After Brewsvegas limped to its conclusion in 2020, with attendances reduced and events cancelled as pre-shutdown COVID restrictions tightened seemingly by the day, the Australian beer events calendar was pretty much wiped out. Months later, festivals did return in parts of the country that escaped the pandemic relatively unscathed, but after years in which a major events could be found somewhere almost every weekend, they remained scarce.
Even now, 11 months on, you can count the number of beer festivals that have taken place on your fingers. One – the Gold Coast Summer GABS – highlighted the risks still faced in our almost COVID-free country: on the eve of the event, Brisbane went into hard lockdown, preventing around half of ticketholders from attending.
Six months ago, we spoke to a number of people involved in running major events for this article on The Future Of Beer Fests; what steps were they taking to survive, and how did they see such events running in the future? As the 2021 festival season starts to warm up, with significant events taking place from Busselton to Ballarat and Beechworth in the coming weeks, we revisited the topic to see what lessons have been learned since – and to look at what such events might look like this year and beyond.
One of the country's most colourful celebrations of good beer, Brewsvegas, won't be going ahead this year. The ten-day showcase of all that's good in the wider Brisbane beer community usually runs in March, but will instead be replaced by Brewsvegas Beer Trails, set to be launched later in the year.
Festival organiser Ben Gibson says that, while the decision to alter Brewsvegas 2021 was made some time ago, it wasn't an easy one to make.
“After the 2020 event, we sat down and took a little time to rest, which we really needed,” Ben says. “It was very difficult to watch something we had put eight months of work into just fall apart in front of us.
“Once we had our first meeting back we had a chat about what we thought was the right thing to do, as well as how we were all feeling. We all had the collective consensus that we didn’t have it in us to put the time in to organising the festival for 2021 with the very real possibility that lockdowns and restrictions could very easily mean it would all be for nothing.”
That was the very real prospect facing the team behind the Ballarat Beer Festival up until late last night. The 2020 event was able to run a few weeks before the nationwide shutdown and, with Victoria open again after defeating its second wave, in December the organisers decide to go ahead again in 2021.
They took steps to ensure the event would be COVIDSafe, and viable, as they looked forward to a tenth year in the regional Victorian city: instead of one long session, it's split over two with a smaller capacity for each; they've hired additional furniture so everyone can be seated; the requisite information and QR codes to sign in will be plastered across the site; dancing is banned in front of the main stage.
As they approached one week to go – with all double session passes sold and the afternoon session almost filled – Victoria's snap lockdown was announced, one that was due to expire just 60 hours before the festival started.
"I didn't move very far from the bathroom," festival organiser Ric Dexter says of last Friday's news.
However, the past week has just been one more challenge upon many, according to Ric, who had already taken the decision to cancel the Funk'N'Fresh music festival they'd hoped to run on the same site the day after the beer festival, as well as shelving plans for a music festival on the Mornington Peninsula in April.
"It's been months from hell," he says. "We made the decision in December to push the go button; normally we do that in August.
"It's been a short, sharp campaign and we've had to push months of work into weeks of work. It's been highly stressful and exhausting. The COVIDSafe plan alone took 80 man hours."
The festival team submitted their COVIDSafe plan in December, yet struggled to get a response from the Victorian DHHS until two weeks ago, followed by an email last week saying their plan was approved but it needed sign off from Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and the Minister for Major Events, Martin Pakula.
"I was told they're busy so we'd have to wait," Ric says, adding that their contingency plan was to postpone the event and wear a loss of "tens of thousands of dollars" if approval for this Saturday hadn't come through.
That wait ended last night, however, with Ric thankful for the support of Juliana Addison, the elected member for Wendouree, for applying pressure on the festival's behalf. Up until the approval came through – he emailed us with the news at 10.58pm – the pressure he was feeling was intense. While there were always going to be risks involved in running a major event during a global pandemic, by this stage he'd already "forked out tens of thousands of dollars" and was preparing for the festival infrastructure to start taking shape this morning.
"The goalposts are moving all the time," he says. "The lockdown is over but because there's a still a limit on public gatherings over 20 people so I spent five hours on social media explaining to people that this doesn't apply to events [like ours]."
For all that the past few months have been a logistical, financial and emotional roller coaster, he says he's keen to run more festivals on in the future, an attitude you'll also find in the nation's capital.
After being forced to cancel the 2020 iteration of the Canberra Craft Beer & Cider Festival – the first time in 13 years the event hadn’t taken place– organiser Jenny Farrell remains confident 2021 will be a success. Ensuring the event is COVIDSafe has been expensive, yet she says money has never been their top priority.
