The Dumbo Feather Theory of Beer Festivals

Phil Cook’s musings on New Zealand’s year-round ‘beer festival season’.

I’ve long since lost count of how many beer festivals I’ve attended. They seem to be proliferating and filling the calendar, turning the year into a perpetual ‘beer festival season’; there aren’t many weeks in which the community isn’t pondering an upcoming event somewhere, or sharing stories of one just gone.

SOBA's annual Winter Ale Festival

SOBA’s annual Winter Ale Festival

And that’s good news. Because there’s nothing quite like a beer festival for incrementing someone one step further along in their personal beerenjoying evolution. I’ve seen so many ‘I don’t drink beer’ doubters won over, so many people have their conception of what beer can be expanded, so many enthusiastic amateurs develop a better-tuned sense of what they do and don’t like (and why), and just so many die-hard fans have their minds blown all over again as they recapture the fun of their earliest beer epiphanies.

It’s most-obvious at the big events, where some implausible-sounding concoction attracts headlines and perplexed media coverage, but one often-cited (and true!) benefit of the festival circuit is that it’s a great place for brewers to experiment; to try slightly-sideways ideas and get fairly-instant feedback from a receptive and diverse crowd of taste buds. But this excellent mechanism also works the other way: they’re a great environment for us to give something risky a run.

They’re never a cheap day out, as such, but the relative ease with which you can try a dizzying variety of things can make them a seriously efficient exercise all the same. If you like something you weren’t expecting to enjoy – in terms of its producer, ingredients, style, how it’s served, or any combination thereof – a whole new terrain of possibility opens up before you. If something is unexpectedly awful, and you can figure out why, then you can sharpen your buying habits and avoid saddling yourself with larger and more-poorly-timed doses of beers you won’t appreciate. In both cases, dissecting the experience with friends, swapping notes and revelling in the subjectivity of it all is usually fun regardless.

"If you like something you weren’t expecting to enjoy – in terms of its producer, ingredients, style, how it’s served, or any combination thereof – a whole new terrain of possibility opens up before you."

“The relative ease with which you can try a dizzying variety of things can make them a seriously efficient exercise all the same.”

What I mean to say, if it’s not clear already, is that beer festivals are great. But even better than that, without feeling like a chore or an arduous workout, they can amount to excellent training for good habits later. The festival attitude – the open minded, attentive-but-relaxed mode of exploration– is basically just your natural human curiosity, and it can always serve you well. You’ll remember flavour gambles that paid off, or at least failed amusingly, and it’ll embolden you to try things outside of your comfortable habits, and to enlist friends with which to share the risk (or reward). Not all new things are good things, obviously. But all of your old favourites were new to you once.

Viewed this way, it’s unsurprising that some drinkers feel like they ‘outgrow’ festivals (or at least certain ones). And that’s fine, provided they’re not a snob about it and don’t sneer at people who still get a lot out of them. After all, it would’ve been mean to take Dumbo the Elephant’s feather away from him before he remembered he didn’t need it.

Back to The Pursuit of Hoppiness: Spring 2016


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