Beer festivals may have a little bit of a negative reputation. The patrons attending can be rowdy or drunk, and the events themselves can be crowded. In a loud or oversold venue, it is hard to have educational experiences that center around beer when you can barely get the person behind the booth to understand your order. In the best circumstances, however, beer festivals can provide a plethora of experiences and connection to breweries and their products.
The difference is in how festivals are staffed, managed and planned. Some festivals are run with the primary goal of generating a profit, and the easiest way to do that is to understaff and oversell. Festivals that sell more tickets than the venue can comfortably hold do walk away with more cash in hand, but the participants can end up with a sour taste in their mouths.
I have left festivals in Portland before on more than one occasion with the feeling that the venue wasn’t safe. Once, it was clear that nearly everyone in the venue was being overserved (from beer pourers filling past the sample size and continuing to serve obviously drunk attendees). A combination of all-volunteer pourers rather than brewery representatives (who are trained to watch for signs of inappropriate behavior) and the tiny security staff made it daunting to navigate as the session progressed. On another occasion, the arrangement of the festival booths and far too many attendees made egress through the room difficult enough that I became worried what would happen if there were a fire.
The good news, however, is that times are changing, and so are the patrons of would-be festivals. When beer lovers in Maine want to attend a festival, there are now a series of annual beer-focused gatherings that are professionally run, abundantly staffed and well planned.
The shining example of a festival that thinks ahead is the Great Falls Brewfest in Lewiston. Now in its fifth year, the Great Falls Brewfest, happening Saturday, is so well organized that I took note the first year it ran. Clearly putting the participants first, the Great Falls Brewfest organizers make sure that there is adequate free water for attendees and provide a variety of spaces in Edward Payson Park to either sample beer, relax, eat something or listen to music, which helps limit crowding and the lines in and around the beer tent.
The best thing about Great Falls from a management perspective is that there are more than enough volunteers around at all times. Usually wearing brightly-colored shirts, the staff is easy to flag down should anyone (either brewer or attendee) need anything. If you have not yet attended Great Falls Brewfest, consider adding it to your weekend calendar. It’s a great way to spend a day outside, and the festival draws Maine brewers and several hard-to-find breweries from out of state. Regular tickets are $35, but for an extra $20, you can get entry to the festival at noon, two hours before the general session, and taste beers that will not be poured later in the day.
The second shining star that I recommend, if you plan on experiencing Maine’s beer festivals this summer, is the Maine Brewers Guild Summer Session at Thompson’s Point on July 28. The main perk of this festival is that nearly every Maine brewery – even from the farthest reaches of the state – comes down to share its wares. In addition, the people backing the brewery tables are almost always brewers and brewery employees, so if you have a question about a beer you are sampling, they should be able to talk with you about it. There is also never a line to use the restrooms, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. Tickets are $49 for general admission and $60 if you want to get in an hour early and sample some limited release beers during the VIP session. The profits from this fest are fed back in to the Brewer’s Guild, helping to strengthen the Maine beer industry.
This year, a new festival is breaking into relatively beer-quiet southernmost part of the state. The inaugural Wells Brew Fest takes place on July 14 at Wells Harbor Community Park. While this fest is on the smaller side (with 30 breweries scheduled to attend), it provides an opportunity for the beer fans south of Portland to have a festival without paying the toll to come up to Portland. The price for tickets in June is $45 per person, with the price increasing to $50 if bought after July 1.
As the beer industry continues to grow and mature, I hope that the communities that are thinking about hosting these events will keep participants at the forefront of their planning. At best, they can be exceptional experiences for attendees with an opportunity to try new beer, meet brewery staff and hang out in a beautiful venue. As new communities plan their own regional fests and other events in the future, it would be wise to look to the investments in safety, brewery accommodation and management that these festivals have exemplified, to make sure that everyone is getting the most out of the experience.