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The Ballarat Beer festival began in 2012. While that doesn’t seem long ago, just consider that breweries such as, Balter, Pirate Life, Bentspoke, Philter and Modus Operandi weren’t even around.

Hazy beers were years away. Australian made wild ales and fruited kettle sours were so rare even most beer geeks didn’t know they existed. The peoples’ choice was awarded via Twitter, not Instagram, and festival currency was paper tokens instead of RFID bracelets. 

What’s been called the third wave of Australian craft beer had already begun, but 2012 was still the calm before the storm.

Keen to draw on its rich brewing heritage, as well as showcasing what Ballarat had to offer, two Ballarat hoteliers, Simon Coughlan and Tim Kearney, alongside Kate Burrows and Lyndell Pond, founded and operated the first Ballarat Beer Festival.

“Australia has some great boutique beers that deserve to be celebrated. Ballarat’s ties to the industry make it the perfect place to put on a festival to do that,” Simon said in an interview with Beer and Brewer in 2012

Bridge Road Brewers, James Squire, Little Creatures, Matilda Bay, Mountain Goat, Holgate Brewhouse, Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Prickly Moses, and Tooborac Hotel and Brewery, were just a few of the breweries on show, as well as local breweries Red Duck and Rebellion Brewery.

But the Ballarat Beer Festival, like many beer festivals today, was more than just a beer day. Organisers set out to make the day family friendly from the beginning, and included a range of gourmet food offerings. Live music has always been a feature as well. MCing the initial event were Charlie Pickering and Danny McGinlay, alongside someone who would go on to be synonymous with the Ballarat Beer Festival, The Beer Diva, Kirrily Waldhorn.

The inaugural event was a hit. Tickets sold out, and with over 4000 attendees, some breweries even ran out of beer (the horror!). In an interview with The Courier later in the year, festival co-director Simon Coghlan said, “I think the success of year one caught the four directors unaware.”

After the massive success of the first Ballarat Beer Festival, a second was secured for the 19th of January 2013. With many breweries from the first event returning, and new breweries wanting to take part, the total number of breweries doubled, and the entire City Oval football ground would be utilised. The second event also expanded to include a degustation dinner, hosted by Pete Mitcham on the eve of the festival and a, “meet the brewer” session.

I remember attending the festival in 2013. It was a scorching hot summer day. Ballarat’s City Oval offered little escape from the sun and queues for the most popular beers were long. I recall one stall where, upon getting our drinks, my group immediately went to the back of the line to consume them while we waited to get to the front again.

Festival organisers estimated a 30 percent increase in ticket sales from 2012 to 2013 and approximately 6500 people. It was onwards to 2014.

Numbers for the Ballarat Beer Festival seemed to plateau. The next year’s event was 1500 people shy of its 8000 capacity, with replacement bus services for regular trains cited as a contributing factor.

Despite the still healthy attendance, the 2014 festival was marred by some controversy. An article published in the Ballarat Courier reported that local Ballarat brewery, Red Duck, “would not attend this year’s event after losing more than $1000 at the 2013 Ballarat Beer Festival.”

The story played into the widely held belief that beer festivals are immensely profitable for organisers. Despite publishing a subsequent, contrasting, article the following day, with brewers such as Steve Henderson and Renn Blackman speaking to the financial realities of a brewery attending a beer festival, the public backlash was still sufficient to prompt Ballarat Beer Festival directors to write a letter to the Courier.

Their letter cited the Ballarat Beer Festival’s commitment to, “promoting craft beer from around the country, and also the region, hence the festival’s name.” It also compared the pricing structure to another regional beer festival at Geelong, and pointed out the similarities. Pointedly, the letter also read, “let’s get one thing straight: the Ballarat Beer Festival is far from a river of gold for the organisers.”

