Yesterday, as brewers from all over the country set up their tents and started chilling their beer for the Oskar Blues BurningCAN festival in Brevard, NC, word came down that the NC Alcohol Law Enforcement (ironically, ALE) was not going to allow brewers without state registry to pour, enforcing existing laws which were not followed. Oskar Blues sent brewers an apologetic email with the announcement that evening, and a stipend offer of $2k per brewery to cover travel expenses. Morale was low. But Oskar Blues was prepared to “own it."
The next morning, sitting in a little coffee shop in Brevard, I sat across from Marketing Director, Chad Melis, as the tension in his shoulders seemed to take over his whole body. “We don’t operate like this. I hate being in a corner. There’s going to be a lot of pissed off people that just wanted to have a great time." This wasn't what we thought we were going to talk about today.
$2k per brewery is about $60k in travel stipends. That’s an expensive apology. And the biggest problem was yet to come — 1,500 people showing up for a beer fest with 50 breweries, only to find about 17 breweries already available in the state, and a fraction of the beer ready to drink. Knowing that money was quickly becoming less and less of an object, and out-of-state brewers were deciding wether to pack up and drive home, we needed a solution that freed us from the legal and logistical constraints we were getting buried by. And that’s when we started brainstorming.
A "private party” is a simple enough idea. But how do you throw a private party for 1,500 people with beer and brewers from all over the country? Oskar Blues has over 160,000 “friends” on Facebook, they have a recently created digital mailing list from ticket sales, and the ability to refund those tickets outright. And they have private land, which is the Reeb Ranch farm that BurningCAN is being hosted by. If they acted fast enough, they could throw the biggest “private party” any brewery can imagine. It’d just cost them a fortune to do so. But with the expense of disappointing so many fans and fellow brewers, the cost became a no brainer. It was $60k to soften the blow to brewers. For another $40k and production costs, everyone wins.
"Fucking great idea. Now this is starting to feel like an Oskar Blues conversation," he said. Shaking the tension fro his arms. "I've got some calls to make."
At 1p, an hour before open doors, Chad and his event coordinator gathered the brewers in the barn to explain the move. Some wide-eyed stares and some slightly dropped jaws in the face of such a major turnaround. An idea that took us 20 minutes to hash out over breakfast took hours of subsequent lawyer time, communications, and logistical implications. But here we are, clapping, high-fiving, and heading out to pour some beers.
In the debate between big and small in craft beer, a lot of breweries try to still act like the little guys they once were in order to maintain their street cred. Oskar Blues doesn’t need to do that. They have all the street cred they’ll ever need. But they also have the ability to act big, and do big things. And when a larger craft brewery is still aiming true to the culture and the people behind it, those resources can be put to use in the service of everyone around them. Even if it “owning it” costs $100k just to get back to the party you were gonna throw anyways.