You can be fairly sure that a rather comfortably warm Melbourne Spring afternoon had something to do with the size of the surging throng that descended upon The Atrium at Federation Square on Wednesday last week but it can’t be the only reason.
For some six years now the biannual event has grown steadily from humble beginnings where a small and curious flock moved cautiously among the samples of a dozen or so unfamiliar breweries, the numbers boosted by a short influx of ‘suits’ at knock-off time. Word has obviously spread in tune with the growth in craft beer volume and today it is very much a case of pre-purchasing tickets and getting in early as the space fills faster than a TAB on Cup Day.
The crowd is not all that has grown. The brewers themselves have developed their public personas and are increasingly more comfortable talking tech with the nerds and taste with the rest and the attendees are becoming more aware of styles and brewing techniques as well as becoming more familiar with the brands and the brewers behind them.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the crowd, aside from its size is the gender mix. It’s fair to say that in 2005 most of the few women present were there at the invitation of their menfolk with the standard offer of “I’ll drive us in and you can drive us home”. Today much of the in-depth discussions between punter and brewer is driven by the girls looking for colour and flavour and taste and information about everything from Kellerbiers to Chocolate Stouts.
As well as growing in stature, each Microbrewery Showcase appears to have grown in size from the previous. The list of exhibitors has expanded to fill the available stands to the point where some outfits are missing out on a gig and the queues of eager drinkers are snaking further down Flinders Street than at any time before. Capacity is often reached and, at more than one time on each night last week, entry was restricted to a nightclub-style ‘one in – one out’ policy.
Augmenting the liquid offerings is an increasing number of para-beer exhibitors including The Local Taphouse (featuring some sneaky Moondog surprise Growler beer), beer books from The Beer Lovers Guide to Australia and Paul Mercurio and caps, maps and apps from Aus Brewery Tours, Micro Beer Club, Beer Buddy and Beer Boys. Fortunately there is still plenty of floorspace for the brewers themselves.
But here’s the dilemma; every year the organisers and the brewers and the beer sellers and the supporters have been working hard to increase the popularity of the Microbrewery Showcase and build the numbers to the point where it now looks fit to burst at the seams. When is ‘big’ too big? Has the Showcase outgrown its training wheels and does it need to move on to thrive? Federation Square and the people directly responsible for the Showcase have learned much and improved their game at every outing and deserve to now reap the rewards, rather than be penalised.
Maybe extending the opening times (not a favourite option for the brewers) will see the crowding reduced – but maybe people will simply stay longer. They could extend into a night session or even a third day (see previous comment relating to the brewers already overcrowded schedule) but then you run the risk of diluting the vibe. A cap on ticket sales would assist the organisers but at the risk of creating an elitist clique atmosphere. Spreading the showcase from the confines of The Atrium to The Edge or further still onto banks of the river would allow more room to move but would spread the brewers over a series of spaces rather than the community-marketspace feel they now occupy. You can’t help but think that none of the above will really make a great difference and that it is better to have a few periods of heavy traffic and shoulder-to-shoulder drinking than to have nothing like this at all.
Perhaps as seasoned patrons we all need to bring our patience as well as our passion and accept that queuing and crowding are part of the price to be paid for such a worthwhile fixture on the calendar. Well, that and pre-purchasing tickets and getting there early and not standing in the walkways and remembering to share the brewers with the newbies.
Then we can all enjoy these events in a great space and for a long time.