As anger mounts in the wake of Saturday’s Austin Beer Fest, with the organizers pointing fingers and some attendees threatening to sue, at least one of the organizers is being linked to another ill-fated beer festival in Houston last year.
The March 31 event was at The Travis County Expo Center and Fairgrounds in Northwest Austin, an out-of-the-way venue for a lot of people, many of whom were surprised by a $10 parking fee and long lines when they arrived.
Unhappy attendees also complained about the beers offered (“I could have gotten any of this beer at the local grocery store”), about the lack of entertainment (“I saw a stage, but didn't hear any live music during the time we were there”) and, with the high hitting 90 degrees that afternoon, about the heat (not the organizers’ fault, but when some of the people start complaining, they’re on a roll).
In case you’ve missed it, the outrage is easy to find on Twitter. There are two Yelp threads devoted to the subject (here and here), as well as a Reddit thread that slings some of the same mud.
There is no word on how many people attended Saturday’s event in Austin, but according to the organizers’ press release, they were expecting 25,000. A glance at either of the festival's two Yelp pages (here and here) makes it clear that a lot of them left feeling robbed.
“We're embarrassed we even brought our beer to it,” said Jeff Stuffings, owner/brewer of Jester King Craft Brewery. “We'll be more selective going forward.”
“I should have known better when I heard a radio spot beforehand mentioning ‘beer pong,” he added.
Live Oak Brewing Company issued an apology on its Facebook page Monday that seem to reflect the same sentiment.
In an official statement released Monday and in interviews with CultureMap, Beer Fest organizers are laying a lot of the blame at the feet of G and M Catering, which has an exclusive contract to provide all concession food and beverages, including alcohol, at the Expo Center (“They’ve been our licensed caterer for many, many years,” said a harried-sounding Expo receptionist this morning).
“The employees of the Expo did everything they were supposed to, and worked hard to help us,” Beer Fest chief Brent Villareal told CultureMap on Tuesday. “[G and M Catering] is a separate entity, and failed to provide satisfactory service — beer, ice, food and staff — which caused direct damage to the quality of the event.”
Monday afternoon, the Fest’s organizers posted an apology/explanation to their Facebook page:
Our mission was to hold a beer festival that focused on exposing craft beer to a large audience, and to give that audience quality entertainment while they learned about new beer.
To watch as arrogance, unprofessionalism, and unavoidable modifications made by others slowly chew away at the most crucial of details in the idea is a feeling that is truly heart-shattering.
As of March 30th 2012, we had confirmed and published a list of 562 beers with an accompanying map, but by 2pm the next day, we learned that no-shows and edits to our beer selection without our knowledge decreased that number to below 300.
The statement went on to blame equipment and supply issues on G and M, on the TABC and on FedEx, even detouring to mention that some of the brewery representatives were “illegally pouring and giving away beer” and “getting drunk and/or being ejected by security.”
So how, exactly, does one mess up beer?
Villareal’s business partner, Greg Schoolfield, told CultureMap that they went into the event with the best of intentions.
“For starters, the Expo was the only venue available,” he said. “There were waiting lists everywhere else. We would like to have been closer to downtown, but that just wasn’t possible.”
“Over the last nine months we traveled to all these different breweries, touched base with a lot of small microbreweries. . .We put in the face time and let them know our fest was coming up.”
Schoolfield says G and M, in the end, had full control over beer prices and what beers would be sold. “We, as the Austin Beer Fest, never could have made any money off it,” Schoolfield said. “We do all the work, and all [G and M] does is sign the checks.”
“If we had full control it wouldn't have gone the way that it did, from the pricing to the fact that not all the beer that was supposed to be there was out there.”
The Austin Beer Fest website said “tasting tickets” would be sold for $2 each and would be good for one 2-ounce sample. A 12-ounce cup of beer could be had for three of these tickets.
But attendees are claiming that the $2 tickets weren’t being sold. They could only find $1 coupons that were good for 12-ounce beers, at the rate of 7 tickets per for most pours. So after using up the six “tasting tickets” that came with admission, an attendee (with 12 ounces of beer under his or belt), could get 12-ounce beers for $7 a pop.
General admission was $25 in advance and $35 at the event. A $200 “VIP All-Access Pass” was also sold.
