Building a More Mature Charlotte Beer Scene

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.

About Ryan

Ryan Self is an avid craft beer enthusiast based here in Charlotte. He is also the co-founder of the Charlotte Craft Beer Brigade, a local meetup group committed to the advancement and enjoyment of craft beer. Any opinions, typos and grammatical atrocities expressed here are solely his and do not necessarily reflect the Brigade or his company.

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    While I don’t necessarily agree with Ryan’s thoughts completely here, this is a solid post. It does seem CLT has been overcrowded with beer events, but I guess more is better than what we used to have. Mainly I try to hit up the big ones: 3 or 4 during Charlotte Beer Week (Brawley’s Black and Blue is a CAN’T-MISS even), the new and well done QC Brew Fest and maybe a release here and there (have enjoyed the Duckworth’s KBS breakfasts).

    I think the big problem here for Charlotte bars is it’s hard to turn down some of this stuff when it’s brought to them by beer reps, aka biting the hand that feeds. And there’s WAY too many beer dinners that aren’t even that great.

  2. While I have only been in Charlotte for a couple of weeks I have noticed the high number of events and releases as well. Having travled through many different cities with varying levels of beer culture I feel like this is a natural stage as the beer scene evolves. As events become “busts” and the luster of attending the lastest cask release dims I think you will see a return to fewer and bigger events that you are asking for.

    I don’t think a beer geek that gets burned out on attending every event will stop enjoying beer but rather become more selective in the events they do attend.

    • Brian says:

      Completely agree. Seems like this is just the natural evolution of supply and demand. It will take time for the huge surge to settle down to a reasonable number of well-presented events. At this time, its more on the beer-geek to carefully select the events to attend in hopes that those are the ones that stick around for the long haul.

  3. A.J. says:

    First, kudos to Ryan for writing this post. As a group of people active in social media, the craft beer community often begins a discussion on Twitter or Facebook, but fewer topics end up with the fully explained and reasoned posts they deserve (there are other fine examples of exceptions on this site, however, like Daniel’s thoughts on shaker pints from last week). I’ll also say that I am not a Charlotte resident, but an occasional visitor virtually spectating from the Triad–this undoubtedly limits my direct experience with the specific problems mentioned and may make my opinion less valid to some, but I don’t think this situation is limited to the Queen City.

    I wholeheartedly agree that a misuse of terms (such as a “tap takeover”) can undermine events actually worthy of the name and that we don’t need to yell CASK or RARE, but the rest I’m not so sure about. Having visited Denver during the Great American Beer Festival for the past two years, I have a different takeaway from the landscape of the city that week. There are more special events than you could possibly attend–a fact that seems to frustrate many people as they try to plan out their trip, but one I openly accepted. I didn’t feel compelled to race across town for the 8pm tapping of so-and-so because there were a dozen other great and exciting things happening within a 5 minute walk of where I stood. Was there something great happening somewhere else? Of course, but there was something great happening where I was too!

    I think it’s also important to realize that not every beer event is targeted to the beer geeks/enthusiasts/aficionados. I don’t have much interest in a tasting of some local brewery’s 4 core brands (I’ve had them…and I already buy them), but there are people who do have an interest in these events. There are people out there curious about craft beer, open to trying it and learning about it, but they’re not buying $20 bombers of something they know nothing about. Free tastings or beer festivals offer them a chance to sample beers and find one (or more) that they like and want to buy–and it would only make sense that those are beers you can find easily and year-round. Those events can help gain customers for craft breweries and grow the community.
    Sure it’s sad to go to an event and not run into all of your friends–the small group who used to make the trek to any craft beer event in town. At the same time, the community has grown in maturity (thanks to its more learned members who have been there for years) and in size (thanks to the newcomers who stand where you did years ago after you had your first sips of craft beer).

  4. Amanda F. says:

    Great post, Ryan! You keyed in on several frustrations of mine. I tend to stay within my wheelhouse of favorite outings and try to tune out all the rest of the noise. Sometimes, though, I fear I’m missing out on great new events by tuning out because of the volume of information. I’m hoping that events that aren’t so unique stop happening based on low demand so the hype goes towards things that truly deserve it. I’m very tired of seeing BIG EXCITING BEER EVENTS that really only offer local breweries’ core brews at a pricey entry fee.