“We have never been there to make a profit, we’re here to support and promote craft beer,” Jenny says.
“It’s obviously very exciting, but extremely time-consuming. Our overhead costs are going to be around double what they would normally be, but that’s OK because Canberrans love as much beer knowledge as they can get... they will show up in rain, hail or shine. They’re incredibly supportive.”
Currently scheduled for March 20, the festival team has made a number of changes, the most prominent being a shift in location, as well as running the event over two sessions to better control crowd numbers. The process of organising this year's festival has been challenging, not least due to the fluid nature of restrictions and guidelines.
“Everything we’re putting in place and all the work we’re doing is all circumspect because things could change the week before the event and we could be forced to cancel.”
Despite all the headaches, Jenny says it will all be worth it: “It’ll be music to our ears to hear that first beer being poured. It’ll mean that things are starting to return towards what they once were.
“It will give everyone a bit of hope that we can continue moving forward and plan these functions.”
Similarly steadfast and positive about future prospects in 2021 is Siobhan Kerin, head of events at the Independent Brewers Association, which will be bringing Good Beer Week back in May after what was due to be the tenth anniversary festival was cancelled in 2020.
The nature of the festival – scores of generally smaller events taking place at breweries and venues across Greater Melbourne and beyond – adds to her confidence. When considering worst case scenarios – such as another snap lockdown in Victoria – she says they're in a position where they could push events back a week, given they're not tied to major site or equipment hire costs, or extend the dates so individual events can rearrange if forced by circumstances.
What's more, the unique challenges of 2021 allow the festival team to hammer home one of the key messages they've pushed since its inception in 2011: getting out to explore and support the Melbourne hospitality industry.
At the festival's Christmas party a few weeks ago, Siobhan says Good Beer Week co-founder Miro Bellini "did this great, inspirational speech about there being no other festival trying to get people into venues at a time like now when it's more important than ever."
She adds: “Because the festival is made up of so many different elements, many of them quite small and operating in venues which are comfortable with their COVIDSafe plans, we’re confident we can run the event successfully and safely."
There will be some casualties in 2021. The print program that's been central to previous years won't appear this year due to the shortened timescale in which to prepares and the significant costs that went into last year's, only for tens of thousands of copies to become good for nothing more than pulp. And there won't be the parade of international guests due to border closures, even though showcases of international beers will continue, not least as part of The Crafty Pint's Pint of Origin.
"It's going to be very Melbourne-focused, but a lot of stuff we've been focusing on will be no different," she says. "Supporting local, getting into local neighbourhoods – it's what we should be doing all year round.
"We might not have interstate or international visitors, but if anyone deserves to have the light shone on them it's Melbourne at the moment after the hardest lockdowns."
Little wonder, then, that Siobhan and the team at the IBA are working hard to make Good Beer Week's return a celebration for the wider beer community.
“It’s been so hard for people within the industry to have been separated for so long. I think being able to have Good Beer Week this year is so important because it’s really a time for togetherness,” she says.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to get the festival off the ground because we know how important it is.
“I cried the first time I could see friends again after COVID and I think I’ll have a similar response going to the first Good Beer Week event in 2021.”
For the Brewsvegas team, when brainstorming alternate ideas for their festival in 2021, they ultimately settled on the Brewsvegas Beer Trails, which will still guide people around Brisbane’s vibrant craft beer scene.
“The idea of a more detailed map that people could access was something we have wanted to do for a little while,” Ben says.
“This is the safest way to keep Brewsvegas alive in some form, while also not compromising on what we want the actual festival to be.”
Indeed, on top of the adaptations already required to run major events since the second half of last year, innovation will be key to their ongoing success as the long-term impacts of the pandemic become clearer. Looking forward to the future of festivals like Good Beer Week, Siobhan doesn’t think things will ever be the same.
“Nothing is going to be normal ever again," she says. "We need to think about a new sort of COVID-normal... like anything in life since COVID, it’s hard to say if it will ever be like the way it was. We all just have to suck it up and get it done.
“I do think some things will change for the better – nobody likes being in giant lines and being squashed together like sardines. It's the little changes that we can make to make things better overall.”
You can still get hold of tickets for this weekend's Ballarat Beer Festival here and the Canberra Craft Beer & Cider Festival here. Watch this space for when Good Beer Week tickets will go on sale. And keep supporting your local beer community!
Full disclosure: The Crafty Pint's founder James Smith was a founding member and past festival director of Good Beer Week.
WIN! We've got double passes for the Canberra Craft Beer & Cider Festival to give away to members of our beer club, The Crafty Cabal. Log in or sign up here to enter before March 3.