3. Hanging Up the Ol' Pretzel Necklace, & How to Embrace Change with Hazy IPAs

Why beer festivals can't live on in their current state; plus if you can't love an exemplary hazy IPA, how the hell are you gonna love any other hazy IPA?

Before we get into things, Happy Pride! Tune in next week for a beer-meets-Pride issue.

Beer Festivals Need to Be Reimagined, and Were Maybe Never That Great to Begin With

The world of beer festivals was on my list of topics to discuss within the first few weeks or so of writing this newsletter, because I figured my xoJane-style “unpopular opinion” on them would just knock your socks off, dear readers. But just within a few weeks, I think that scalding take has cooled to lukewarm, if not chilled. The reasons I used to cite for my sort of anti-fest stance are now trivial little gnats compared to the 800-pound mountain of gut-wrenching sexism and abuse accounts in the room. Because, now we know—or, rather, we always knew, but now we’re fully and consciously confronting it—that festivals are a particularly dangerous place to be a womxn in beer.

Before Brienne Allan’s Instagram stories revealed just how pervasive toxic sexism, abuse, and assault are in the beer industry, or at least, confirmed the suspicion that it was happening all along that many of us hadn’t come to terms with, I think the main struggle with beer fests at this time was the issue of public health and safety because of the pandemic. When the GABF decided to not invite the general public back in person until 2022, I wanted to weigh whether beer festivals were worth the herculean task of safely organizing that kind of enormous-crowd event, and whether they could actually survive the kind of restrictions that would be necessary. If you haven’t really read into how a beer festival works as the pandemic clouds somewhat lift but don’t entirely evaporate, Nicci Peet wrote a great account of the Bristol Craft Beer Festival for Good Beer Hunting.

The Bristol event sounded like a relative success, all things considered, and with far reduced crowds and enforced spacing, actually sounded more like a festival I’d be happier attending. But there are concerns. Some of Peet’s sources pointed out that you can regulate behavior at a festival, but the very nature of this kind of event facilitates intoxication, and then that intoxicated crowd is let loose on the streets of the city, where they might not always then comply with rules at bars, pubs, and restaurants. Then you have the fact that in some states here in the U.S., beer festivals carried on like there was no pandemic, before we even knew if a vaccine was indeed coming, before case numbers were dropping from more terrifying rates, and without the kind of painstaking planning on display at an event like Bristol’s.

I’ve wondered, are beer festivals really even that necessary? Are they as integral to the beer industry and culture as we make them out to be, and either way, should they be and do they need to be when the trade-off could be flying in the face of necessary public health precautions?

Consider the very basic, surface issues of your typical beer festival, the problems that arise from the very way that these events function. Right off the bat, we have oversaturation. Beer festivals used to be special; now your local car wash throws them.

The theoretical point of beer festivals, I think?, is to try new beers and discover different breweries. When I first started attending fests, I naïvely expected to mull over each four-ounce pour while discussing it with the brewery representative behind the table, because I was an idiot. Even those with the best of intentions at a festival must acquiesce to the long lines and loud crowds that make such exploration impossible. Then there are those to whom the point of a beer festival is actually to get as blotto as is feasible in two hours. I personally would much rather sit and savor a handful of beers at a brewery, bar, bottle shop, or bottle share than try to pick out a stout’s aroma notes as your cousin’s ex-boyfriend Greg accidentally spits on me while boasting to his lacrosse team that he’s on his sixth 14% pour in ten minutes.

High ticket prices, packed settings, and major crowds pile on top of the pressure cooker that is attending a beer festival, where you feel like there’s some imaginary clock ticking away as you try to sample as many beers as you can in order to win some amazing prize, except that that amazing prize turns out to be dry-heaving in a badly neglected porta-potty. 

At the NYC Craft Beer Festival when it was at the Metropolitan Pavilion, we waited in line so long that we had about 50 minutes left in our time slot and I had to fight the frugal part of my brain to not try to actually drink my $70 ticket cost’s worth of beer samples. Don’t even get me started on that 450 North Brewing’s corn maze festival. Let’s just say, I’ve seen things. And they all looked like a nightmare party thrown by Sigma Phi Hazebro in a sea of vomit and cornstalks.

