Carving Out A Niche: Small Festivals. Big Ideas

Beer festivals have taken a battering over the last couple of years but clearly beer drinkers' desire to consume crafties surrounded by punters and brewers hasn't diminished. 

While Good Beer Week has taken the year off, the Pint of Origin festival we ran instead was a roaring success, WA Beer Week and its many events are currently underway, the Australian legs of GABS finished just nine days ago, while looking at the Crafty team's travel plans for the coming months is like being back in 2019 again. Adelaide Beer & BBQ Festivals return in July, Froth Town will light up Perth again in August, followed a week later by the second Bendigo On The Hop of the year, while the BeerFest crew will embark on their own national tour towards the end of the year.

Go back a couple of years and in a piece of quite wonderful timing, we looked at the rise in smaller beer festivals dedicated to the geekier corners of the beer world, or focused on a certain beer style, just before COVID arrived to ensure none of those small festivals could actually take place anymore.

But those smaller festivals – typically eschewing circus entertainment and headline bands in favour of more rudimentary brewery stands, fewer punters, and run by brewers rather than reps or hired hands – have returned in a post-pandemic era with a bang. Mountain Culture set the pace with their Rauchbier Festival in March, there were returning hop harvest celebrations in the Victorian High Country and Derwent Valley in April, while Range debut Juicy in Brisbane in July, a fortnight before Hop Nation’s celebration of all things sour and mixed ferment, Blobfish, brings the funk back to Melbourne.

So, after the roughest period imaginable for many of those in Australia's beer and hospo communities, why are so many people focusing on going small and, in some cases, as far from the mainstream as they can?

For Range co-founder Matt McIver, their festival – held across two sessions at the Fortitude Music Hall – represents something of a return to his roots. Before founding the Brisbane brewery with Gerard Martin in 2018, he spent a couple of years working for the iconic London Craft Beer Festival and its associated outings in Bristol and Edinburgh. The pair have since travelled to London to pour their own beers there.

“Gerry and I have just spoken about it ever since,” Matt says. “We’ve always been really keen to bring that experience to Australia and do it ourselves and invite the breweries who are making awesome beer.”

One of the key things they wanted to capture was the all-inclusive nature of the ticket: once punters arrive, they can explore all the beers on offer without have to reach for their credit card. It's a common approach at beer festivals in America and Europe, but remains a rarity in Australia where the prospect of handing over $130 or $140 in one go rather than merrily tapping your credit card on bar after bar has taken some explaining, according to Matt.

It's an approach he believes puts a sharper focus on the exploratory aspect of craft beer enjoyment, rather than giving the impression Juicy Fest is the place to go if you want to chug as much beer as possible.  

“It’s not about that, but it is important to let people know they can try whatever they want," he says, "and that’s the toughest thing.

“It’s really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been to a festival like [London Craft Beer Festival] how different it is and why it’s different.”

 

Matt and Gerard outside the home of their first festival.

 

It might be called Juicy Fest, but with around 20 breweries appearing from across the country, there will be a broad gamut of beers pouring across the sessions, plus a Stout & Oyster bar and Lager Lounge, the latter curated by The Crafty Pint.

Matt says: “It is called Juicy and we do expect a fair bit of IPA to be there, but it’s not a necessity; we’ve got Topher [Boehm] coming from Wildflower and Fi and Ed [Nolle] from Dollar Bill to bring awesome sours.”

The mates behind the festival also wanted to create an experience that goes beyond just the beer, developing the various bar concepts, picking food vendors they think will work well with their festival experience, and hosting it in the iconic Fortitude Music Hall in the heart of Brisbane. The venue only opened in 2019 but has quickly built a reputation as one of the city’s best live music venues.  

“It’s a big beer party,” Matt says. “It’s not meant to just appeal to the dedicated craft beer drinkers, it’s meant to appeal to people who just want to go to a really well-executed event and enjoy their Saturday. It’s got really good beer pouring but also really good music and a really good selection of food, while being in a cool venue.”

They're also aiming to make sure attending brewers have a good time: connecting and sharing knowledge between them, with a dinner for brewers and sponsors the night before the festival. Their team is looking after the setup of the taps and stands too. 

“Sometimes with the bigger festivals you don’t get that opportunity [to connect with other brewers] because you’re so worried about bump in and bump out and who’s doing what,” Matt says.

“Our festival is as much about selling tickets and hopefully one day making money off it as it is getting all these breweries into one spot and having a time where we can hang out with them in a great environment.

“Ultimately, what we want for the industry is for there to be as much collaboration and sharing of knowledge as possible, and this is one of those instances where we can curate that stage.”

The success of Rauchbier Festival in Katoomba earlier in the year, and the good time shared by beer lovers and brewers alike, cemented every belief he had about whether or not Juicy could work in Australia. There, too, the organisers at Mountain Culture put time and effort into ensuring the attending brewers had a great experience.

That festival’s origins stretch back to before Mountain Culture even sold beers: founders Harriet and DJ McCready were already eyeing off the the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre as a place with potential for an event. And it was thanks to the relatively intimate size of the space and a desire to make sure beer was the main focus that led them to ask breweries to make smoked beers for the event.

