Why they canceled the 2023 Washington Brewer Festival

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Last week the Washington Beer Commission announced the cancelation of the annual Washington Brewers Festival, which is held each Father’s Day Weekend at Marymoor Park in Redmond. It’s been a Father’s Day tradition around Seattle for 25 years, so the announcement was not well received.

I have now talked to the Commission and gotten some answers. This festival is unlike others. It is operated by the Washington Beer Commission and is about showcasing the state’s brewing industry as much as it is about making money; however, the fundraising aspect is important.

I talked to multiple sources very close to the situation, including the Chairman of the Washington Beer Commission, and it is clear that everyone wants the festival to return next year. It may not look exactly the same, and it may not operate exactly the same behind the scenes, but everyone involved wants to see it return.

Why it got canceled this year and where do we go from here

Budget

The Washington Beer Commission is out of money, basically. It burned through its rainy-day fund during the pandemic and then in 2022, when they needed the WA Brewers Fest to earn a lot of money, it rained. The festival was very poorly attended and earned just 40 percent of what it would have earned in a normal year. They needed a good year; they got a crappy year. The Commission has been running on fumes for three years. No money in the coffers.


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Beer festivals (this one, Belgian Fest, Inland NW Beer Fest, and others) is how the Commission earns money to execute its mission of promoting Washington’s beer industry. The festival on Father’s Day weekend is where the Commission raises most of its funds. Nobody went to the beer festival last year, so they have no money to make it happen this year. That’s the shortest way to put it.

Operating a big beer fest requires a lot of up-front funding, with no guarantee you’ll make any of it back. The cost of portable toilets, fencing, security, tents, refrigerated trucks full of ice, and so much more have skyrocketed in recent years. Just one more thing to consider.


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Personnel

The Executive Director of the Commission resigned at the beginning of the year. He, and his one-man crew, ran the Commission’s events for over a decade. They hold a lot of specific, acquired knowledge. They knew who to call and how to make the event run smoothly. The Executive Director has not been replaced. That process will take months. Truth is, the Commission is currently reevaluating its purpose and operating festivals may not be in its future.

Festival Fatigue

You are reading this which means you probably like beer festivals. You are part of a shrinking minority. Multiple event organizers have told me that selling tickets for a beer festival has become increasingly difficult. We can theorize about why, but we’re probably better served to just accept it. I like beer festivals. I am not normal. Normal people are not jazzed about going to the same kind of beer festivals I love. Beer festivals need to evolve and do more to attract the current and coming generations of beer drinkers.

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Even if beer festivals do not change, there are so many now that I can’t keep track. In Washington, it seems every weekend from June through September has multiple beer festivals. You can’t go to them all. People make choices. The state’s beer lovers are spread pretty thin.

Private Events Organizers

Some people suggest that the Commission should just hire an events management company to run the festival. For this particular festival, that is not an option. Behind the scenes, a lot of things make this festival different. It is operated for the benefit of Washington’s breweries as much as it is operated for the benefit of the Commission. Using a third-party events management company would drastically change the way the event is operated. It would no longer be the festival you love. It might be a good festival with the same name, but it would not be the festival you expect. It would hugely change things for the breweries involved.

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It Wasn’t Because…

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board had nothing to do with the cancellation. A few years ago, the Commission got its wrist slapped for some violations at this festival, but that’s water under the bridge. There were no other outside forces at work. King County Parks and the City of Redmond were not to blame The Washington Brewers Festival was not cancelled because of any forces outside of the Commission.

What About Next Year?

Even before the cancellation, one of the options the Commission was considering for this festival involved turning control over to the Washington Brewers Guild, which is a very different organization. The Commission is a commodities commission sanctioned by the state for the purpose of promoting Washington beer. The Guild is a trade organization that represents the interests of the state’s breweries in matters of politics and policy, and works to promote a sense of unity among the state’s breweries.

To the public, the two organizations blend into one, but in reality they are two very separate entities. The guild is not currently set up to handle the management of this event, but it could be. At the same time the Commission lost its Executive Director, the Guild also lost its Executive Director. The two organizations that could conceivably operate this festival are currently headless.

What Kendall Thinks

I am going to hedge my bets on the Guild taking over the Washington Brewers Festival for 2024. What will that mean? Will you even notice the difference? Maybe. Probably. As a state-sanctioned commodities commission operating within the Department of Agriculture, the Washington Beer Commission enjoys some pretty special benefits with regard to operating the festival. The Guild will have to play by different rules.

There are probably some other reasons that I am forgetting to mention, but I’ve hit on most of the major points.



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7 thoughts on “Why they canceled the 2023 Washington Brewer Festival

  1. Would be lovely if it comes back that they could stage a festival with easier public transit options. Its location and lack of transit options is largely why I have not gone to this festival in years past but have instead participated in ones near multiple bus routes.

  2. Great piece, Kendall. Appreciate you hearing readers’ questions and then digging in. Sincerely, another one of shrinking minority. Cheers!

  3. Mr. Jones — Great read. One point I’ve noticed and noted over the years, is that beer fests have evolved from a event filled with craft beer enthusiasts and bar operators looking for the new hot beer…to a lot more people seeking out the highest octane brews at the fest and getting as drunk as they possibly can.

  4. It’s interesting that the writer feels strongly that a third-party would change the event “drastically”. Why do you feel this way? It’s understood that liquor laws made the festival much easier to produce by the Commission than anyone else… but why couldn’t it be managed similarly?

    1. Without getting too deeply into the nuts and bolts, the way the breweries get paid for their beer is a big part of it. I know I sound elusive, but I am not sure anyone has the patience to read 1,500 words explaining the difference between how the Commission operates this festival in regard to paying breweries for their beer. Many festivals don’t pay the breweries at all. But there’s a lot more to it.

      The Commission is not a non-profit organization. It is a Washington State commodities commission. As such, it operates by a different set of rules. Every beer fest in the state not operated by the Commission is operated by, or to benefit, a non-profit organization. That is how you are eligible for this kind of liquor permit. The WA Brewers Guild is one such non-profit org. How they would manage the money is much different than the Commission. It has to be, by law. This difference would be reflected in which breweries want to participate and which beers breweries want to pour at the event. Some breweries would opt not to participate. Some breweries might not want to bring certain beers. It’s complicated, but I think the change would make this beer festival look and feel more like a “normal” beer festival and not like the unique fest that it is. Maybe the Guild could figure out a way to maintain the coolness factor in terms of beer selection and brewery participation, but that remains to be seen.

      Because the Commission is a state organization, and not a random non-profit or a private enterprise, the State of Washington underwrites the whole event. That is, the Commission does not need to get insurance for the event. Any other organization would have to pay for insurance. I have been told that this would cost tens of thousands of dollars. So, if you want to have an all-ages festival, with beer and kids, beer and bouncy houses, and all the other things that make the WA Brewers Fest the unique festival that it is, a big Father’s Day celebration in the park, you’d have to pay a king’s ransom for insurance. Thus, it would either be cost-prohibitive to produce or it would require ticket prices to reflect that increase to the already enormous cost of putting the event together.

      Still awake?

  5. Definitely a bummer. I’ve attended around 20 of the 25 years including last year. This along with the Oregon Brewers Fest being canceled are huge losses to the industry and its consumers.

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