A new beer and music festival, run by an online publication receiving financial support from Anheuser-Busch InBev, is stirring up some controversy among craft brewers.
In January, the online music and culture magazine Pitchfork announced that it was partnering with ZX Ventures, the venture capital arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev, to launch a new online publication. The new site, called October, focuses “on beer with an editorial perspective that speaks to a new generation of beer drinkers,” according to its initial press release. At the time of its announcement, many speculated that October would also produce events, akin to those hosted in the music sphere by Pitchfork. The speculation turned out to be true.
After its initial release, many in the beer and media industries (myself included) criticized Pitchfork and October for their failure to more obviously disclose their ties and funding from Anheuser-Busch. The dust-ups over Anheuser-Busch’s play in the media sphere, with October, the Beer Necessities site, and its recent purchase of Ratebeer.com, continue to evolve online.
Yesterday, Pitchfork and October announced its first major event, OctFest, a one-day beer and music festival scheduled for September 9 in Brooklyn, New York. Announced artists include Guided by Voices and Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires. The press release also boasted attendance by forty breweries from around the world, including locals Peekskill, Threes, Sixpoint, and Braven. The fest’s website lists twenty breweries with additional attendees to be listed later.
The fest’s website notes that October and Pitchfork are sponsoring the event but does not mention the role Anheuser-Busch InBev plays in the publication or event.
I reached out yesterday to the attending breweries to learn more about their participation in the new festival. The first to respond was Shane Welch, founder of Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn. Pitchfork and October specifically name-checked Sixpoint in their press release promoting the festival. Welch was initially skeptical that his brewery had agreed to participate in the festival, noting that “Sixpoint has a 14 year history of being very selective about which beer fests we attend, and even back in the day we boycotted several large fests based on ethical reasons.”
After checking with his events team, Welch confirmed that Sixpoint had been invited and initially agreed to attend the event but noted that his team didn’t understand who was backing the festival. “The team was not aware of the insidious nature of ZX Ventures, or ABI’s infiltration into media, beer-rating sites, and now (apparently) events as well,” he said.
Unaware of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s financial support of fest sponsor October, Sixpoint’s events team saw an otherwise worthwhile marketing opportunity. “We did not pay any of their sponsorship fees, but consensus on our end was that it was okay to pour beer and align with the music, Pitchfork, and other local breweries for sampling opportunities if they bought the beer and participation doesn’t cost us anything,”” says Welch.
After considering Anheuser-Busch InBev’s involvement in the project, however, Welch quickly decided to pull out of the festival, saying “We would rather drive up to Portland, Maine and pour at a real beer fest.”
Another responding brewer was unaware that his brewery was listed as attending. “Honestly, we aren’t familiar with the event,” says David Katleski, president of the Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse, New York. Katleski offered that his distributor may have committed the brewery to the event and agreed to look into the invitation.
Other brewers who responded were also cognizant of possible issues relating to the involvement of Anheuser-Busch InBev but ultimately saw value in attending the event and meeting with music loving consumers.
Bill Butcher, founder of the Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Virginia, noted that “we saw that many other independent breweries were participating, including our good friends at Schlafly and Empire, and it looked interesting. It also looked like a good opportunity to promote our brand in New York, which is our second biggest market.” The choice of bands also played a role in the brewery’s decision to attend, he noted. “We also have a couple of coworkers who are big fans of Guided By Voices, who want to attend.”
Keith Berardi, owner of Peekskill Brewing, says that representatives from Pitchfork originally approached him a few months ago about attending the festival. “We let it sit for a little while and then a month ago they asked if we’d participate and we agreed,” he says. Berardi acknowledges concerns over attending an event related to a major brewery sponsor. “We’re a fiercely independent craft brewery,” Berardi says. “We’re not associated with any large producer of any sort. But we don’t think that participating in a festival necessarily means we’re associating directly with InBev.”
“We try to be thoughtful about the fests we associate with,” Berardi says. “There was more thought that went into this one. There’s divided and strong opinions about October and other participants. For us, originally the thinking was that we love music and thought that a festival that had music as large a part as craft beer was a good idea.”
“The other piece is that we’re not scared of getting in front of that crowd,” he says. “We believe we can’t win over beer drinkers that we don’t put ourselves in front of. We look at it as an opportunity to get in front of these drinkers and turn them on to Paramount Pale Ale or Skills Pils.”
With these opportunities in mind, Berardi also acknowledged his brewery’s challenging relationship with Anheuser-Busch in particular. “Peekskill is a Budweiser town,” he says. “We know all about being shut out of events in our own city. We have a theater up the road and every owner of that theater says they want to pour our beer but the Bud distributor nixes it. We’ve always found it’s better to get yourself in front of the person who thinks Kona or Goose is what craft beer is and have an opportunity to show them what we do. If you don’t take the chances and expose yourself, you may never get a chance to.”