In early October of 2019, approximately 62,000 beer lovers descended upon the Colorado Convention Center in Denver to take part in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). In 2020, that venue—where visitors had sampled over 4,000 beers from 800 brewers—was designated an auxiliary field hospital.
This year, it will be empty.
Much of the focus on a return to pre-pandemic activities has centered on events like concerts and shows. Beer festivals largely haven’t been on the radar, despite attracting millions of people every year. But slowly, those celebrations of craft brewing are coming back to life, even if the answers to all of the questions haven’t been entirely figured out yet.
GABF will once again be virtual this year, so one of the bigger in-person beer events will be Washington, D.C.’s Snallygaster, slated for Oct. 9. Founded 10 years ago to benefit the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, the show welcomed 7,000 people in 2019.
Roughly 150 brewers are expected to attend. But right now, no one is certain how many beer fans will join them. While there’s certainly pent-up demand for a return to regular life, crowded festivals are still giving people pause. Snallygaster, though, might be appealing, as it’s held on Pennsylvania Avenue, spanning a four-block area between the Canadian embassy and the Capitol.
“We were eager to get back to life as we know it,” says Greg Engert, beverage director and partner with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which puts on Snallygaster. “Since things have so quickly changed over the past couple of months, we said, ‘[We] think this is going to work.’ And we spoke with the city, and they were really receptive right off the rail. If things continue to go the way they are, we should be able to have a pretty recognizable version of this festival come fall.”
A few weeks later, on Oct. 30, another notable beer festival, the WeldWerks Invitational, will be held in Greeley, Colo. This event, though, will be held indoors with plans (for now) to cap its attendance at 500 people (about 30% below normal numbers).
“Because it’s a smaller number, we can wait a little bit on ticket sales,” says Neil Fisher, cofounder and brewmaster at WeldWerks Brewing. “We can give ourselves some time to be confident that things are going to be safe. It’s already a fairly intimate environment. There are lines for short amounts of time, but there are 46 breweries pouring, and we’re only going to have 500 attendees. And if there are spiking cases or concerns that we can’t keep people safe in that environment come October, then we won’t proceed. But we want it to be fun. We don’t want to police it. It’s a beer festival. It’s a social event!”
Social events and safety don’t always go well together‚ and organizers of both festivals say they are still figuring out details on how to handle things, like rinsing stations and supplying enough water for attendees. Small things such as glassware and how to handle pouring are largely nailed down, but with guidelines changing as fast as they have been lately, what seems set in stone now could be revised before the festivals start.
Even something as mundane as ticket sales is an area of confusion. Snallygaster has an on-sale date in mind but hasn’t announced it. WeldWerks hasn’t decided when to put tickets on sale just yet. (The current plan is for sometime in June.) However, Fisher notes, people who had planned to attend the 2020 show before it was canceled have first rights to tickets to this year’s show, so it’s possible there will only be a handful available to the general public.
“We don’t know how many tickets we could sell,” Engert says. “We don’t know the interest level. We think it’s high, but we recognize there’s been a pandemic between now and the last one.”
It’s the high number of moving parts that made GABF decide to sit this year out, though the Brewers Association, which hosts the festival, is hosting the Craft Brewers Conference in September, welcoming between 6,000 and 7,000 people. The conference—which is more of a brewer-education event than one geared toward the general public—is a test run of sorts. And officials view it as a learning opportunity.
“When we were looking to make final [GABF] decisions in April, we felt like there were too many unknowns, [and] we thought it would be better to convene in person for the 40th anniversary next year,” says Ann Obenchain, marketing director for the Brewers Association.
One thing that won’t change at either Snallygaster or the WeldWerks Invitational: beer lines. While a certain amount of social distancing will be observed, with a significant number of brewers on hand to keep the lines short, organizers say it’s just not possible to have a beer festival without those queues.
“We talked about all the different possibilities, and just about everything we came up with diminished the quality of the event and compromised what we think is so fun and special about a beer fest, which is that community side and that engagement side,” says Fisher.
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