During stretches without much in the way of brewery news, big or small, I tend to find myself stepping back and taking a big-picture look at the state of the craft beer scene in New Mexico.
Perusing the latest slate of beer-related emails, I took note of the fact that Hopfest, returning this Saturday, is now 10 years old. That is a fairly remarkable accomplishment for any annual festival, particularly in the constantly shifting craft beer scene.
Consider the landscape when Hopfest first began. At that time, Marble Brewery was only a few months old. The only other operational breweries in Albuquerque were Chama River, Il Vicino (now Canteen), and Kellys, with Tractor in Los Lunas and Turtle Mountain in Rio Rancho comprising the totality of the metro area’s craft beer options.
Hopfest has changed quite a bit over time, up to 70-plus breweries now, moving to successively larger venues, and so on. What has not changed is the general theme: buy a ticket, get unlimited samples. Back in 2008, that was the standard format of most festivals around the country. They took their cues from the Great American Beer Festival, and it worked.
The question now is does that format work anymore? It is certainly worth debating.
Other festivals tend to limit the number of samples, in an effort to get customers to eventually buy a pint, so the participating breweries can make some money back. While large breweries like Marble and Santa Fe can write off the beer they give away for free as a marketing/promotional expense, it can be much harder for the smaller breweries and brewpubs. Those only make so much beer, so giving away any of it for free can be a blow to the bottom line, unless the owners truly believe they can recoup the costs through the free advertising the festival can bring.
Another argument against unlimited sampling is that craft breweries no longer need such events to draw in customers. That certainly holds true for some of the more established brands, but not necessarily for all. New breweries can still argue they benefit from being introduced to a public that might not always wish to venture out beyond the places where they are already comfortable. Festivals like Hopfest and its May counterpart, Blues & Brews, also tend to draw in a younger crowd. From a strategic standpoint, it should be easier to convince someone is his/her 20s to embrace craft beer than someone in his/her 40s or 50s.
Smaller, more exclusive festivals have their place as well. The notion that more “serious” craft beer drinkers attend those events seems to hold true, be it BearFest or WinterBrew. Of course, those folks are usually well versed in craft beer, so do they actually need a festival as existing customers? It usually just depends on the intent of the festival. WinterBrew, for instance, is viewed, first and foremost, as a fundraiser for the New Mexico Brewers Guild (as is the IPA Challenge). On a secondary note, it can bring Albuquerque residents north to Santa Fe to try the breweries they might not otherwise visit on a regular basis, outside of those that package and distribute.
The problem that exists with the smaller fests is that sense of exclusivity. Namely, does it keep new customers away? Once the loyal beer geeks snatch up their share of the tickets, what remains? There are many people, especially in New Mexico, who wait until the last minute or just prefer to walk up and buy at the door.
In other states, too, the cost of attending festivals has climbed to significant heights. They are still well-attended, and more than one brewery owner has predicted that eventually New Mexico’s festivals will have to catch up to those in Colorado and Arizona in terms of cost. Otherwise, local breweries may continue to drop out without the financial bump, leaving the festivals largely in the hands of the distributors, who treat them almost entirely as promotional write-offs. The counter argument to that is the same when it comes to arguing about the cost of sporting events and the like, that New Mexico is simply too poor of a state, and even middle class beer drinkers would be loathe to part with $50, $75, or $100 for a festival, no matter the format.
Already, there are signs of festival fatigue among local establishments. Take Nexus, for instance, as a popular local brewery that has largely abandoned the festival circuit. It is extremely rare to see breweries from the outer regions of New Mexico attend festivals in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, while the only breweries from the two I-25 cities to head to the far north, south, or southeast are usually just those that package and distribute far and wide. Otherwise, barring an event being a Guild fundraiser, everyone tends to stay in their own neck of the woods.
It all makes for an interesting set of arguments and counter arguments. There is seemingly no perfect beer festival setup, at least in terms of limited/unlimited sampling and overall cost. For every person who is fine with limited samples, the odds are that others are not. For every brewery happy to attend festivals big and small, there are others who will be more selective if not sit it out entirely. Simply put, there is perhaps no right or wrong set of answers when it comes to the future of beer festivals in New Mexico and beyond.
For now, the big events like Hopfest and Blues & Brews will seemingly continue to roll along, as will the smaller festivals like WinterBrew and the events on Pajarito Mountain above Los Alamos. Other festivals struggling to find that niche, like the once-ambitious Mountain West Brew Fest (yes, it is coming back Labor Day weekend, though it is down to just seven attending breweries), may struggle and fade into the past, like Marble’s Septemberfest, the New Mexico Beer Cup, and many others.
Of course, this is all just my opinion. The Crew and I want to know what you think. Sound off in the comments, on social media, or if you would prefer a private conversation, email us at email@example.com.