That’s why a lot of people are angry — after spending $10 to park and up to $35 (or even $200) to get in, plus another $7 per beer, they feel like some promises weren't kept.
Groupon had an Austin Beer Fest deal that promised “more than 500 types of beer samples alongside food tents and three music stages of rock, hip-hop and electronic acts.” More than 830 of these daily deals were sold at $35 and up for admission for two.
Groupon spokesperson Julie Mossler said Tuesday that the company had “just a small handful of complaints, which is reasonable considering we sold about 800 Groupons for this event.”
“If anyone feels that the experience redeeming their Groupon let them down, they're welcome to contact us for a return.”
The Houston Press is claiming the organizers were also behind Beerathon, a similar event that was scheduled for March 31 in Los Angeles. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control pulled the plug on that event at the last minute, saying the “organizers do not hold any licenses authorizing them to sell alcohol.”
“I definitely can deny that we were involved [in Beerathon],” Schoolfield said.
Villareal was involved in another ill-fated beer festival, however: The Houston Beer Fest, which last June created as much furor as its sister fest in Austin did over the weekend. Not only did the Houston event oversell tickets, it was also purported to benefit a nonprofit that wasn't really a nonprofit at the time.
EW Media is another connection between the Austin and Houston fests. Don Schwarzkopf, a vendor coordinator with the company, told CultureMap that EW Media contracts with “all types of festivals,” providing arts and crafts and food vendors, as well as publicity.
The Austin Beer Fest is working with EW Media, and so was The Houston Beer Fest until just a few days ago (as a terse denial from Houston Beer Fest’s organizers of any involvement with the Austin debacle would suggest).
Villareal and Schoolfield say they were equal partners in planning the festival. Their friend and associate, Dexter Bayack, has been called an “organizer” of the event, as well, but Schoolfield and Villareal say he simply helped with publicity.
In fact, Villareal and Bayack were partners in the defunct Tunerlifestyletv.com (a “community showcasing the car enthusiasts' lifestyle from a grassroots and urban perspective”). Tunerlifestyletv planned an August 2009 car show in Houston called “Night Sessions Car Show and Party.” Records of their efforts to get vendors to register through a PayPal account are still online, but it is unclear whether or not the car show ever actually happened.
Tunerlifestyletv.com became Urbancitytv, a Houston “video magazine and business directory” that proudly promised “official video coverage of the Austin Beer Fest” via its Twitter last week. Villareal, Bayack and Helen Godfrey are listed on the Urbancitytv website as partners.
Successful beer festivals aren’t unheard of in Austin. Austin Brew Ha Ha held in Republic Square Park and The Austin Craft Beer Festival at Fiesta Gardens are examples. Another one, The Great Austin Beer Festival (which is getting slammed on its Facebook page by people thinking they’re the Austin Beer Fest) took place at the Austin Music Hall in 2010.
“Due to TABC restrictions, there's a lot more involved in running a successful beer event than a bridal expo or boat show,” said Chris Troutman, editor and co-founder of Austin Beer Guide. “Besides the Texas Craft Brewers Festival and Austin Beer Week that are both organized and sponsored by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, I am not too keen on any of these other ‘beer fests’ rolling in and throwing ‘Austin’ in the title of their distributor-run, second-rate events.”
“We can and are determined to improve, and we believe one of the biggest steps in doing so is having complete control of every aspect of our own event,” Villareal said. “A non-licensed venue is the only way to achieve that goal.”
Schoolfield says it is “more than likely” that he and Villareal will give the Beer Fest another go next year. “But this time around we’re gonna make sure we have full control. We’ll make sure we’re the ones pulling the permits and selecting the beer.”
“There's a lot of money to be made in events like these, and the beer scene in Austin is booming,” Troutman said. “So I don't expect them to slow down anytime soon,”
Schoolfield and Villareal say they are proud of the way they handled the aspects of the festival they had control over (the live music, for example), but Schoolfield admits he “doesn’t look at it as a successful event.” Just as some attendees are threatening to sue for their money back, they are saying via their online statement that “this is now a legal matter, and we are dealing with it accordingly.”
At press time, G and M had not responded to CultureMap’s request for a statement.