RSVP: invitational beer festivals
2019 was the year of the curated. The word itself seemed to surge in popularity, as did everything dictated by it. While “curated” used to be synonymous with “museum,” 2019 saw peak minimalism and attention to quality and selectivity — properties that I posit are features of a curated collection, whether clothing or houseplants.
But can beer be minimalist? Right now beer is having a maximalist movement, like Cyndi Lauper in 1984. From pastry stouts to fruited milkshake IPAs to sours aged in multiple barrels — dialing things back isn’t really in vogue at the moment. What may be more curated in the beer world today is the festival. Read on for the five best features of invitational beer events and my top picks in Minnesota. Also be sure to note the announced dates of Rare Beer Picnic and Gathering in the Wood for 2020!
For almost a decade, a steady rise in beer events has been the trend nationwide. Two powerhouse festivals that garner some of the most national attention, Great American Beer Festival in Denver and The Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, continue in their perennial popularity while formerly small events like the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers in Chicago and new hits like Fresh Fest draw huge crowds. While bigger can be better, invitationals take a less-is-more approach that might be what you’re looking for in 2020.
What sets a curated festival apart from the typical overstuffed beerfest sponsored by a brewer’s guild or private event company?
These five improvements:
5. It’s not business, it’s personal. Invitational beer festivals are a chance for brewers to showcase the beer they themselves want to drink. An invitational is exactly what it sounds like — brewers choose guest breweries and invite them to participate. This fact alone makes these events worth paying attention to. Fair State Brewing Cooperative, who hosts the annual Mixed Culture event featuring mixed fermentation, barrel-aged, and sour beers puts it this way: “A uniquely brewer-driven festival.” If craft beer is more in your life than just a beverage, consider attending a brewer-driven festival.
Mixed Culture draws a crowd for this specialty event, and other participating breweries are like-minded, bringing their best funky and sour brews. No one gets a free pass due to geography — it’s invite-only!
4. An immersion experience. Because of the above, invitationals tend to be on-brand and feel harmonious. Think of a craft beer brand that speaks to you — whether the beer styles are all in your wheelhouse or their social media always catches your eye — this kind of branding gets amplified at a curated festival. Whether you want to get to know a brewery or a style of beer a bit better, an invitational cuts out the noise.
One such example is the IPA Invitational put on by Lupulin Brewing Company each summer. Not only do participants get up and close with the best-selling beer style in America, the outstate host brewery gets a captive audience that might otherwise only recognize their flagships. The tentative date for this year is June 27th. Look for a possible change in venue.
In 2019, Lupulin added a twist to their offerings by inviting each brewery to bring three IPAs and a “wild card” beer. There were plenty of wild cards to go around, including some top-notch pilsners, so bring your non-hop-lover husband along. I assure you, there is plenty to drink!
3. You really can catch ’em all (and they’re all good). Invitationals are small by design. As a result, the beer is by and large very high quality, and with any luck and deliberate effort, it’s actually possible to visit each participating brewery. Think of invitationals as a quality over quantity situation. Sometimes invitationals bring one-off batches or even collaborations between participating breweries.
Rare Beer Picnic in Moorhead, hosted by Junkyard Brewing Company, is one such example. It has grown in its six years, but will not get any bigger. Per Michelle Juhnke,”We have seen a huge change in the festival. It started off with only a handful of breweries who chose to attend, and we are now maxed out at 16 breweries for the space we have. We host 1000 attendees in a small park in North Moorhead and do not plan to expand.”
Just as the name implies, the majority of the beers served at Rare Beer are rare. They are largely beers that are not packaged or are limited to on-premise sales.
UPDATE: Rare Beer Picnic takes place Saturday, July 18th. Tickets were scheduled to go on sale today, April 1. They have been delayed. Once they are live, ACT FAST — Last year the event sold out in only 3 days.
2. They’re worth traveling for. As opposed to a run-of-the-mill fest, invitationals draw crowds for day trips and weekends. This is especially true for breweries that aren’t in large cities. These specialized events spawn afterparties, host brewery takeovers, and more. Why not visit Moorhead or Rochester when a brewers’ beer festival will elevate beverages in town all weekend?
At Little Thistle Brewing in Rochester, 2019 saw the first festival for the brand-new brewery. In conjunction with Forager Brewing Company, Gathering in the Wood invitational drew crowds for the festival itself but also for a bottle release and dinner at Forager worthy of a Black-Friday-Style campout.
“With 6 breweries/brewpubs in Rochester now, we have an opportunity to highlight Rochester as a craft beer destination. Bringing people to Rochester was one of our primary goals for this festival. We worked with Forager and organized the fest around one of their hugely-popular beer releases and they incorporated a beer dinner – all with the goal of keeping people in Rochester for a day or two.” Dawn Finnie, Little Thistle Brewing
Junkyard’s Rare Beer Picnic takes place during the Downtown Fargo Street Fair, making the area even more attractive for travelers.
1.And the number one reason to put an invitational on your calendar this summer is to taste beers that never make it to Minnesota. Festivals allow breweries without distribution in the state to bring whatever they want (with a cost). That means that outstate brands are mindful of what to present to virgin drinkers of their brand.
In many cases, these guest breweries are big names in their neighborhoods, or boutique breweries worth knowing, but flying under the radar.
Don’t miss out on these intentional celebrations of the beverage of beer this year! If, like me, you’re not a big festival person but you consider yourself a friend of the industry, invitationals offer the ideal experience.
Rare Beer Picnic / photo: M. Schleif Photography
Consider Gathering in the Wood on May 9th in Rochester where Little Thistle and Forager have the consumer experience in mind when inviting breweries to pour [Edit 4/1/2020: Gathering in the Wood is very sadly canceled this year due to COVID-19. Please consider supporting Little Thistle and Forager by purchasing gift cards and crowlers]. “We wanted it to be small and intimate and not overwhelming. We thought about it from a consumer perspective […] who we invited was partially based on what experience we wanted our guests to have,” explains Finnie. 2019 involved 30 total breweries that were a mix of local and national.
What could make invitationals even better? Jeff Zierdt of Lupulin Brewing Company would like to see more cooperation by the State of Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement department and the TTB. Currently, the red tape of licensing is holding our state back:
“…We had to work with our partner distributor to obtain an Importer License from the State of MN to even bring the beer in for the invitational. The second hurdle was branding every single brand being served at the event which first required approval by the Federal TTB for COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) then required paying to the State of MN AGE $40.00 per brand. This is both time consuming and adds significant costs on to the Invitational. For instance, with 20 breweries having 4 beers, the cost for the Importer License and Brand Registration is $4,400 and that doesn’t include the shipping cost to get the beer to Minnesota. “ – Jeff Zierdt
One final update: our small and independent breweries need our help now more than ever. Come June and July, our dollars will be even more important. Buying tickets now could mean saving an event from cancellation. Cheers, and RSVP to these wonderful opportunities!