Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on SF Beer Week Opening Gala

It's really hard to deal with the fact that so many people are getting into craft beer, isn't it? (Most of my problems are first world. I admit this out of the gate.) We worked so hard for so long to get people to love things that weren't Miller Lite. Countless "No, here, try this" attempts met with turned up noses, more piss-water comments than one person can possibly be required to handle from someone sucking down well vodka.

And THIS is our reward? The beer dinners we once held precious sell out faster than we can get to a computer. The beers we anticipate for months get snapped off the shelves before you can get off work. The thing we once looked at as "ours" and really wanted everyone to share with us now belongs to everyone. News stories circulate from time to time about how craft beer is outselling everything, beat the recession, and might as well be the only thing keeping the economy afloat, but it's how that trend trickles down that gets me.

And annoys me. Again - first world.

It's not that it should just be OURS, you know, but the system has not scaled itself up to meet demand. Just because there are ten times as many people drinking craft beer doesn't mean production has ramped itself up in the exact same amount. This was terribly clear last night.

Lots of good folks planned the SF Beer Week Opening Gala. Lots of good, smart people, who love beer. It was a largely thankless job for them and I can't imagine how much stress went into it. I'm thankful that they do things like this so I don't have to, but that being said, I'm about to get super critical. I'm sorry, guys, but I sincerely hope you all learn from these mistakes for last year. And, yes, they were absolutely mistakes.

I bought the $45 Early Bird regular ticket instead of the $65 VIP. That mistake gets to be on my part, and I won't be making it again next year. My reasons weren't really financially driven, more that I knew it was unwise for me to start drinking beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, stay through all of my regular ticket friends showing up from 5-9, then try to hit the Toronado after party. $20 for an hour and a half that will probably just lead to me being drunk and belligerent is not the way I wanted to start Beer Week, so I decided to go with the 5:00 option. Of course, had I waited instead of being responsible and buying my ticket early, the day regular ticket sales went on, I could have bought the VIP ticket for $56 via a Groupon knockoff. Brian has already covered that much better than I would over here at All Over Beer, so I'll save myself the breath needed for that one.

We arrived late, which is a combination of my mistake and Muni being Muni. Delays I am incapable of understanding meant we got there around 6. I had been reading the updates on how bad the line was via Twitter, so I'm not sure what I thought would happen - maybe there was a huge bottleneck at 5 and things would be better an hour later? I couldn't have been more wrong. We waited in line for an hour.

Let's discuss crowd calming, shall we? When we were about 75 people back in line - after we had been waiting for 45 minutes already - someone was sent out to inform the angry, sober people holding $45 tickets on what was happening. He started out by saying that they weren't going to cut off the crowd - yet - and wanted to reassure us that they hadn't overbooked, there's just a fire code on how many people can be inside at once.

Allow me to take a moment to talk about how overbooking goes. I'll use an airplane as an example. An airplane has 200 seats. The airline sells 210 seats. This is traditionally referred to as "overbooking". It is particularly effective on morning flights, because people miss those flights. By overbooking, they can ensure that the 200 seats will be filled. In the event that all 210 people show up, they have to reschedule and offer people new incentives to bail on the flight - a $150 travel voucher for a new flight or something. The airline loses money on this, but since it usually works out, they keep overbooking. And, because airlines are smart enough, they don't get on the speaker and announce "We didn't overbook the plane, but 10 of you that bought tickets can't fit on it."

So let's apply that to something we're all also familiar with, say, a beer festival that opens one of the most popular beer weeks in the country. The building can hold, say, 1000 people. You have two options: you can sell 1000 tickets, or you can overbook. What you CANNOT do is pretend you're not overbooking, because that's ridiculous, and the last thing you should do is tell people who have been standing in line for 45 minutes that you didn't overbook, it's just "fire code". We were reassured, however, that once we got inside, it was going to be "awesome".

