The Brewers Association (BA) announced a sponsorship deal earlier this week to feature a Buffalo Wild Wings branded pop-up sports bar on the floor of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), its marquee tasting and judging event held annually in Denver.
The partnership with the chicken wing chain, which was acquired last November by Arby’s for $2.9 billion, is the second major sponsorship deal for the late September festival. In early June, the BA announced that Pernod Ricard-owned Jameson would build a barrel-aged beer garden on the festival floor.
Speaking to Brewbound, BA marketing director Ann Obenchain said the not-for-profit trade group was looking for “activations” that would improve the attendee experience and promote independent craft beer.
“Both Buffalo Wild Wings and Jameson do that,” she said. “They’re essentially gardens or mini-festivals within the festival.”
Financial terms of the sponsorships were not disclosed, however, Obenchain said both companies signed one year deals with options to renew in 2019.
According to Obenchain, the Buffalo Wild Wings deal is “two-pronged.” Buffalo Wild Wings will create a 3,600 sq. ft. sports bar — serving wings and yet-to-be-determined craft beers while showing live sporting events on several TVs — on the festival floor.
It’s unclear how beers will be served inside the Buffalo Wild Wings bar, but the GABF website makes it clear to fest-goers that the event is not intended to be like walking into “a giant bar.”
“The goal of the Great American Beer Festival is to allow attendees to taste a variety of new brands and different styles of beer,” the website states. “To allow guests to taste American craft beer, samples are poured in one-ounce tasting portions.”
In addition to its activation within the festival, the wing chain will also feature some of this year’s award-winning beers throughout its stores. However, Obenchain said exact details on how the program will work are still being determined and more information will be announced in the upcoming weeks.
Meanwhile, the 12,600 sq. ft. Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden will feature 17 beers from the popular series, including collaborations with Cigar City, DC Brau, Fat Head’s, Heavy Seas, Harpoon, and Revolution, among others.
The BA also hosts its own activation during GABF, Paired, a premium ticketed event in which a select number of craft breweries’ high-end beers are matched with a curated food menu from noted chefs.
Nevertheless, the sponsorships with a corporately held chicken wing chain and a spirits company have led some industry observers to criticize the BA, whose stated goal is to promote small and independent U.S. beer companies.
In a string of Twitter posts, beer business reporter Jason Notte wrote that the BA’s deal with Buffalo Wild Wings runs counter to its ethos of “independence.”
“How does this fit into the ‘independent’ criteria of GABF organizers,” Notte wrote. “Well, they’re owned by Roark Capital, and private equity counts as ‘independent’ in the GABF’s eyes.”
The deals also come one year after the organization stopped allowing large brewing companies and brewery groups, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, to purchase featured sponsorships at the festival.
“I’d be surprised by the Brewers Association letting Arby’s and Pernod Ricard onto the GABF floor and banning Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors if it didn’t regularly contradict itself,” Notte said of the organization. “It slaps ‘independent’ labels on beers, but used Big Brewer and Distiller influence for a tax cut.”
According to Obenchain, the BA sees an opportunity for greater exposure for craft brewers by working with Buffalo Wild Wings, which operates more than 1,200 restaurants in 10 countries.
“We’re partnering with the largest pourer of draft beer to help activate a nationwide program, to elevate the availability of craft beer to customers and get them to become more aware,” she said.
Asked if the BA considered featuring any small and independent restaurants in those sponsor spots, Obenchain said she couldn’t speak for sales team’s selection process, but noted “it’s fairly thorough as far as chatting with companies and businesses that are able to do activations of this size.”
As for inviting a distilling company to set up shop inside the largest beer festival in the country, at a time when beer is losing market share to spirts and wine, Obenchain said the BA is hoping the partnership will draw more spirits drinkers to the festival and expose them to craft beer.
“We know that Jameson drinkers are cross drinkers, and they’re craft beer drinkers,” she said.
Obenchain pointed to a 2017 Nielsen analysis of Jameson shoppers’ cross purchasing behavior that found that 95 percent of Jameson Caskmates shoppers also bought craft beer. Additionally, more than half (51 percent) of Jameson Caskmates shoppers were also craft IPA shoppers while 41 percent of those customers bought craft stouts.
Those numbers were in line with the BA’s own data, Obenchain said. A “craft insights panel” conducted by Nielsen for the BA found that 60 percent of “core” craft drinkers — those who drink craft beer once a week or more — also drink spirits weekly. And for those consumers who drink craft and spirits at least once a month, the percentage of cross drinking increased to nearly 75 percent.
“We view this an an opportunity to expose the cross drinkers — the Jameson customers — to the craft beer community,” she said.
In addition to the Buffalo Wild Wings and Jameson sponsorships, the BA is also in talks with rideshare companies to sponsor the event and offer other “smaller onsite activations.”