I had the good fortune of returning to Savannah a month before the first Craft Brew Festival in 2008. “You have to volunteer for this.” I was told by my good friend Erica. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.” So I did. I remember thinking, “This thing has a lot of potential if it is done right.” “It’s almost a half time break between St. Patrick’s Days and we all know the younger crowd likes to come to Savannah to get their beer on.”
It seemed like a good fit.
Don’t ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I do remember the day of the first Craft Brew Fest #1 Georgia was playing Georgia Southern. Season opener. Not a TV in the house. (ouch). I remember saying to myself “It’s beer, it’s football season. Georgia is playing DURING your event. You’ve got to have a television.” “At least one.” Not only that, but the entire event was held outside on the esplanade at the International Trade and Convention Center. No place to escape the sweltering temps. I gave the entire event a C grade. Big, huge props to the folks at Visit Savannah for coming up with something that brought people to Savannah on Labor Day Weekend. Execution, however, was questionable.
The preceding trip down memory lane has been brought to you by The Present and The Future. Five years later, Savannah Craft Brew Fest rolls on under new management. Visit Savannah (who started the event) has sold it off to Red Mountain Entertainment, an entertainment company based in Birmingham. Red Mountain owns several concert venues around the South and puts on festivals like the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Bayfest in Mobile, Alabama. Do we see a pattern here? Visit Savannah’s goal is to build a huge weekend around the Saturday event. There are already beer pairing dinners, and brunches and other smaller type events, but something tells me this could be pretty huge pretty quickly.
The event itself in 2013? Much better in many, many ways. For starters, the indoor space was used more than it had ever been before. “Where’s the crowd?” I was asked one vendor. “Have you been inside yet?” “The amount of space inside is huge.” Sure enough, once I did make it inside the convention center, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a full blown convention hall FULL of people, pouring beer, tasting beer and eating. The eating part was particularly key. In the past, temporary concession stands were popped up outside to offer people food. Now the convention center’s concession stands were used for what they are there for. Plenty of them were set up and it spread the crowd out quite a bit. The end result of using so much inside space was a much more free flowing esplanade. The last couple of years, it was a crush outside to get a taste of anything. Way too crowded and uncomfortable. Progress. Certainly good progress.
Now for some of the bad news. You can’t have a beer festival without beer, right? About 2:30pm I was hearing whispers that some vendors were running out of beer. They were, in fact, pouring less than the two ounces in the sample cups to stretch it out. Under normal circumstances, you say “Well, they underestimated the number of people.” Fair enough, but running out of beer 90 minutes into a 4 hour event is not good. I was told the day before the event that close to 3,000 tickets had been sold and that the number of freebies handed out had been significantly cut down. There was a pretty good idea what kind of crowd they were going to get, especially when you factor in walk ups. No excuse for running out of beer.
The festival ran from 1pm-5pm this year. Too short. Certainly I understand the challenges in offering free beer (after a ticket purchase of course) to a younger crowd for an extended period of time, but 4 hours to sample hundreds of beers is asking a lot. Of course, no one says you have to taste them all, but one should have the option to do so if you like. If you are going to taste even a majority of the beers in 4 hours, there isn’t a lot of time to do much else. Especially if you want to spend a few minutes chatting with a beer maker, learning about what they do and how they do it. **Disclaimer: Most people at the Craft Brew Fest are there to drink beer. I honestly believe that. Taste? Meh. Leave that to the wine crowd. Sure the popularity of Craft Brews leads to sampling of different things, but not many people at this festival care about the process. They are far more interested in the result. Bottom line, 4 hours isn’t enough. Because…….
Getting to and from the festival has become a challenge. By the time I walked up to get in line for a ferry over to Hutchinson Island, it was just before 1:00pm. I waited one hour. Yes, actually slightly over an hour to get off the boat at the Trade Center. That’s way too long. An employee with Savannah Belles (Operated by Chatham Area Transit) told me that someone had only hired 2 of the 3 ferry boats for the day. Ridiculous. Not only did we wait an hour to get over there, arriving after 2pm, but I made sure I left pretty quickly to avoid a similar line BACK over the River Street. Once you take the ferry over, there aren’t many options to get back. Add in the fact that some vendors were running out of beer by 2:30pm and…well, yeah, you get it. Can you imagine a guest at the Westin who had no idea about that event having to wait over an hour to get back to their swimming pool? No excuse, that needs to be addressed.
This festival is going to grow. No question. I’m told for the first time in 5 years, the Westin was sold out Saturday AND Sunday nights over Labor Day weekend. At the end of the day, heads in beds is the end game here. With Red Mountains experience and access to the music world, it’s not far fetched to thing big name concerts are in it’s future. That type of event has already been on Savannah’s wish list. This partnership makes it closer to reality. I can’t wait.