The Beauty Behind Beer Festivals

Photo credit: Bryan J. Kolesar, TheBrewLounge.com

In the craft beer community, there are few pilgrimages more revered than the trip to upstate New York for Duvel Moortgat USA and Brewery Ommegang’s annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown (BCTC) beer festival.

For anyone who’s made the journey, you already know what I’m talking about. Bearded brewers and craft aficionados bust out their camping equipment, light portable grills, and open ice chests full of Cantillon during a weekend-long brewcchanal that includes tours, tastings, live music, bonfires and a fireworks display.

Ommegang barely breaks even on the event, but that’s not the point. Simon Thorpe, the president and CEO of Duvel USA and Ommegang believes that the real value of hosting a beer festival like BCTC lies in the brand experience.

“The atmosphere has this very intimate, affectionate feel,” he said. “There is something magical about having a small group of people – your friends — gathered in upstate New York to celebrate some of the best beer in the world.”

But it wasn’t until 2011 that Thorpe felt that “magical” experience first-hand. Early on Saturday evening, just as the bright festival lights were warming up and one of the musical acts began to take the stage, Thorpe drove a golf cart to the top of the hill that overlooks the farmhouse brewery. What he saw below was 2,700 happy fest-goers, and that’s when it struck him.

“It’s wasn’t so much what you could see, or the organization,” he said. “It was the sound of enjoyment that was truly special. Anyone who walks even halfway up that hillside and looks back down will see the sense of community and shared happiness at this event in upstate New York.”

I didn’t quite understand the feeling Thorpe had described in our pre-BCTC interview either, until I started setting up my tent. Roc Brewing co-founder Jon Mervine saw me unfolding my gear and, without hesitation, helped get me situated. Just next to us, a group of New York state homebrewers were cooking up a trash can turkey (which is exactly what it sounds like). As it started to rain, Mervine and I covered our beers, huddled underneath their E-Z UP tent and started chatting.

“Did you hear they’re going to have a Ferris wheel,” one of them said.

That got me thinking about something Thorpe had mentioned during our talk.

“7,000 people in a big hall trying to get as drunk as possible is not what the craft beer movement should be about,” he told me. “It should be about the art, the beauty and the flavors.”

He’s right. Craft beer isn’t about wearing some oversized pretzel necklace and performing an aimless, zombie-like march through, concrete-slabbed convention centers, in search of two-ounce tastes of the highest octane imperial stout you can stomach. It’s about helping friends set up their tents. It’s about inviting strangers to take shelter from the rain. It’s about cooking up trash can turkeys. The event reminded me of that essential aspect of this culture.

Brewery Ommegang doesn’t turn a huge profit on the Belgium Comes to Cooperstown event, but the word of mouth and positive vibes can be astonishing.

For its 10th year, the event’s 2,700 tickets sold out in just four minutes, along with 750 tickets for a six-course VIP food and beer pairing dinner, which sold out in only 30 seconds.

That’s why Simon Thorpe, the president and CEO of Duvel USA and Ommegang believes that the real value of hosting a beer festival like BCTC lies in the brand experience.

So what are Thorpe’s five suggestions for small breweries looking to harness the beer festival on their own?

Start small and keep it small
“Don’t try and run before you have really learned to walk,” said Thorpe, noting that Brewery Ommegang has taken the slow route, growing the BCTC festival from 300 attendees to 2,700 over the last decade. “By keeping it small, you can properly create a memorable experience for people, that builds your reputation and is true to what your brewery stands for. I don’t think we will ever go beyond 2,700 people.”

Pick a Theme

Last year, in celebration of the Mayan predictions, the BCTC theme was “The End is Beer.” This year it was a Seinfeld-esque, “beer festival about nothing.”

“It helps to create equity in craft beer if you focus on a particular theme,” he said. “Having that coherence helps you to focus the energy and capture the imagination of a single idea.”

Don’t Forget the Details

Thorpe believe that the best beer events are ones that are the most well-organized.

“The devil is in the details,” he said. “Have you got your parking well organized? Do you have porta-potties? Can you make it easy for people to enjoy themselves?”

Don’t over-control things

Letting creative traditions flourish are what give an event its character and adds to the overall experience.

“It’s the traditions that make BCTC such a wonderful festival for people and why people come back over and over again,” he said. “We never realized just how important the bonfire was going to be and it has become a huge piece of the tradition of BCTC. You have to find things like the bonfire that make the whole experience of coming to a festival, at a brewery, as perfect as you can make it.”

Don’t do it if you can’t do it right

“Just as there is craftsmanship in beer, there is craftsmanship in festivals,” Thorpe said. “We think that BCTC is structurally critical to building the reputation of our brewery. In everything we do, we try to make it a perfect experience. It has to be the perfect glass, or the perfect beer, or the perfect festival. Each year we challenge ourselves to think of something so that people leave thinking “this was the best one yet.”

Thorpe tries incredibly hard to bring out that sense of community at BCTC. It’s why he rents Ferris wheels or hires fire jugglers or flies a shirtless saxophone player from across the country… just to perform George Michael’s Careless Whisper.

Brewery: Brewery Ommegang Website: http://www.ommegang.com
Address: 656 County Hwy 33
Cooperstown, NY 13326
United States
  • Lee Movic

    Nice piece, Chris. “Brewcchanal”. Classic.

  • craftybudman

    Went to it this year. Amazing to see the different license plates in the parking lot. People travel for this event. I saw one car from Arizona…..