're drinking are mostly drawn from a brewery's core range, although maybe there's the odd new release pouring. 

Behind the table are the brewery owners (who are probably also the brewers of the beers they're pouring) and they're only too happy to chat about their story, their beers – maybe even the weather and the soggy nature of the chips.

At the start of last decade, if you were heading to a beer festival that’s largely what you'd expect to find.

Today, festivals, for the most part, look rather different. GABS focuses heavily on new releases and specialty beers while bringing a carnival atmosphere featuring roving musicians, acrobatics and a silent disco; the breweries in attendance put some serious time, thought and investment into their stands too

Then there's the likes of Brisbane’s Beer InCider, the Australia-wide BeerFest, and Adelaide's Beer & BBQ that invest heavily in headline acts to broaden the appeal of their festival beyond those coming for the beer, while scores of others across the country ensure there's a wide array of entertainment and other attractions beyond the beer in your glass.

But there’s a new breed of beer festival taking hold, one that simultaneously harks back to those simpler times while looking to the future, and where you’re unlikely to lose focus on the beer since there’s little else to distract you. That said, you're unlikely to find a brewery's core range pale ale pouring as there's a good chance the brewers will have been charged with bringing their best and brightest, newest and rarest. 

The team at Carwyn Cellars has long been known for events that may seem to stem from madcap ideas – pastry stouts paired with pastries and a start time of midnight, anyone? – but which are fundamentally about sourcing rare and wonderful beer and bringing beer drinkers together under one roof to enjoy them. It should be no surprise, then, that their first beer fest, the Carwyn Collaborational, should have already elicited plenty of excitement from beer drinkers.

Across two sessions it will see a dozen Australian breweries paired with another dozen from overseas, including the highly-regarded Firestone Walker, Cloudwater, Stillwater Artisanal and Outer Range Brewing (you can view the full lineup here).

It takes place inside their bar and along neighbouring Blythe Street, a move that will allow them to fit in the 24 brewers and 425 punters they intend to welcome to each session.

 

Ben Carwyn (left) and Ben Duval (right) with Adrian Walker from festival collaborators Firestone Walker.

 

“It’s been bubbling away for a long time but we didn’t know exactly what it was,” venue manager Ben Duval says. “Originally we had two ideas: one was an international invitational beer festival and one was a street party, and then we felt we should combine the two.”

He says the decision to focus on collaborations between breweries stems from their own love of making beer with breweries and the fact collabs are largely unique to craft brewing.

“I know it’s a made-up word,” he says of the Collaborational, adding: “It’s celebrating working together and collaborating at large and it’s a big part of the industry and a fun part of it. 

"In the history of craft beer in Australia, people have already worked together a lot, it’s something craft beer has that wineries or distilleries don’t do as much.”

Venue owner Ben Carwyn says the collaborations will take many different shapes for the festival’s first year.  

“There’s going to be a little bit of everything. Some [breweries] are doing virtual collaborations and will have them ready for the festival; some will get together and do more farmhouse-style [beers] or stouts while here. So, there’ll be collabs at the festival to drink on the day and some getting released next year.”

The day before the festival will feature a larger brew day too, details of which are being kept under wraps at the time of writing. Some of the international brewers are even spending their time here staying with those from Australia to encourage further cross-pollination of brewing ideas.

Just as many brewers like to look internationally for new brewing techniques, last year both Bens headed to America. In part it was to meet up with brewers whose beers they’d been stocking for years but it also gave them the chance to check out the beer festival scene, including the much-loved Firestone Walker Invitational that welcomes more than 50 breweries from across the world. Both the festivals and many of the beers they tried on their trip impressed but Ben C says the trip made something else clear to him.

“There’s a lot of very, very good breweries in Australia now that almost talk themselves down a bit compared to their US and European counterparts,” he says. “But we’ve had the beers fresh from all of them at the same time and they are all in the same basket.”

So, while you'll often hear talk about Australia trailing America’s beer industry by a few years, he believes that’s not really the case anymore and hopes the festival reminds local breweries how far they've come while giving them the chance to impress guests from overseas. 

“I think there’s a mass of people that understand it and also understand these are expensive exercises," Ben C says, "but [they] will pay for quality.”

Further proof there’s an audience for such events stems from the growth of smaller festivals in recent times. Tasmania’s Van Dieman Brewing hosted From The Wilderness in March last year as a celebration of Tasmania's wild and farmhouse beers, and Launceston’s Fresh Hop Beer Festival and Bridge Road’s High Country Hops have both celebrated the local hop harvest for a number of years. 

Stone & Wood's Invitationals have also taken the approach of less is more, with smaller crowds creating a greater brewer to punter ratio, while Moon Dog's Mate Fest last November brought many international brewers to Australia – some for the first time – while keeping ticket sales at a similar level to Carwyn's Collaborational.

On the same weekend in Melbourne last month, fans of hop-heavy beers could head to Summer Haze at Mr Banks and sample nothing but hazy beers from a collection of local brewers while the sour-obsessed could head to Bodriggy for Electric Kool-Aid's blending of sour and wild beers with live music and art.

