Nary a month goes by without some city, county or state staging a “beer week” to celebrate its brewing heritage. As of mid-September, the Brewers Association listed 47 such events for 2011 on its website www.craftbeer.com.
If you had enough time and frequent flyer miles to attend all, you could have started in January with Alaskan Beer week and Kalamazoo Beer Week. San Francisco Beer Week was the biggie in February. In May, the BA held its sixth annual American Craft Beer Week, encompassing 1,521 separate events in all 50 states, according to the BA website.
Beginning in June, beer weeks come fast and furious for Mid-Atlantic residents, with
Philly Beer Week heralding the start of summer. DC Beer Week takes place in August, and New York Craft Beer Week (Sept. 16-25 this year) was unfolding even as this article went to print. Get ready for Baltimore Beer Week, Oct. 6-16, followed by Richmond Beer Week from Nov. 4 to 11.
Even Alabama and Mississippi have their own beer weeks.
Philly Was First
“They’re a bear to organize – you need to put in not just a lot of time and effort, but frankly money!” says Jay Brooks, who helped organize San Francisco Beer Week and wrote the entry on “beer weeks” for the just-published Oxford Companion to Beer. He’s compiled a list of 56 beer weeks nationwide, including a few (like Indiana Beer Week) that ran out of gas and were not repeated.
Brooks credits Philly Beer Week (originally held in March 2008) with being the first true citywide beer week. But that could be subject to challenge. Brooks notes that San Francisco Beer Week developed from an earlier, week-long celebration called Beerapalooza, first held in 2004 to mark the anniversary of the beer newspaper Celebrator.
Of course, if you’re going to include antecedents of beer weeks, Philly Beer Week could trace its heritage to the Book and the Cook, an annual celebration of the culinary arts that began in the mid-1980s and that for many years included a beer dinner and tutored tasting by the late Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
After the Beer Hunter passed away in 2007, a group of publicans, restaurateurs, brewers and beer writers modeled Philly Beer week after the now-defunct Book and the Cook, purposely not licensing the concept of the “beer week” so it could take root elsewhere.
“In the first year, we expected about 75 events and we had 350,” recalls Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell, beer columnist for thePhiladelphia Daily News and PBW’s executive director. “Last year we had over 900 – a few less than 2010. But that was a conscious effort by PBW to urge the creation of better events, not simply more. To me, the best measure is the number of participants – we grew from 165 in 2,010 to 215 in 2011.”
“You need the right kind of events,” says Brooks. “We had bars saying, we’ll knock $1 off the price of Sierra Nevada. That’s not going to get people excited! That’s something you do year around!”
Pete Gariazzo, sales manager for Specialty Beverage in Richmond, Va. and organizer of that city’s beer week, was considering some “fun promotions” in sports bars, such as a left-handed darts tournament to promote Left Hand Brewing Co. “Or maybe a left-handed wrestling competition.”
Timing Is Crucial
Beer week organizers like to bracket the celebrations with big-ticket events. DC Beer Week, for example, kicked off with a brews cruise down the Potomac on the luxury yacht Odyssey, featuring a sneak preview of New Belgium beers not yet officially released.
New York Craft Beer Week commenced with a kick-off party dubbed Freaktoberfest, mingling reps from over 20 brewers with sideshow performers and burlesque dancers.
Baltimore Beer week was timed to fit between two perfect bookends, the Brewers Association of Maryland’s Oktoberfest and the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood’s Real Ale Festival.
Timing is crucial. Richmond can hold its beer week a little later than Philly or New York because “here, it’s still relatively warm,” says Gariazzo. The downside is that it’s right in the middle of football season. A lot of last year’s events didn’t work, he conceded, because they conflicted with Sunday NFL games. “I mean, you could hear a pin drop in some of those places.”
Early planning is also essential. Teddy Folkman, cofounder of DC Beer week and owner of Granville Moore’s, planned to hold three committee meetings in September, October and November to get the wheels turning for the 2012 event. “We like to get these committee meetings out of the way early while ideas are still fresh.” Folkman has invited two northern Virginia establishments to the meeting, Lyon Hall and Mad Fox Brewing Co., because of their expressed desire to participate. “But we still have to hold fast and hard to the geographical limits of not making it a Beltway festival, as it would simply get too out of control.”
He’s also considering making DC Beer Week a 501(c)(3) event with any leftover proceeds going to charity. (The event, he reports, broke even this year.)
Grass Roots Efforts
It’s a tribute to the vitality of the craft beer segment that many beer weeks are grass-roots efforts, started by beer enthusiasts rather than professionals trying to jumpstart a sluggish hospitality industry. Frederick Beer Week began with a Twitter conversation between Kevin Smith, MABN’s Maryland’s columnist, and Flying Dog Brewery.
“I tweeted something along the lines, ‘As the biggest brewery in the state, have you ever thought about getting behind a Frederick Beer Week?'” recalls Smith.
“The response from Flying Dog? ‘If you’ll head it up, we’ll get behind you.'” The result was 18 events in five days last May, culminating with a beer festival on local hop grower Tom Barse’s farm to mark the beer industry’s agricultural roots. Next year’s Frederick Beer Week is in the planning stages, and will be timed to make the annual BAM Springfest the anchor event.
“The important thing is that Baltimore Beer Week was started by a bunch of folks talking amongst themselves at beer festivals,” said Alexander D. Mitchell IV, MABN Baltimore columnists and one of Baltimore Beer Week’s founding fathers. In addition to industry veteran Joe Gold, other movers and shakers included Baltimore Sun editor Ron Kaspar; real estate agent and blues musician Dominic Cantalupo; computer guru and homebrewer Les White; and lumber salesman and craft beer aficionado John Gasparine. Clipper City Brewing Co.’s Hugh Sisson provided seed money by becoming the “official sponsor,” but declined any management role.
Although the impetus is love rather money, beer weeks are a windfall for local bars, restaurants and hotels, and a font of publicity. The website phillybeerweek.org has logged 2.5 million hits to date and Google tracked 700,000 mentions of the 2011 Philly Beer Week alone.
The city tourism board has hosted a With Love Beer Garden at the Four Seasons hotel, while Mayor Michael A. Nutter, these last few years, has yielded the Hammer of Glory to bang in the first tap and inaugurate the festivities.
Not all beer weeks seek to get the local politicians involved. Gavin Newsom, who was mayor of San Francisco when that city’s beer week debuted in 2009, would have been a dubious choice to tap the first keg. In 2007 he had confessed to an affair with the wife of a former campaign manager and checked into a rehab clinic for alcohol abuse.
“We approached Schwarzenegger when he was governor, but he had a scheduling conflict,” says Brooks.
Noreen Burns, George Hummel, Greg Kitsock, Steve Marler, Alexander D. Mitchell IV and Kevin Smith contributed to this article.