But, this is all nothing compared to what those of us ostriches pulling our heads out of the sand are now realizing about beer festivals, which is that they can be hotbeds of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. Womxn working them are exposed to hordes of drunken men who, fucking unfortunately, are more likely to reveal their inner monsters considering the environment and the flowing beer. It ranges from man after man stepping up to get his pour and insulting the womxn giving it to him, to some men actually feeling entitled to put their hands on womxn. And this doesn’t end at the ticket-holding public; so many of the horrifying stories Brienne Allan published this May from hundreds of womxn in the beer industry took place at or after beer festivals and involved men who worked at their own or other breweries.

In 2019, I tried to pitch around my hot take that beer festivals are actually bad, but the closest any publication allowed me to get was that Men’s Journal commissioned a round-up of festivals that don’t suck, essentially. Looking back, I’m realizing that some of the fests included are ones that come up time and time again in the allegations published by Brienne, notably Pils & Love. It seems that at best, beer fests can be a pricey drinking gauntlet to ticket holders; at worst, they can leave womxn especially vulnerable to real danger.

In the past, many breweries have cited the economic viability of beer festivals and I’ll acknowledge that because, ugh, capitalism. I think as beer professionals plot the future of the industry, fests could live on IF, and I mean, a huge IF, they’re done right. The way I spoke about the entire beer industry in this newsletter’s first issue, that it is absolutely worth saving IF it is uprooted and reinvented with equity, representation, and diversity at its core and control in the hands of formerly marginalized groups? That logic applies precisely to beer festivals, as well. In order to continue to exist safely and productively in a way that positively contributes to the beer industry, festivals vitally need to be reimagined. 

While I’m seeing tons of events stomp forward without any of the necessary reflection and reorganization, I’m happy to see plenty of breweries and organizers take serious stock on what fests need to be. I believe it was only a day or two before the stories started flooding into public awareness that I bought tickets to Interboro’s Pils City event, and based on the small, focused format of the event, I was sincerely excited to get back to connecting with beer on this level. Ticket-holders got the email right before the announcement went up on Instagram: first, which I mentioned in this newsletter’s first issue, Interboro dropped Tired Hands and Modern Times from the lineup due to those breweries’ prominent presence among victims’ accounts. Within a couple of days, the decision was made to postpone the fest all together, giving Interboro a beat that I think all breweries should be taking in order to plan any events with the utmost care and attention to safety, accountability, and creating a truly welcoming environment for all.

Back in 2019, the New York City Brewers Guild established a policy of having official, trained safety advocates at all types of festivals, “with extensive signage and messaging clear to all in attendance who they are and what they are there for,” explains an NYCBG Instagram post. As Brew York editor Chris O’Leary wrote in a recent issue of his newsletter, Brew York & Beyond, this layer of planning is something we should be asking of all beer festival organizers.

All fests need clear rules that address and aim to prevent absolutely any instance of sexual harassment or abuse. Measures to ensure any event is 100% safe and 100% welcoming to all female-identifying individuals, non-binary individuals, and individuals of color are essential, plain and simple. Such measures are significantly more important than, like, figuring out how many corn hole games you need to set up. If an organizer has the faintest notion of planning any kind of beer festival, how safety is going to be guaranteed comes first.

Once that’s covered, perhaps this is selfish of me, but I would love to see smaller, more specialized festivals. Maybe they don’t need to replace the big bashes, if those bashes are, again, putting safety and comfort first, because I know some of you out there love them. But I truly believe festivals with smaller crowds and even less breweries there offer an experience much more in line with what beer lovers want. The actual opportunity to learn about different brews from the brewery representatives, special opportunities like trying food pairings and getting to sit in on educational discussions, these sound like really unique, worthwhile occasions.

