Craft beer festivals provide small brewers with a unique marketing opportunity. With most of those festivals canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, brewers now wonder how they’ll get their name out.
Zaftig Brewing Company sees a noticeable sales bump in the weeks following a beer festival, owner Jim Gokenbach said. People who discovered Zaftig at the gatherings come to the brewery’s Worthington taproom to see what else it has to offer.
Zaftig won’t see those bumps this year, as nearly every central Ohio outdoor festival, including those intended to showcase the region’s craft beer, have been canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Brewers said they mostly break even at festivals but gain an invaluable marketing opportunity, especially for small operators who don’t distribute their beer widely.
Around 85% of Lineage Brewing’s business comes from its taproom, said Michael Byrne, who co-owns the Clintonville brewery.
“Without the taproom, we would go under,” he said, which makes publicity from festivals especially important.
“They’re a great marketing opportunity,” said Shawn White, who owns Nostalgia Brewing Company in Gahanna. Nostalgia doesn’t have a dedicated marketing team, so large gatherings are the best way to introduce itself to new customers.
Even breweries that distribute widely appreciate the chance to get their name out there.
Gokenbach said customers are more likely to notice Zaftig products on grocery store shelves if they’ve tried its beers at a festival.
The Ohio Craft Brewers Association has several annual gatherings that raise money for the organization and showcase craft beer. All were either canceled or moved online this year over concerns about COVID-19, which has killed more than 4,300 Ohioans since March and is known to spread rapidly through large crowds. An upcoming Ale-O-Ween event, which is usually held in Dayton, is taking place mostly online.
Jason Grable, owner of Random Precision Brewing Company on the Northwest Side, spends much of his time at summer festivals glad-handing craft beer lovers and often inspires people to go out of their way to visit his taproom. Random Precision is in a neighborhood that doesn’t have much foot traffic, Grable said.
“We’re not right Downtown near a lot of other breweries,” he said.
Grable planned to attend three festivals, including Six One Pour, a weeklong craft beer celebration that takes place in the summer Downtown. All three were either canceled or put on hold.
Random Precision focuses on sour and wild ales, which have a niche market. Large gatherings give Grable a chance to talk to people interested in those types of beers, and pique interest among those who are not.
“It’s nice to have those interactions,” he said. “And to a lesser degree it’s nice to see them when they come into the taproom the next week.”
Some in the craft beer industry floated the idea of shipping sample packs to patrons in lieu of festivals, which would let craft beer lovers taste a variety of brews, but White said that idea has problems.
“You can’t control the way it’s stored,” he said.
Some beers can be shipped at room temperature, others must be refrigerated, and some will lose flavor if they get too hot, White said.
Some breweries paid for advertising to replace the publicity from festivals; others increased their social media presence.
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Downtown hosted a virtual bottle release and virtual beer tasting, which drew interest and kept customers engaged, co-founder Bob Szuter said.
“But we’re missing the really exciting energy you get from those festivals,” he said.
It remains to be seen if those measures will replace the connections made at festivals.
“It will be hard to tell until after the first of the year, when we start looking at the numbers,” Gokenbach said.
For Ale-O-Ween, the Ohio Craft Brewers Association is encouraging beer lovers to buy carryout selections from their favorite breweries in costume and post pictures on Instagram, which will enter them into a chance to win a prize. The association also is selling T-shirts to raise money.
Brewers are optimistic, saying it would raise awareness about local breweries even if it can’t replace in-person gatherings.
“I think we have to try everything,” Byrne said.