Craft beer milestones are usually marked with dollar signs, percentages and the number of new breweries. We have the Brewers Association to thank for collecting and dispersing this data in shiny pie charts and graphs. They illustrate a great story in simple, straightforward terms, but they don’t tell you where craft beer is finding new niches, broad exposure and courting new fans.
In San Francisco last weekend, while serious beer fans were toasting Toronado’s 25th Anniversary, an even bigger event for local craft beer, in the grander scheme of growth, was taking place in Golden Gate Park. Organizers of the Outside Lands music festival finally carved out a place for craft beer at the event. Heineken’s exclusive contract was over and Beer Lands was born. It was the last piece in a puzzle of San Francisco centric gourmet food and beverage options for thousands of attendees, and by the end of the three day festival, it was clear that demand wildly exceeded expectations.
Dave McLean, brewmaster and owner of Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery, was tasked with organizing the details of Beer Lands in partnership with festival organizers and Best Beverage Catering. In addition to the main beer sponsors, Heineken and Sierra Nevada Brewing, McLean invited 13 other breweries to pour alongside his own: 21st Amendment, Anchor Brewing, Bear Republic Brewery, Drake’s Brewing, Firestone Walker, Iron Springs Brewery, Linden Street Brewery, Lost Coast Brewery, Mad River Brewing Company, North Coast Brewing Company, Pacific Brewing Laboratory, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, and The Bruery.
Beer Lands was located at Lindley Meadow, right next to the festival’s entrance, near three food trucks, the Sutro Stage, and The Barbary, which featured comedy and variety acts. Overall it was a good spot for festivalgoers to grab a beer upon entrance, or to hang out during lunch or a dinner break, but if you needed a quick beer during a big show, it was a hike to get there. Heineken and Sierra Nevada occupied key locations near the big stages. That’s what you get for six figure sponsorship deals.
The Beer Lands t-shirt made for servers. Brewers couldn’t serve the beer due to CA ABC regulations. Once it’s sold to a distributor it can’t touched by the manufacturer, but a few brewers and representatives were in attendance talking to customers.
If you’ve never been to Outside Lands, then you should know that the main organizers place a high priority on event staging (making the whole place look cool), and the Beer Lands tent was no exception. Reclaimed barn wood and sheets of polished copper trumped ugly jockey boxes, typically used for serving beer at festivals. Signage was also carefully crafted to look sharp and professional, which displayed the brewery names and festival prices.
Dave McLean standing in a sea of kegs. A large trailer was set on the ground and covered in reclaimed wood. Holes were made for tap lines.
The beer wasn’t cheap, think baseball park prices, but that’s to be expected at a major festival serving above average beer. One-dollar tickets had to be purchased first, then exchanged for beer. Attendees could buy one ticket, or packs of ten, which they used to get a 4 oz taste or a full pint. Most of the beers were priced at $3 for 4 oz pours and $9 for a pint. The Bruery’s Mischief and North Coast Brewing’s Pranqster were the only exception. Mischief was priced at $6 for 4 oz and $15 for a pint, while Pranqster was $6 for 4 oz and $12 for a pint. The two-tier pricing structure allowed people to try new beer without the burden of high cost.
Here’s what the breweries offered:
Sierra Nevada Brewing
Outside Lands Saison
Pacific Brewing Laboratory
Hell or High Watermelon
Back in Black
Linden Street Brewery
Urban Peoples’ Common
Mad River Brewing
Lost Coast Brewery
North Coast Brewing
Double Barrel Ale
Proving Ground IPA
Iron Springs Brewery
Chazz Cat Rye
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers
Although the prices may have turned some people away, consumption was off the charts compared to what organizers expected. At the start of day two, Dave McLean said they already poured 75% of the beer they expected to serve during the entire three-day festival. A massive pile of empty kegs was waiting to get picked up and a few breweries were rushing to supply more. By Sunday afternoon, most of the beers mentioned above were gone or replaced by others. A few breweries were completely wiped out, including Pacific Brewing Laboratories and Anchor Brewing.
Empty kegs at the end of Beer Lands Day #1, estimated at over 100.
Beer Lands is a clear example of craft beer’s surging popularity and growth. It also represents a big milestone for craft beer on a local level. Dave McLean use to hang out in parking lots before Grateful Dead shows drinking craft beer served by underground merchants on skateboards. It’s where he acquired a taste for good beer and was inspired to brew. That’s when mega brewers dominated music venues. Now they’re using noisemakers to attract people to their booths (no joke), because craft beer has crashed the party and people are demanding it.
The downside of corporate sponsorship is that all beer had to be served in Heineken cups.