When Great Kiwi Beer Festival (GKBF) director Callam Mitchell abandoned the Hamilton event in May, citing “unrealistic conditions” placed on its liquor licence, the reaction from beer fans was shock and disappointment.
Mitchell said police and the Waikato District Health Board had opposed the event’s alcohol licence application for a second time, and the conditions they put on the event made it too difficult to proceed in 2022 after two successful years.
The Hamilton event was a spin-off of the highly successful Christchurch GKBF which continues to operate.
Hamilton City Councillor Mark Bunting typified the response, posting on Facebook that he had attended the previous two events “and in my experience they have been really well run, friendly, safe and very mellow events”.
“I’ve been really proud of how the Claudelands Events teams have worked, security have been friendly and effective and the vendors were unbelievably vigilant. It’s such a shame,” he added.
“I really hope we can get this back because we’re a fun city who should be seen as easy to do business with.
“The craft beer industry is a huge industry that we should be embracing and from what I experienced this festival promoted responsible consumption and great business.
“There will always be one or two who make eggs of themselves but I didn’t see any in the last two years. Really disappointed for Hamilton.”
Mitchell said concessions such as reducing service times by an hour (it was slated to run from 11am to 6pm) and creating system that could restrict the number of drinks consumed per person made the event untenable.
However, according to news outlet Stuff, the main concerns of police and health authorities were people drinking high ABV cocktails – specifically espresso martinis – and loud music being played at individual stall-holder’s tents.
Hamilton city area commander Inspector Andrea McBeth said police wanted the event to go ahead but had concerns around the sale of alcohol and security onsite.
“We wanted to work with the promoter to address these concerns and indicated our desire for the event to go ahead. It is disappointing the promoter has elected to withdraw their application, rather than work with police.”
Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate also put some pressure back on Mitchell, implying he should look for some common ground to continue an event that had an estimated economic benefit to the city of $1.2 million.
“I’m hopeful some constructive discussions with the promoter can occur very quickly, and we can get the event back on our calendar.”
The changing role of beer festivals
The saga raised many questions, not the least being how promoters need to work with authorities in ever-changing environments and how beer festivals are changing from niche events for beer-lovers to more general entertainment offerings with a variety of drinks available.
And respected brewer Kieran Haslett-Moore from North End observed on Twitter: “As an industry we have given up on beer festivals and are indeed running music and dance festivals under the guise of them being a beer fest.”
He noted that festivals had migrated away from a “learn about beer” experience to wider entertainment proposition.
Dean Bradley runs Wellington’s annual Brew Day – an event that started at Upper Hutt’s Trentham racecourse, moved to nearby Brewtown, before coming into the central city this year. He’s also about to run his first Palmerston North Brew Day.
As a former policeman Bradley made a point of working with local authorities.
“I used to be a policeman so I make a point of going to talk to the police. I show them the venue and how we are going to run it.”
He said one of the things police like to see is a payment system that can prevent an inebriated person buying any more drinks.
Bradley uses AWOP (Another Way Of Paying) which uses RFID wristbands to process payments.
“The police like AWOP because you can `yellow card’ a person to remove the alcohol-buying component of the wristband.”
For his Palmerston North event he wanted to run it from 11.30am to 6pm but the police asked for a midday start which he accepted. He said reducing the hours and minimising the pour sizes on beers over 8 per cent was important.
“The police are reasonable; their big concern is thousands of people spilling out of a festival and going into town causing trouble.”
Bradley did concur with Haslett-Moore’s observation that live music was becoming a big drawcard for many beer festivals.
“I can see why people have headline acts as it does drive numbers – and I do think people will buy tickets for the bands rather than the beer,” he said.
“I want people to come for the beer, so I don’t have headline acts.”
Live music drawcards
New Zealand’s longest-running festival, Beervana, which will be held in Wellington on August 13-14, also uses AWOP and keeps live entertainment as a subsidiary part of the promotion.
“The type of entertainment we provide is key,” says Beervana manager Ryan McArthur.
“Our live music is small, lesser-known performers on small stages, plus theatrical street performers and other random weirdness. These are all used to provide atmosphere.
“We know we could pull in more punters, or sell tickets faster if we had big-name musicians, and if we made it half beer festival/half music festival. Other festivals do that and do it well. But it’s not what Beervana is,” he said.
He explained it’s even down to what kind of music is being played at the end of sessions.
“What kind of mood do we want to send our attendees out into their post-fest experience world? This is something we learned last year and make changes to, year on year,” he explained.