Speaking of the NYCBG, when its executive director, Ann V. Reilly, was on Hannah Kiem’s podcast, Brews with Broads, she mentioned planning events like this in the city as in-person festivals become possible again coming out of the pandemic. Now, I have to say that NYC Beer Week 2020’s festival, which was in the bigger, more traditional vein, is one of the few fests I’ve truly loved, and the team of safety advocates was on hand, so I hope some version of that big, ol’ hubbub sticks around. I’m so excited about the prospect of other, more niche riffs on the fest, though, that could come in the future.

This is long-winded enough, and I’m sorry, but I do want to make one more point. I think this story by Kate Bernot for Good Beer Hunting raises some important questions about the potential risks of making beer fests, in any way, more exclusive. The concern is that this will erase what little progress beer has been making in bull-dozing barriers of entry, that an increase in exclusivity will equal less people being invited to the table. Avoiding this is as important as ensuring safety and comfort at beer fests. So, while, again, the economic viability has to remain intact in order for fests to help breweries’ bottom line, costs to the public simply cannot rise in tandem with festivals’ reinvention. Even if events get smaller or more thematically planned, while it will create even more work in the planning stages, they absolutely have to remain and actually improve in how they invite and welcome all. 

Once the organizers in American craft beer take a step back and re-approach festivals with safety and inclusion as top priorities, and probably once those festivals are a bit more specific in their programming, well, then, maybe I’ll see you there.

Beer Tarot!

I pulled the Four of Cups. Let’s get into it, shall we?

The suit of cups has us talking about emotions and relationships, and the Four of Cups turns its attention to restlessness and boredom, specifically. That sounds about right coming in on month 347 of the pandemic, even as we begin to emerge from cabin-fever mode and head into enjoying-some-aspects-of-life-but-now-confronting-trauma time. Days in front of the computer and also at the sink washing another goddamned dish have equaled boredom and essentially no freedom to travel equaled restlessness. Pulling this card signals that you’ve got all this pent-up inertia and are ready to make a change somewhere in your life, but you’re hesitating because you’re worried it’s just going to be more of the same. You’ve been disenchanted by leaps that should have made more of an impact in the past.

As soon as I pulled this card, I thought of hazy IPAs. Hacky but true! Hazy IPAs were this Big New Thing, and now they’re the Most Ubiquitous Thing, and they’re constantly trying to remain revolutionary by doing ridiculous things like septuple-dry-hopping and adding vats of ambrosia and whole Troll dolls to the brew. If you’re a hazy IPA fan, I wonder: do you have favorites you stick to, or are you ever in search of the new and now, and if it’s the latter, are you often disappointed? Because I am actually a hazy IPA fan but come on, the percentage of new innovations that actually are as such is teeny. Makes you wish breweries just stuck to perfecting their formulas instead of shooting them out of cannons.

What we need—in both life and IPAs—is a bright outlook in order to try a change. For beer, I think it means learning to truly love the OG iteration of a hazy IPA, classic, simple, straightforward. Lean into staples that just get it right in order to love the style for what it is—Industrial Arts’s Wrench NEIPA is my go-to. Then go take a chance on a wholly new IPA; you can appreciate what about it works, and if anything doesn’t, you’ll be thankful for that little learning experience. One rec? The Sweet Nothings IPA from Kills Boro has milk sugar, strawberry, and vanilla bean, and I was sure it’d be cloyingly sweet. It wasn’t! It was beautifully balanced, interesting, and delicious—change can be good.

This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec

This beautiful piece by Katie Mather for Good Beer Hunting came out a bit ago but I’m still thinking about it and if you missed it, treat yourself to a read. I’ve long loved Katie’s writing and was excited to read she and her husband had opened a beer and cider shop/bar (something to visit when I can finally get back to England?). This essay delves deep, deep, deep into that journey and in addition to being a lovely peek behind the curtain of opening a beer business, it will hit home for absolutely anyone with a dream or an idea of their lives that is something other than their current reality. Against my wishes to never sound trite, I must admit I felt very inspired.

Until next week, here’s Darby in a knock-off Gucci jacket I ordered her from an Instagram ad because duh, with Non Sequitur Beer Project’s fantastic New York is Dead TIPA.