Today, Scott looks back on the incident with some disappointment. The veteran brewer said the truth was Red Duck did not attend in 2014 because of a scheduling conflict. Scott pointed out that as a small brewer, he’s the one that has to be at the event to pour his beer and talk about the beer to the customers. If he cannot attend, neither does Red Duck. He said that the article made it seem that Red Duck pulled out of the festival because of dissatisfaction with the return, which “simply wasn’t true.” Red Duck returned to the Ballarat Beer Festival in the years that followed.

For the fifth Ballarat Beer Festival In 2016, ownership had undergone a change. The festival’s original founders moved on, and entrusted the event to Ric Dexter, known locally for his involvement with Ballarat gastropub The Mallow Hotel.

Under Ric’s management attendance reportedly increased by 10%. The first home-brew challenge and a VIP area it called the Brewcage were introduced. For some, the beer wasn’t even the attraction. Fans of You Am I had come just to see the band. But perhaps the biggest coup was Ballarat City Council agreeing to change the name of the city to Beerlarat for the weekend of the festival.

Local government had always played a role in funding the festival. Ric said the year he took over, Ballarat City Council provided a grant of approximately $20,000, and its now defunct tourism arm, Visit Ballarat, provided $25,000. Ric was also able to secure sponsorship from other beer industry bodies.

Now a staple on the Ballarat events calendar, the Ballarat Beer Festival seemed to have really hit its stride. Many attendees had been before and knew what to expect. Rebellion Brewery co-owner Andrew Lavery told the Ballarat Courier, “I think it’s getting more of a range, more interesting beers every year. The crowd’s sort of settled down, I suppose, they’ve gotten used to the pace of the festival, and just take their time and enjoy themselves.”

Among new features at the 2017 Ballarat Beer Festival was the Ballarat Beer Garden, an area showcasing local breweries Red Duck, O’Brien and The Athletic Club. All brewers were encouraged to do something unique for the festival and twenty new release beers were showcased. But despite these and other improvements, the 2017 event attracted only 3300 people. It was felt that two other events around the same time, a John Farnham concert and a Nick Cave concert, may have taken away some custom.

For the first time in 2017, Beer Cartel’s annual craft beer survey polled Australia’s Favourite Beer Festival . The Ballarat Beer Festival ranked third under GABS and Melbourne Beerfest.

But perhaps the biggest change came the following year. In 2018 The Ballarat Beer Festival’s home of five years, was unavailable due to renovations. The event was moved to the north shore of Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree. With a more beautiful location, additional shade and a refreshed layout, many thought that the new site was an improvement. The feeling among organisers was that it could also breathe new life into the event.

Organisers applied for $25,000 in council funding, but council officers suggested a more modest $16,600. Festival director Ric Dexter argued that the fencing required for the new site would cost $12,000. There was also some disagreement on the estimated economic benefit to Ballarat, with council putting the figure at $355,000, and Mr Dexter suggesting it was over $820,000. 

In an interview with the Ballarat Courier, he said, “I understand events must become self-reliant but last year our funding from the City of Ballarat was cut in half.”

The 2018 festival had issues on the day too. After finding the event had an insufficient number of security guards for the number of people, authorities restricted entry to all who were not already inside the festival grounds until additional security could be arranged. Queues outside the festival gates were stationary and unsurprisingly, many were dissatisfied. Organisers promised to refund all ticket holders who were unable to enter and offer a free ticket to the 2019 Ballarat Beer Festival.

But what would ultimately prove to be most damaging, was an incident where one attendee pushed another into the lake. It was seen as a major safety issue by authorities, and dashed any hope of the lakeside location being used again.

Of note at the 2018 Ballarat Beer Festival, was the absence of Ballarat brewery Rebellion Brewing. Now achieving national distribution with their O’Brien Beer range of gluten free beers, and with no barley based offering, their participation in broad market beer events was reduced. Rebellion had been a stalwart of the Ballarat Beer Festival since the first event in 2012.

Breweries from around Australia have attended the Ballarat Beer Festival. Canberra brewery Bentspoke took out third place in the GABS Hottest 100 Craft Beers poll with their Crankshaft IPA in 2017, 2018 and 2019. They attended for the first time in 2018.