I should note that they were willing to refund people's tickets if they gave up, but I wasn't worried about the money. I was worried about the beer. And I was right.

So, of course, we get through the doors and they're out of glasses. Frustrating. Also expected, by this point. And before I can even get to the place where my disposable plastic cup is, Jesse of Almanac greets me with "We're out of beer." This would be a common theme in the next two hours of my life.

You will not be reading reviews here for Almanac, Lagunitas Fusion, Marin's 21 Year Old Ale, Speakeasy's Ritual Payback Porter, Moonlight's Two Weeks Notice, Pliny the Younger, Supplication, Vertical Jewbilation, or quite a few others that you might be interested in discussing. They were all gone.

The phrase of the night was "shit show". Why were there so many people there? (Furthermore, why did people on a damned Bloomspot mailing list get to walk right in while those of us who were responsible and gave our money to the event early had to stand there waiting for an hour? Poor form, guys.) Sell half as many tickets. Double the price. Sell a third and triple the price, for christ's sake.

It's completely unclear who this event was for. Was it for beer geeks? We're a good community, but we're a pretty small community. Usually I feel like things like this are thrown for us - weird one-off beers are kind of our bread and butter. I kind of doubt that Fusion is brewed for people who don't drink beer. Or, if I'm wrong, was the idea to expose people to beer? If that's the case, be a little more upfront about that. I had a similar criticism for the "Beer Fest" at the Giants stadium last year - too crowded, full of people that are just there because they want to get drunk, nothing geared toward beer folk. Be upfront about what kind of an event you're organizing. It really felt like we got tricked on this one.

And I want my glass. I'm very serious about that glass, guys.

I'm also serious about water. If there was any water to be found, I have no idea where it was. I had a giant bottle in my bag and I'm terribly glad that I did. There's got to be somewhere that you can rent little water systems and hire one person to run around all night and make sure they're staying full. It's just responsible.

Overall, I had a really good time. I did. But that wasn't due to the event at all, it was due to all the great folks in our beer community. The social aspect of events like this is great - you get to talk about new beers, you get to introduce everyone to everyone else. I feel like I know a pretty big number of people in our little community, but I got to put some additional faces to Twitter names, which is always a great (if startling) experience.

Oh, and next year, I'm not even going to try to go to Toronado. That one's not worth discussing; we all knew that was going to be impossible. Cheers to those of you smart enough to leave the gala early and get tables.

Next year: Jumping on the VIP ticket, assuming I'm going to take a half day off of work and be there before 3:30. Lesson learned.


  1. Well said. I might add that that said Someone told our group, "No, No. They won't sell out of any beer." I am hesitant to do it next year.

  2. Good summary.

    The Bloomspot thing is fucking insulting. Thought I was supporting the event by getting tickets early but I guess that was just a ruse by the organizers to see who they could get money from first and then deploy the cheap tickets later to get even more money.

    I do want to believe that they didn't oversell, because I want to think they're honest people. But all the plastic cups would suggest something else, because if they didn't oversell then they shouldn't have needed to pull out the plastic.

    Last observation: I loved the organizers telling everyone in line "as soon as people leave we'll let you in, one at a time." Who exactly leaves a beer event at 5:30 PM on a Friday?

  3. I felt the same way about the glass situation. You may have already gotten the email, but Meg sent out an email saying that everyone's invited to come to Speakeasy on April 1st to grab a glass if they didn't get one. This was the explanation: "SF Beer Week placed its glass order well in advance, but we did not receive all of our order because severe snow storms in the mid-west disrupted the shipment."

    You're right on the Bloomspot problem, Sean - so irritating. The Gala organizers are handling the aftermath really well, I think, by sending emails and being super communicative, but I would really like to see an explanation for that one. I feel like the beer community in San Francisco is so open and welcoming, and especially with the introduction of tools like Twitter, it feels like we know more than ever about what's happening with events. Having the rug pulled out from under us was really shocking.