  5. Will Isley says:

    As I was typing this, I noticed AJ’s response, which I really agree with, but thought I’d share my thoughts as well….

    I don’t necessarily disagree with anything said, but I would say that marketing is the lifeblood of the bar/beer industry, and it is awesome that these bars are marketing towards more expensive, complicated beer, as opposed to $2 DOLLAR BUD LIGHT MONDAYS!!!! Like you said, the frequency may be a little much right now, but I would be very encouraged by the direction the industry is going. Also, keep in mind that any time everyone starts getting into something that has for a long time been a niche market there will be some resistance. (Cask? This isn’t a proper beer for a cask!) But these type of events are meant to bring more new people into the craft beer fold, so while they may not be as sophisticated as a true beer geek would like, just serving from a metal cask sitting on the bar starts a conversation with people who may not be quite as knowledgeable. (Why is it in that keg on its side? Why is it kind of flat? Why isn’t it freezing cold?) Even if many minor events doesn’t satisfy your inner beer geek, those events do pump new blood into the craft beer market.

  6. Dennis Mooney says:

    I often disagree with Ryan for example IPA day but this article hits a nerve. I think Ryan has made a great point. Seems like there are way too many “special” events that aren’t special. But then again bars need to compete.

  7. Danielle says:

    I get what some of this piece is driving at. But on the whole, the musings of a true beer snob. I don’t have a problem with bars promoting their “special” beer events. I get that you guys all rub elbows and move in one fluid beer circle, but the rest of us slobbering masses sometimes need the bars to clue us in to what’s new on tap.

  8. bobby says:

    Ryan, please tell the bar owners to generate less excitement. To focus on less interesting things. To be as boring as possible so that you will be satisfied. I have been to great beer dinners at The Liberty. Should they stop since you are bored? Maybe you should set more specific rules about tap takeovers and let the Pizza Peel know. I’ve been to good ones there. Let Mac’s Speed Shop know that they should stop doing their great cask events because you said so. And free beer? God forbid!
    You need to get over it and yourself.

  9. Ryan Self says:

    Without question, the number one complaint to any such article like this is elitism. Are some of us too far into the beer scene to take a step back and see the greater positivity of all events? It’s certainly possible. At the end of the day, these are always opinion pieces, and I can’t claim to speak the gospel of craft beer, nor can I discount the amazing events that still happen constantly at our beer bars. However, like IPA Day, I do think sometimes we are so caught up in the “Any exposure is good exposure” mindset that we don’t think about a cohesive idea of what we want our scene to be. Do we want it to be a trend, or a lifestyle?

    Certainly bars need to compete, as Dennis notes. However, at some point they’re competing in a social media realm that, in my opinion, suffers from a case of “Everyone is shouting so no one is heard.”

    • Will Isley says:

      I don’t think you did yourself any favors with regard to elitism in that last sentence of the first paragraph. It’s important to remember that if breweries can’t sell a lot of beer, they can’t produce the rare and special beers you really love. So, I think that craft beer shouldn’t be something that you need to devote your whole life to. If you switch from drinking bud light every day to drinking Yeungling everyday, in my mind that’s a win for craft beer, because maybe next time you are out you try one of the four core offerings from a local brewery. It doesn’t need to be a lifestyle, and I think that attitude is trending towards beer snob rather than beer geek. It’s great to get excited about uber rare beers and everything, but beer is an inclusive beverage, let’s not forget that.

  10. Andrea Ware says:

    I agree that there are too many tasting events just to drive traffic. I would rather have a few quality events per year than a lot of events each month. Duckworth’s had a great Founder’s tasting earlier in the year. I am glad to have Beertopia @ Grapevine in the spring and Oktoberfest in the fall. I would more appreciate the opportunity to try new and rare beers than get free or cheap samples of mainstream beers. There is no point in attending and tasting when you have tried many of the options. It means educating the electorate and realizing quality will be rewarded. I am very happy to see the beer scene exploding here, but would rather have quality than quantity.

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