”BentSpoke started out in Canberra and will always be our spiritual home. But As we have grown over the years around Australia we have found great support from regional areas like Ballarat. Ballarat has a great connection and taste for Craft beer and BentSpoke has now been to this festival a few times . Last year winning the coveted Peter Alfred trophy for favourite beer. This year also has seen BentSpoke come to Ballarat as part of the SpiltMilk music festival and we are proud to continue to support these regional areas.. Cheers to Ballarat”

Despite what was possibly the most tumultuous Ballarat Beer Festival, attendance was up 12% over the previous year. Beer Cartel’s craft beer survey ranked the Ballarat Beer Festival as Australia’s fourth favourite beer festival for 2018, losing the previous year’s position to Brisbane’s Beer Incider Experience.

In considering a grant for the 2019 Ballarat Beer Festival, a November 2018 Ballarat City Council meeting agenda stated, “Council Officers are confident the organiser can rectify the issues experienced in 2018 and run the event safely and effectively in the future.” Such was the feeling amongst organisers and others involved. The events of 2018 were to be learned from and not repeated.

Organisers requested $15,000 in funding from the City of Ballarat. Council’s own recommendation was $11,250. An economic assessment prepared for the city estimated attendance would be 4650, with 1200 visiting from outside Ballarat and staying locally, and 1479 visiting for the day.

The festival had moved again. Now located at Lake Wendouree’s North Gardens, an out of town security firm was hired to manage the crowd. Organisers highlighted the inclusion of winemakers from the Pyrenees region in an effort to broaden the festival’s appeal.

Drew Graham is head of Ballarat’s House of Malt. An alumni of Fed Uni’s Brewing course, Drew’s malthouse produces specialty malts for craft brewers and distillers. He regularly attends the Ballarat Beer Festival and savours the opportunity to talk to brewers about the qualities they’re looking for in the malts they use.

“I think the move out to the lake has been a great thing, offering much more shade and a more relaxed atmosphere. They always seem to attract great brewers and it’s always a fun day out. Obviously there was the debacle with not having enough security and people getting locked out, but I feel they have learnt from this.”

Another new face at the 2019 event was Dollar Bill Brewing. Solely focused on wild fermented, farmhouse style, Saisons and sour ales, they brought a unique style of beer, being made by only a small handful of breweries in Australia. Their blended, barrel aged beers have already been earning high praise in Melbourne, and are now attracting attention on a national scale. Operators Ed and Fiona Nolle are staunch supporters of the Ballarat beer scene.

On Saturday, the North Gardens at Ballarat’s picturesque Lake Wendouree will again play host to the Ballarat Beer Festival. With twenty-nine breweries, four cideries and two wineries, the festival should once again cater to a broad range of tastes.

To recognise the efforts of firefighters during Australia’s devastating bushfires, CFA members are being offered free and half price entry to the festival. Reservoir brewery Hawkers will be showcasing their Heroes Gold lager, a collaboration between the brewery and Gold104.3 to raise money for Victorian Bushfire Relief.

Of particular note is the lack of breweries owned by big multinational companies this year. Pirate Life and Little Creatures, owned by CUB and Lion respectively, both present at the 2019 festival, are absent. As is Green Beacon, who were independently owned at the time of last year’s festival, but acquired by Asahi in August 2019. Even Vale Brewing and its offshoot Fox Hat, owned by Vok Beverages, sister company to independently owned Australian beverage manufacturer Bickford’s, have not returned this year. Ric told me that independence was definitely a factor when selecting breweries for the festival.

This year’s festival received $11,840 in funding from The City of Ballarat. Some Councillors were still very much in favor of the grant, citing that 70 percent of attendees were not from Ballarat. The benefit to the local economy was estimated at  $416,560, with an expected 4000 attendees. However, two councillors voted against, with Cr Des Hudson saying “We ask organisations who are recipients of community grants to make their events self-sustainable after three years, so why are we supporting this commercial venture?”