The last of these followed on from Blobfish, a celebration of sour and wild beer launched by Hop Nation in August 2019 and returning on July 18. Hop Nation co-founder Sam Hambour says the idea for the festival can be traced back a few years to a conversation he’d had with Wildflower's Topher Boehm.

“I was chatting to Topher, I think in 2017, and we were talking about why do brewers keep rocking up to these things when you have to ask yourself, 'What are we actually getting out of it?',” Sam says. “Yes, it’s good advertising, but what’s the future of it?”

Thus, in cahoots with fellow brewery founder Duncan Gibson and the brewery’s wider team, Blobfish was born.

 

Sam (left) and Duncan (right) with Hop Nation's head of marketing, and one of Blobfish's main drivers, Delaney Mes.

 

Sam says their point of difference was more than the decision to focus on sours – it also came down to how the festival was organised and run. Blobfish bought all the kegs from the breweries involved and split the earnings from the day evenly between them, which Sam says contrasts with many other festivals at which brewing companies pay the organisers for their spot plus a substantial percentage of their sales on the day.

“Blobfish pays for all the overheads and then the money’s spilt out between the brewers after the festival,” Sam says. “So, in an ideal world, the breweries make some money and get an experience out of it and the house doesn’t take anything.

“Obviously the breweries that are more popular are selling more beer but it helps some emerging breweries, so it’s a bit more of a community-focused way to spread the money.”

And it's this bringing together of the community of sour brewers with fans of the style that he believes lies at the heart of Blobfish.

“Part of it was having the brewers or owners behind the stand and being available to chat to the people who come,” Sam says.

“I think that’s one thing people really appreciate – not having the salesperson but having someone who can answer the questions they want to ask so they can get the answers straight from the source.”

It’s a path Carwyn is following too and one that reflects one of the many ways in which the beer world is changing. While there are still many people discovering the world outside mainstream lagers and easy pales, there's a growing band of drinkers with years of exploration under their belts, developed palates and deeper knowledge who are looking for something more than the chance to bounce around dozens of brewery stalls while bands play on the main stage. 

They want to learn more about the beer in their glass, the stories behind them and the people that make them. They're keen to take their time and come away enlightened as well as entertained.

“We’ve asked all the international breweries to have someone close to the brewing to be here," Ben C says, "while the locals are all looking forward to it and want to be there.”

At Blobfish, Sam says inviting a couple of international brewers and getting them all to brew a beer together meant ideas and practical skills could be shared. Last year's collab featured a mix of all participating breweries’ house cultures – akin to the delicious Woods Of The North collab overseen by 3 Ravens for a past Good Beer Week event –and will be released at this year’s Blobfish in magnums, with the sale of the beer offering another revenue stream for those involved.

The decision to focus squarely on one realm of the beer world was driven by the Hop Nation team’s love of wild and funky beers from other brewers, and it's an area the ex-winemakers behind the Footscray brewery have been exploring with their Site Fermentation Project releases.

“It’s also something we wanted to go to: a festival where you could drink all of Australia’s best sours in one spot and compare or talk about them,” Sam says.

It's a view shared by beer writer and commentator Luke Robertson of Ale of a Time, who has been a regular at beer festivals for more than a decade – as an attendee, masterclass host and organiser.

“I think a lot of it is brewers want to do a festival they want to be part of,” he says. “Brewers, at the end of the day, are just as geeky as anyone about beer and they want to have an awesome geeky time.

“So, by inviting their friends along to a festival they want to part of and curating it means they get to come to that festival too. It’s almost an indulgence for some of them or a wishlist and that works for punters as well.”

 

Luke Robertson hosting a masterclass at a previous Good Beer Week Gala. Photo by Ryan Wheatley

 

Such festivals are also a sign of a more developed local beer market. Luke says festivals with their own niche are now possible because both the quality of local beer and its fan base have grown so much.

“Blobfish is a good example of catering to a niche that wasn’t there, or wasn’t even able to be there, a few years ago," he says. "I don’t think anyone thought three years ago that it would be possible to get that many breweries together who were doing that many interesting things in that sour, wild ferment space at such a level.”

Despite these festivals catering to a niche, Luke says many of the rules that have always applied to running a good festival are still true. The quality of beer and food needs to be high, the space needs to be well-considered and, above all else, they've got to be a lot of fun.

“At the end the day a beer festival is people going into a nice space and drinking new beers,” he says. “No matter the festival, you still need to be aware that a lot of people are there just because it’s an event and they’re the people we need to get to come back.”

As for the future of festivals, Luke believes there’s space for the smaller, style-focused ones as well as the larger, entertainment-driven festivals as both feed into each other.

“I think there is scope to keep doing niche ones – I’d love to see a lager one like they’ve seen in the States and there’s been a couple of kveik ones in Europe,” he says.

“The more people that get on board and come along to a regular festival and discover they like a style of beer then the more we can target them to niche ones.”


Carwyn Collaborational tickets went on sale at 10am on February 12. We've got some to give away to readers who've signed up to our beer lovers bonus scheme, The Crafty Cabal, plus $20 in tasters for members and a couple of $85 tickets as welcome gifts for new signups. Blobfish returns to the Meat Market in North Melbourne on July 18, 2020.

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