June 13th, 2011
Houston Beer Fest: A Hermann Square Hangover
I’ve got no dogs in the Houston Beer Fest fight, so I can be objective here. I could pretty easily begin with a rant about how our city is perfect for festivals, especially ones devoted to hops and barley, but it needs to get its shit together in regards to how they let folks conduct that business. I’ll save it though, and focus on the good for now. Everyone got along Saturday, there was some decent live music, and beer was rumored to have been present. There, Sunshine—you happy now? Commencing tirade in 3…2…1.
According to some guy with a nametag and wearing pants (my only prerequisites for suspending disbelief) at Hermann Square Saturday, there were “6,000 Beer Fest patrons last year and nearly 30,000 showed up this year.” I didn’t even know there was a “last year,” but that influx clearly caught Beer Fest organizers off guard. The line to purchase tickets stretched for blocks as early as 4:00PM. I had the foresight to pre-purchase and was let through what seemed to be a hole in the temporary fencing. When sad-to-still-be-sober folks waiting in the sauna that was Smith Street were told that pre-paid gatekeepers had no way to honor Groupon, things got a tad shifty, but as I am slightly stupid and do not take advantage of such things, I was in the clear and admitted into Beerstock in relatively short order.
I had envisioned something different. Where was the river of pilsner and the mountain of roasted meat? Where were the little orange people in lederhosen busting a flow about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do? Where was Billy Wonka?! Instead of a malty wonderland, I had walked into what felt more like a Bavarian internment camp. People meandered about like sweat-soaked zombies, trying to get a peek at the flip cup tournament that was about as organized as those that develop in my back yard. Lines no shorter than 15 people brought the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to mind; Hops and Barley everywhere, but not a drop to drink [sic]. On the opposite side of that coin, things were so tightly packed in the park you found yourself in a line for beer or food whether or not it was immediately intentional.
By the time I was herded through the chutes, most stands were down to serving from cans and bottles, which, if you are familiar with the fine art of the kegger, you know that’s a hairy business. Beer was getting warm quickly, popular varietals were quick casualties to attrition, and when cups ran out many of the poor volunteers at the stands were tasked with keeping thirsty throngs placated with soft shoe or improv comedy. Ok, it didn’t resort to that, but you still felt for the guys taking tickets. Vendors from all over the place were on hand, but you wonder if they’ll be back. Supply chain management of ice, extra beer etc. through trampled grass and drunks seemed brutal. If you were assigned a dolly, you were pining for the rapture.
The main stage boasted some grunge and metal that my mom would describe as “frightening” music, but most in attendance seemed content to call it background noise. A cover group played well, but the din of thousands of people with non-musical agendas and another, smaller stage with its own tunes diminished the bands ability to fully rock out.
To be fair, Beer Fest is on the right track theoretically. The event certainly didn’t lack for popularity, and hey, who doesn’t want to see an event devoted to hops and barley succeed? The weaknesses are glaring enough at this point to be able to fix before the next go-round. Unfortunately, those in attendance in 2011 will have to be content to have served as guinea pigs.
Best Exchange of the Afternoon:
Man ribbing vendor about $2 price for a 2 oz. taste: “Wow, pretty proud of this, aren’t you guys? That comes out to $12 a bottle!”
Vendor: “Well, a gallon of gasoline goes for $3.98
Ribbing Man: “Yeah, but I don’t f___g drink gasoline.”
(Ribbing Man walks away, both parties evidently not down with math.)
Three things they got right:
1.) The market. There obviously is one.
2.) Representation. There were so many beers available it would take a month to get to them all. Unless your nickname is something like “Monstertruck.”
3.) Timing. Most people will just complain about the heat, but if some of the kinks get worked out, this June timeslot could be the perfect pit stop between St. Pat’s and Independence Day.
Three things they need to work on:
1.) Location/Crowd Control. Hermann Square is just too damn small for this kind of crowd. I understand wanting to have something Houston-riffic, but there are better choices. Otherwise, have a more well-defined entry/exit location and procedure. If for some reason that can’t be worked out, limit ticket sales (Yeah right). Things tend to snowball, so nipping location/crowd control in the bud would limit the typical complaints you will most definitely hear around the water cooler this week (“ran out of beer”, “beer was warm”, “long lines”, “not enough places to sit a spell”)
2.) Hustle and Flow. Why is there a lady selling iron trinkets between the Coors Light and Abita tents? There has to be a better place for that.
3.) Food. What was there looked awesome, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for any. Teaming up with the mobile food industry would take things to the next level. Food truck festival? Good idea, mediocre execution. Beer Fest? Good idea, mediocre execution. Let’s get some synergy going here and we can have a GREAT idea with…horrible execution? Time to step it up.
Overall Grade: C-