Interestingly, the Ballarat Beer Hop, an event modelled closely on Bendigo Beer’s successful Bendigo on the Hop, and run for the first time in 2019 over the Easter weekend, received approval for a $25,000 grant. Ballarat City Council’s funding assessment listed factors such as, “Flow on impact to the broader hospitality industry both in economic terms and confidence to open in future years; Retention of locals to Ballarat over Easter; Potential for increased Visiting Friends and Relatives audiences over Easter; Local craft beer industry strengthening.” An assessment prepared for Council estimated attendance to be a more modest 1200 people with an impact of $100,000 to the local economy.

Another challenge for Ballarat’s event was Geelong’s Great Australian Beer Festival. Typically held in February, the 2020 event changed to the 18th of January, possibly due to their move from the Geelong Racecourse to Johnstone Park in the CBD. Ballarat Beer Festival organisers opted to change the date of its event to avoid the conflicting dates. 

This change of date also meant that Ballarat brewery Red Duck could not attend this year due to a scheduling conflict of their own.

Possibly the most ambitious feature of the 2020 festival would not be from festival organisers, but the brainchild of Dollar Bill brewing. A refrigerated, 25 tap container bar, dubbed Quarter Bar, was an attempt to bring even greater variety of beer to the festival. The Bar will be focusing on beer from an additional twenty-one breweries, with niche styles like wild and spontaneously fermented barrel aged beers, served by certified Cicerones.

Quarter Bar could have brought something truly unique to the 2020 Ballarat Beer Festival. Sadly, festival organisers and Dollar Bill could not come to an agreement on how the bar would operate. As a result, Dollar Bill, the last remaining Ballarat beer producer at the festival, pulled out. 

Still believing in their project, Quarter Bar’s organisers sought approval from Ballarat City Council to operate the bar at a different location for the duration of the weekend. Council would not approve its operation on the Saturday of the Ballarat Beer Festival, but they have allowed it to operate on Friday and Sunday at Alfred Deakin Place in the Ballarat CBD.

For the first time since 2012, the Ballarat Beer Festival will feature no Ballarat beer. The reasons are varied, and none of the Ballarat breweries spoken to ruled out returning in the future. Festival director Ric Dexter said he has always tried to work closely with the Ballarat breweries that attend to maximise their benefit. He also said that where possible he tries to locally source resources and equipment that go into the festival.

While the absence of Ballarat breweries may be a disappointment to some, Scott Wilson-Browne from Red Duck remained positive. “Quarter Bar is a nice compliment to the Ballarat Beer Festival,” he said. Scott’s brewery, as well as Ballarat microbrewery Cubby Haus Ales, who have never attended the Ballarat Beer Festival, will be represented at Quarter Bar. An upbeat Scott also said, “I think taking over the town and making it more beer ‘festivaly’ is pretty good.”

Despite some issues over the past eight years, The Ballarat Beer Festival has brought many benefits to the regional city. The nationally recognised event has boosted tourism and raised the profile of craft beer in Ballarat. By all accounts festival goers have always enjoyed the day and local Police have generally praised their good behaviour. The festival has given rise to other events also seeking to promote good beer in Ballarat.

It’s timely that The Crafty Pint has just published a piece looking at the rise of small beer festivals. Writer Will Zeibel observes that large beer festivals like Beer InCider, BeerFest, and Adelaide’s Beer & BBQ, are events with broad appeal and not nearly as focused on beer as some of the new, smaller events. Ballarat Beer Festival seems to be all encompassing like these large festivals, but its smaller attendance and regional location makes it different from them too. These factors could have a negative impact on its sustainability.

Rising costs, Ballarat City Council’s waning interest in committing funds, a lack of sufficient sponsorship options and competition from these new beer events, some of which are only a train ride away, put a question mark over the future of the Ballarat Beer Festival.

The romantic in me would like to see the Ballarat Beer Festival turn ten, but that seems far away indeed. Whatever the future holds, the passionate people who organise and run the Ballarat Beer Festival, past and present, have much to be proud of.

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