I have a challenge for every craft beer bar in Charlotte for 2013: Come up with four great beer events.
What’s that you say? “Easy, we did 15 to 20 just this year!” Well, then let me clarify – come up with only four great beer events. Events so grand in scale and variety that every craft beer aficionado in town can’t help but say “I’m going to do all I can to make sure I attend that event.” More importantly, the goal is to correct what is an increasing issue in the still maturing Charlotte beer scene: a proclivity to breathlessly hype every minor tasting, tapping and beer pairing as a major beer event.
Now, I’ve been called a curmudgeon before (on this very site, no less!) and I understand the inclination to believe that more beer events is always better for our scene. I would argue that we are instead creating a glut of minor events that make none seem terribly special and burn out potential attendees who quickly give up hope of ever hitting them all.
This idea started in a a recent discussion I had with some fellow Charlotte beer scene enthusiasts. “When was the last time you went to a craft beer event and saw several people you knew?,” we lamented. “It used to be, whatever the big event of the week was, 90% of the local scene was there.” We agreed that too many choices eventually created two issues. One, there’s no longer an obvious event of the week or month where local beer enthusiasts can be counted on to meet and mingle; and two, events increasingly go bust as their simply aren’t enough beer fans to go around and support upwards of six craft beer events per night. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a bar for a special tasting only to realize it’s you, the brand rep and the bartender standing around. Or the “tap takeover,” which is just four taps out of 50 represented by a brand’s core beers. Yawn. Compare that to an event like Mike Brawley’s annual Black and Brew, featuring a host of one-off beers and great music in one spot. Mike does one event a year and yet no one is questioning his place in the Charlotte beer hierarchy, so why are we otherwise stuck with endless “special” events?
I believe the issue is an explosion of new brewers and beer bars in Charlotte. Don’t get me wrong – this is unequivocally good news. We are fortunate to be at the forefront of a burgeoning craft beer movement that is redefining what a beer scene can be in the Southeast. However, while we are rightfully excited about these developments, frantically burning ourselves out on an endless stream of minor events creates the feeling that craft beer is merely the latest trend, not the new reality. Here’s a nutty idea, bars: Got a new draft? Just tap it. It’s not an event. If you’re a popular spot, the beer geeks will find you, really. We talk.
Wile we’re on the topic, let’s take a look at the events that seem to consistently underwhelm. The ideas that have had their day, the ones that never did, and the ones that never should. I could happily go all of 2013 without hearing about a:
- “Tap takeover,” that’s really just a brewery feature night. Remember when Stone did the 60-tap takeover at Duckworths, changing literally every tap with Stone beers including several never-before-seen kegs? Given the rarities involved, and the brash nature of Stone’s advertising history, the term made sense – it really felt as if Greg Koch himself had kicked in the doors and announced “Empty our cellars, we’re taking over these taps.” It was a well attended and well executed event, and the bar, brewer and distributor deserve kudos. But it opened a door to some seriously weak pretenders. Suddenly, having four (or even three!) Brewery X taps out of your 40 taps was a breathlessly hyped “Tap takeover!” Check the phrasing, people. A brewery rep showing up to sample and discuss a range of their styles is a nice little bonus for your craft customers, not an event to be shouted to the heavens. And the more of these we see, the more it cheapens the next time a real “tap takeover” happens.
- The “free beer tasting!” that’s just samples of a handful of readily available beers. Got something rare or new that’s being introduced to the market? Sure, let your customers know that they’ll be able to try a new beer or brand. That’s exciting stuff, right? Here’s the opposite: “Free ________ Brewery tasting!” Ahem, those beers have been available for some time; if I was interested I would have sampled them by now. And by the way, every decent craft beer bar in town will already offer you a small taste if you ask, “Hey, how’s that beer? I was considering a pint.” If the brewery rep wants to give out some free samples, that’s a smart way on their part to garner interest and introduce new folks to the product. It’s not a massive craft beer event.
- The beer dinner. Including this on the list is the biggest bummer of all, because I have been to several fantastic, innovative beer dinners that offered attendees great taste and value. However, the reality is two things are happening. One, it’s become such a trendy event that every bar in town is contemplating doing one. I swear we’re not that far from “IPA paired with jalapeno cheese poppers.” Two, prices are rising faster than demand, and we are seeing events sputter to draw even a handful of attendees. I’ve talked to a number of brewery reps about recent beer dinners, and consistently heard some version of, “Yeah, it was a bit of bust.” Beer is a phenomenal pairing with food – easily as variable and nuanced as wine – and it is inspiring to watch talented chefs play with the subtleties of beer to create a complementary menu. But several beer dinners a month simply taps out the pool of potentially interested folks, so these events are increasingly underattended. (And bar owners: when your marketing person tells you, “EVERYONE is doing beer dinners!” ask yourself if you really want to follow that path or come up with an innovative new idea. For example, I went to a beer dinner recently where the event was four courses, one beer from four Charlotte breweries. This brought the brewery representatives together in one spot to chat with the guests and gave the chef a far greater range of beers to pair, and the event was a success).
- CASK! If the beer dinner was the event I hated to include, this is one where I’m eagerly rubbing my hands together in glee. Say it with me folks: 1. not every beer belongs in a cask. 2. Even if does, cask does not automatically make a beer better. 3. It’s cask, not CASK!!! Quality beer bars occasionally or even regularly offer a cask option to augment their lineup. It’s not a stop-the-presses, all-caps announcement if you happen to have one coming in, and frankly, it might not be any good.
Sadly I was forced to miss the Great America Beer Festival this year (well happily, due to my first child arriving), but I’ve been paying close attention to what attendees say about Denver, a mature, craft-beer-centric city. The overwhelming feedback is not that bars all had the craziest, rarest beers. Instead, people tell me they noticed that every bar was all craft with a huge focus on the local offerings. Forget one rotating local tap; bars featured a range of beers from all the respected state brewers. And patrons, with all beer bars offering quality lineups, were left to choose their destination based on proximity, ambiance, service and food. Bars don’t have to constantly raise the bar with hyped events and rarer beers.
I think that’s a sound message to our local beer bars and restaurants, which are thankfully already strong and growing in number. You don’t have to impress me, the craft beer geek – you already have with your outstanding craft selection and support of local artisan brewers. If you see me brightening your doorstep, it’s not because you got the only dry-hopped, blackberry-infused, barrel-aged cask in the state, it’s because you augment your craft offerings with quality food, service and ambiance. As our still-developing craft scene matures, I suspect that’ll be more than enough.