“Beer stops being available half an hour before the session finishes, but food vendors keep serving food. Send them out calm and with pukus (stomachs) full.”
Beervana has always been a winter festival but last year, because of Covid-19 shutdowns and postponements, it moved to November, which made a typically cold Sky Stadium a much warmer place to hang out, but McArthur said keeping the festival as a winter indoors event creates a more mellow outlook for patrons.
The festival also strongly promotes itself as “tasting” festival.
“Pricing around servings are deliberately skewed to promote 75ml tasters,” he said, with full glasses working out as a more expensive option. Additionally, beers 10 per cent and above can’t be served as a 250ml pour.
McArthur said Beervana, now in its 20th year, never assumes things will be the same year on year.
“We’ve had a great relationship over the years with the Police, the Wellington City Council and the licensing committee; we don’t take for granted that each year our application will be smooth sailing.”
“The key thing is maintaining open communication with them and taking on board their suggestions and recommendations each year.”
He added that while the event could grow, doing so might not be in their best interests.
“It’s ensuring we don’t make the mistakes of leaning into the things that might make us more money or get us more people through the gates by forgetting what has made the festival the success that it is,” he said.
“A big part of that is making sure we hold tight to the ethos of the festival, which is: Beervana is a celebration of good beer in New Zealand, and the organisers, stakeholders and people are all part of staging this event in as safe an environment as possible for the public.”
Another long-running festival found out this year how quickly things can change.
Shelley Haring of Nelson Venues and Events said her organisation was currently going through “a change in requirement for the liquor licence” for their annual Marchfest, a celebration of the hop harvest in Nelson.
She said the local council, police and Ministry of Health have suggested that they won’t allow under 18s at the festival next year.
“Marchfest has been running for 15 years and has always been a family-friendly event, allowing under 18-year-olds to be at the festival, whilst under the care of a parent/guardian,” she said.
“We are known as being a family-friendly event and I believe we are one of the only beer festivals in New Zealand currently that have this option.
“A lot of our attendees come because we are family-friendly. We have always provided a dedicated kids zone and also provide an area for parents to hang out whilst the kids are in the kids’ area, we put on an additional bar at our expense.
“We believe that having that family-friendly atmosphere helps with the culture of the festival, we find people are better behaved when they have their kids there or there are kids around. It creates more of a ‘fun day out at a beer festival’ rather than a ‘lets get smashed at a beer festival’ environment.”
She said Marchfest had yet to put in its liquor licence application but planned to apply for similar conditions, including allowing under-18s to attend with their parents or guardians.
“We will have a fight on our hands I think, but we also have a lot of local support in favour of keeping it family-friendly”.
She said the licensing restrictions are becoming harder to work with.
“It’s also difficult for us because it is changing year on year, so we can’t assume they will approve a licence application based on what we did last year which can make it difficult for planning future years.”
Growth of beer festivals
The Otago University Students Association (OUSA) runs a hugely successful Dunedin Craft Beer & Food Festival at the city’s covered rugby stadium and this year introduced an Auckland version of the event which had an indoor-outdoor component at Spark Arena on a beautifully hot day in March. There was live music, a lot of food and it ran from 1pm to 8pm.
The Dunedin festival has recently grown from a one-day event to Friday-Saturday occasion. This year’s event, on October 29-30, features a huge line-up of some of New Zealand’s most popular acts. The two festivals seems to break all the rules – outdoors (albeit under a roof) in warm weather, lots of music, massive growth yet have run successfully in two vastly geographic regions.
Festival Director Jason Schroeder says the fact that OUSA is a “not-for-profit with a major focus on student health and safety” has a bearing on how the festivals are received.
“We actively work collaboratively with Dunedin police, health & safety authorities on alcohol harm minimisation strategies.”
He said at both the Dunedin and Auckland festivals the music was meant to complimentary to the beer and food.
“Our focus is on programming artists that ensure a great atmosphere. We want the entertainment to be background but also an added reason to attend,” Shroeder said.
“Both festivals should provide our attendees with a variety of things to take in rather than just a sole focus on drinking. The festival is tweaked according to timeline and alcohol consumption. On the ground security is obviously key throughout.
“We ensure that both festivals are experiential and do not just become an opportunity to drink, while still focusing on highlighting the amazing talent and diversity in our craft beer and food industries.”
We asked Great Kiwi Beer Festival director Callam Mitchell for comment but he has declined. Brews News understands the GKBF Hamilton organisers are continuing to work towards a way to hold the event next year.
You can hear more thoughts about beer weeks in this Brews News Live panel discussion about the future of beer weeks.