“You wouldn’t throw a rauchbier festival if you’re in it for the money,” Harriet says.

“We wanted to throw a festival that was about beer, and to challenge brewers by putting them out of their comfort zones to brew a beer style that traditionally isn’t very popular and see what they’d come up with.”

 

All smiles among brewers and suppliers on the Rauchbier Festival bus.

 

Harriet and DJ point to the hosting of some of their favourites breweries in their backyard as being one of the highlights, as was the all-inclusive nature of their tickets. They felt it encouraged the sense of exploration they wanted to see from drinkers who'd made the journey to the Blue Mountains, something they really thought necessary given the unlikely brief they gave to brewers. 

“It's so people don’t feel like they can’t have a beer and can just focus on having fun," she says, "talking to brewers and talking to other beer drinkers.”

DJ sees the rise of these smaller, style-focused beer festivals as a reflection of the wider beer market. 

“I think festivals get really drawn out of that, so I think the more intimate or focused festivals is definitely more and more of what we see,” he says.

“I think the whole industry is going more niche, even when the big things have been solidified and the big festivals are doing an awesome job.”

It’s a view reflected by Steve Jeffares who – as well as being a co-founder of Stomping Ground – founded GABS with Guy Greenstone before selling it along with the H100 Craft Beers Poll in 2019.

He highlights the fact the market is such that brewing companies are now able to focus solely on making mixed culture beers, lagers, IPAs or even non-alcoholic products. For their most recent beer festival, Lagerland in March, the aim was to champion a style many in the Stomping Ground team love at their home in Collingwood.

“With Lagerland, we just wanted to have an event that celebrated the diversity of lagers because most general beer consumers have a very narrow perception of what lagers can be.”

 

 

Akin to the choices facing a popular kid at primary school approaching their next birthday party, Steve says deciding which breweries to invite isn’t an easy one, admitting it's something he can overthink. 

“It’s certainly not fun picking breweries when you can only invite a limited number,” he says.

“There is an awful process of figuring out who you want to invite, because we’d have liked to invite more than 50 breweries to be a part of it, but we couldn’t because we were doing it in our venue.”

In the end, they made the decision to focus largely on breweries local to theirs, alongside a few from further afield and those who have a built a reputation for their lagers, such as Hop Nation with Rattenhund.

But you only have to scan the lineups at many of the smaller festivals of recent years to notice a few names appearing without fail: you'd struggle to find one that doesn't feature Garage Project, Range, Banks, Hop Nation and Mountain Culture, and it's more likely than not that you'll rock up to find the likes of Deeds, Sailors Grave, Rocky Ridge, Wildflower, Molly Rose or Dollar Bill there too.

With more than 600 brewing companies in Australia, it does appear these niche festivals pull from a relatively small pool, something Steve says is at least in part down to festival organisers needing to pick breweries that will move tickets.

“I definitely think there are the cooler breweries,” he says. “But Garage Project are such a great example of a hype brewery that backs it up: they have an X Factor and, in almost any example I can think of, the hype breweries deserve attention.”

During the early years of GABS, Steve and his team worked hard to get the likes of America’s Stone Brewing or Sierra Nevada involved in the knowledge that such pioneering breweries would pique the interest of both attendees and other brewers.

“We would always approach the breweries that we thought would have the greatest appeal and cachet before we approached others,” Steve says. “Because we knew if we could get the hot breweries then others would follow.

“We were doing that forever and a day with GABS. It’s the same with any festival, whether big or small, they want to get the cool kids first because they will sell tickets.”

 

Matt McIver pouring Range beers at Mountain Culture's festival in March.

 

When working out the lineup for Juicy Fest, Matt says the fact they had a smaller venue with tickets capped at 1,200 for each session meant they had to make smart choices as to who they wanted to attend. Attendees such as Bracket and One Drop have sizeable reputations, particularly for their IPAs, but rarely, if ever, appear on tap in Brisbane. 

“We really tried to balance the lineup with people from all around the country and with people we’re friends with,” he says, adding that they're planning to invite mates from overseas to attend in future years when international travel and shipping isn't so burdensome.

It’s a view reflected by DJ, who says breweries making similar styles to Mountain Culture are the ones they end up bouncing a lot of ideas off, collaborating with and, ultimately, attending events with.

“We all work in similar areas,” he says. “I think you’d expect a lot of the same folk at a mixed culture festival because they do work together and push each other.”

But whatever the size, style or ethos of a festival, the overall experience is what ultimately drives success. 

“There are so many options for consumers now in terms of craft or independent beer,” Steve says. “So you have to double down on creating a special experience above all else.

“When we first came up with the idea of GABS, it was all about the beer at the top of the pile. Now creating a great experience is probably number one, and I’d say the importance of the beer has dropped down – a little bit anyway – the priority list.”


If you're reading this in time, we've got a handful of all-inclusive Juicy tickets up for grabs in a giveaway for members of our beer club, The Crafty Cabal. Sign in or sign up here before midnight on June 8 to enter.

We're also running giveaways for beer club members this month to win tickets to Bendigo On The Hop, Crafted on the Gold Coast, Blobfish and Froth Town. You know what they say: you gotta be in it to win it!

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