There are beer festivals, and then there is the Firestone Walker Invitational.
With the explosion of craft beer in the United States everyone is trying to get in on the action, and many are throwing beer festivals. This oversaturation presents an issue mainly with the quality of the festival itself. Brewers are bombarded with requests to donate their kegs of beer to events with a guilt-inducing assurance that the event is for charity. The event handlers make their money back, donate a portion of the proceeds to charity, and the brewer is left with a small glimmer of hope that the festival attendees will remember their beer. The focus of these events is less on the beer and breweries and more on the actual act of becoming intoxicated. The result is a reluctancy for good brewers, and beer for that matter, to appear at festivals and or a brewery bringing their C game instead of their A.
So how do you, as a brewer, decide which festival to participate in to get the most positive and memorable exposure? Compare each festival you are invited to to the Invitational. How do you, as a beer drinker, decide which festival to shell out your hard earned money to attend? Compare each festival you consider to the Invitational. How do you, as a festival organizer, make sure your festival stands out in quality and draw? Take a play from the Firestone Walker book and create an event like the Invitational, which at its core is about the beer and the brewers with an emphasis on quality, locality, and long lasting memories.
The Breweries & Beer
The Invitational is an innovative festival. The Invitational, unlike many festivals, is focused. Breweries from around the world are hand picked to attend; each one showcasing their most signature wares and most bringing special releases that can only be found at the festival. FWI 2013 brought forth Barrel aged Dark Lord by Three Floyds, Peach Whiskey Barrel Aged Prickly Pear Saison by New Belgium, a wild collaboration beer from Mikkeler & Firestone, Death and Taxes by Moonlight Brewing, Citra from Kern River, and a Giant bottle of Supplication from Russian River. Most of these beers are at the top of beer geek lists as must haves, but the reality is that each brewery and beer is there for a reason, and each glass being poured is likely to be something special and delicious.
Each brewery sends its A team which, for most, are the owners and brewers themselves, which gives the patrons the opportunity to ask questions and meet these incredibly influential people. Aside from the brewery staff, the festival goers themselves are beer enthusiasts to a serious degree. Research has been done prior to the festival day, and most people flock/run directly to their favorites. Lines become long, but not unmanageable. That all being said, it’s a serious, but not pretentious crowd and there was a surprisingly low rate of uber intoxication.
The Firestone Walker Invitational is unique in many ways, but one of the most prominent is the presence of food…and not from food trucks. The trucks that have flooded the streets of Los Angeles have definitely made their stand in partnering with breweries, and the utter convenience is tough to beat. Many food trucks can even rival the gourmet quality of popular gastropubs, but in the arena of a festival, it can sometimes be an annoyance to leave the fest grounds and stand in line only to pay for a sometimes overpriced burger and fries. At the Invitational, the food is included in the price. Much like the beer vendors serving their tasters from jockey boxes, local food vendors and barbequers cook and grill sample sized portions of nosh. This promotes the idea of eating while drinking and slows down the rate of intoxication. In many instances, the food was just as incredible as the beer.
Gaspacho ceviche, pulled pork sandwiches from F. McLintocks Saloon, vegan green eggplant curry, bacon fried rice, grilled buffalo chicken wings, pesto mozzarella flatbread, avocado ice cream, and more. With so much great beer accompanying these delicious dishes, it was fairground turned outdoor gastropub.
All beer enthusiast should add to their bucket list the Firestone Walker Invitational. This festival was masterfully executed, which blows one’s mind when the realization is made that this, 2013, is only the 2nd Invitational ever. The fairgrounds saw over 3,000 thirsty patrons on June 1st, but it never once felt like too many people. The layout of the fest made sense and did a great job of dispersing people to promote ease of navigating from brewery to brewery. With temperatures reaching 102 and little shade, heat was the only issue. Hats, sunblock, and hydration were a must especially when coupled with drinking some of the Invitational’s larger beers like Sierra Nevada’s Barrel Aged Imperial Maple Stout.
In beer terms, most festivals are the equivalent of Blue Moon while the Firestone Walker Invitational is the highly coveted Cantillion. The $75 price tag for tickets seems steep, but quickly becomes understandable as Firestone Walker’s attention to detail and quality is hard to top. You can trust that you’ll not only witness, but participate in an event where some of the most influential and awesome beers in the world make an appearance and it’s an experience that is, even after a few glasses of delicious System of a Stout (Beachwood BBQ & Brewing), impossible to forget.