Beer festival season is alive and kicking, promising a summer of fun in the sun surrounded by brews from bocks to black IPAs. Beers By The Bay joined the festival calendar last month by bringing together Victoria’s craft brewers for a Sunday on the Mornington Peninsula. A smaller than predicted crowd gathered at Mornington Racecourse for an afternoon of music, games, gourmet festival food and good cheer whilst surrounded by local craft beer.
Partly inspired by the success and format of the inaugural Ballarat Beer Festival, held in January this year (hence many have made heavy comparisons), Beers By The Bay was created and staged by event managers Logistics Events Australia. The company’s first crack at a beer festival provided a satisfying day for the festival goer, but may have fallen short from the brewers’ expectations. The event was a good example of how bringing together all the best elements that make a great festival won’t always result in naturally excellent festival experience. The way an organiser locates, structures, promotes and facilitates the whole festival package is more important to its overall success and enjoyment, than simply the sum of its elements. The Beers By The Bay organisers acknowledged that aspects of the day’s logistics, like the token system for purchasing beer and food, need to be improved. The team behind the festival is already planning next year’s festival, with due focus directed to rectifying year-one’s deficiencies.
The day of the first Beers By The Bay started with cloudy and cool conditions, but it opened up into a fine sunny afternoon that was perfect for discovering the diverse array of beer on offer. Eighteen breweries poured beers ranging from kolsch to imperial stouts. The crowd was a mix of knowledgeable craft beer fans through to those who were having their first experience with beers beyond mainstream lagers. A handful of cider makers also showcased their products, whilst the food ranged from baked potatoes, pizza and tacos to cheeses, oysters, yoghurt and even an Argentinean BBQ.
The festival’s main stage pumped along with music from local artists, but failed to attract much attention from the thirsty crowd early on, until headline act Ash Grunwald began. Much of the crowd opted to take up residence at the plentiful table seating in the centre of the festival space or find shade under the trees that lined the festival grounds.
The Mornington Peninsula is home to three highly regarded craft breweries – Hickinbotham of Dromana (Hix Beer), Red Hill Brewery and Mornington Peninsula Brewing. In an innovative move for local beer festivals, the latter two collaborated on a special one-off brew produced for the Beers By the Bay festival. ‘Bleak Piracy’ was a Black Rye IPA that offered a bold bitter flavour and proved to be the beer highlight for many of the craft beer fans who attended the festival.
The initial ambitious crowd estimation by the organisers of 7000-8000 was never under threat. The peak of the day seemed to host around 2000 punters. Low crowd numbers were to the benefit of the festival attendees however, resulting in no queues at beer and food stalls or toilets. There was plenty of room to move around or sit and relax at the various tables and benches. This made for a very accessible festival experience for ticket payers. On the flip side, many brewers and stall holders were turning over much less than they had anticipated. Several brewers prepared their day’s supply based on the under-supply sent to the Ballarat Beer Festival, bringing along multiple kegs of multiple beers. However, by 4pm, some brewers were noting that they may struggle to empty just one of their 50 litre kegs.
Crowd size and demographic is integral to the success of a festival, as it is the aspect that lends most to the atmosphere of the event. Seemingly strict licensing conditions resulted in an often overwhelming presence of RSA inspectors and security. Their presence may have dampened the mood a little with the multitude of stern looks from the crowd of RSA officers. In some sections they seemed to outnumber actual festival attendees.
Beers By the Bay was also a strictly adults only festival. No minors were allowed, stripping away the chance to make the event a family affair, which the Ballarat Beer Festival was able to do. This may have held back some people who were eager to attend but were unable to arrange an alternative for their children on a Saturday. Unlike the target demographic of 18-25 year olds for most summer music festivals, the craft beer market currently relies on facilitating a broader audience. A significant portion of craft beer’s local growth lies with the support from over 25s, which opens up the field to many with children from infants to teenagers who take priority.
The biggest moan from the crowd at Beers by the Bay focused on the single tent selling tokens for beer, food and soft drink. A convoluted token system placed restrictions on how and when people could purchase tokens to exchange for food and beverages. Each person was only allowed to purchase 10 tokens at a time from one of four queues, therefore limiting your ability to buy extra tickets for a group of friends, technically forcing each individual to line-up and increasing the size and slowness of the queue. As the hours passed the maximum number of tickets you were allowed to purchase was reduced. This may have been a strategy to curb the potential for binge drinking, but it proved the festival’s greatest hindrance, causing many to be overly conservative with their tasting selection to avoid standing in line again for more tickets. The same mistake was not made at Ballarat, which offered multiple points of sale for tokens, as well as roving token sellers, and a single use token across beer and food.
Amongst the current wave of new outdoor beer festivals around Australia, Beers By The Bay festival did seek to provide a point of difference by offering social games, such as mini-golf and a giant jenga. Live cooking demonstrations and beer education sessions, including as homebrewing 101 and brewer Q&As, were held in one corner of the festival grounds but may have been under-advertised to attract enough attention. The lack of a printed or advertised schedule, as well as signage to guide festival goers to the sessions, may have undermined their inclusion. There was also no advertised time schedule for the artists playing the main stage, so only those listening carefully to announcements made by MC James Brayshaw at one end of the festival grounds were made aware of the upcoming performers or demonstration sessions.
The presence of Vanessa was a wise and fun addition. Vanessa is a festival booze bus that provides certified breath testing by trained young operators coupled with prizes, education and a chill out space. A campaign of Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission, Vanessa ensures that drinkers can receive accurate breath testing from friendly, knowledgeable, festival loving staff before going anywhere near their vehicle for the journey home.
Overall, Beers By the Bay was an enjoyable first effort at a beer festival but it lacked some of the organically friendly and inclusive atmosphere that often radiates around craft beer events. Improvements to the festival’s timetabling, token system and outreach tactics will help ensure its place in the summer festival dairy.
To view more photos from Beers By The Bay, visit the photo album on the Australian Brews News Facebook page.