Commentary: Beer Fests Showing Signs of the Bursting Bubble?

Gerald Jowers of my local Columbia, SC alt-weekly paper, the Free Times, wrote earlier this week about the problems being encountered by beer festivals in various cities in the Carolinas, specifically pointing to Charlotte’s declining Oktoberfest and recently-cancelled festivals in Charleston and Columbia. Jowers is wondering whether “beer festivals [have] run their course”. And, of course, the answer, on the whole, is no. But we will likely see a culling of some of these festivals, and I believe we are seeing the first sign of the impending craft beer bubble burst.

The craft beer industry, and its many fans, have been celebrating the opening of the 6,000th brewery in the United States, an impressive milestone. Thing is, many craft beer commentators have been awaiting the bursting of the craft beer bubble since we reached the FIVE THOUSANDTH brewery opened in 2015. The fact that such a niche industry is opening an average of more than one brewery per day should raise some alarms, as could the declining year-to-year growth in the craft beer market. I say “could” because it can also be argued that such double-digit percentage gains from the early 2010s were unsustainable in any economy, to say nothing of craft beer still FAR outpacing it’s bigger macro brothers (who have seen declining SALES, not GROWTH, for years). I tend to lean towards the latter sentiment.

A real indication of the bursting bubble may now be coming from the festival and event market, which looks to be becoming over saturated. In his article, Jowers points to the decline of Charlotte’s Oktoberfest. Now, it's entirely possible this festival just fell on some bad luck and/or hard times: increased government scrutiny, bad weather, inconvenient construction. But a quick glance at the Charlotte, NC tourist website reveals that Oktoberfest is one of TWENTY festivals that prominently feature craft beer held in Charlotte alone! That doesn’t even take into account events held within driving distance, such as a number of South Carolina festivals or events held in the Raleigh or Asheville (arguably the East Coast craft beer Mecca) areas. To me, Charlotte and much of North Carolina seems ripe for over saturation of the event market. Here in Columbia, Jowers mentions the cancelled Cream of the Crop festival, which is typically held in March in conjunction with Soda City Suds Week (one of TWO craft beer celebration weeks held in Columbia, in back-to-back months, no less). Yet that same organization, F2T Productions, is running a beer-and-BBQ event next month AND the same venue, City Roots, will be hosting another beer festival JUST TWO WEEKS before Cream’s formerly scheduled event! These are just two out of at least five events happening in the first quarter of 2018, and that doesn’t even mention the numerous events set to be held in conjunction with the aforementioned craft beer celebration weeks being held in February AND March! The Columbia area has a good number of people, but has always been a bit behind the times on the craft beer scene. This scene has exploded in the last 5 years, perhaps exploded too far.

No, beer festivals have not “run their course”. The market exploded, and has likely passed its point of sustainability. I would not be surprised to see, over the next 5-10 years, a fair reduction in craft breweries—I feel like a number in the 4000-5000 range would be good—and a significant culling in the number of beer-featured events, which in some cities can be occurring every other weekend. I don’t expect a catastrophic collapse of the craft beer industry, unless driven by outside economic factors. But I do see an industry that will soon be ripe for a…correction.