Drinking Drama At Chicago Beer Festival

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 29, 2013 9:30PM

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Image via Chicago Beer Festival.

We’ve been critical of the Chicago Beer Festival in the past, namely because its location at Union Station’s grand hall is used in marketing as much as the chance to sample beer. (This is an angle currently being played up by the folks behind the American Beer Classic, set for Soldier Field in May.)

Festivals like the Chicago Beer Festival and American Beer Classic had us asking if bigger is necessarily better. In the case of the Chicago Beer Festival, bigger may not even mean bigger. Earlier this month Drink Eat Play, the California-based marketing company behind the Chicago Beer Festival, announced “unlimited sampling” for the $40 admission, “with food sold separately.”

That’s a violation of the Illinois Happy Hour Law because the Chicago Beer Festival, while it is sold out, is a public event. The Happy Hour Law, as we noted only two days ago, prohibits “serving an unlimited number of drinks during a set period of time for a fixed price” at public events. The State Liquor Commission, upon hearing the offer, reached out to the festival’s organizers and informed them they can’t offer unlimited sampling.

Organizers sent out an email to ticket holders announcing the situation, a change in the sampling and offered refunds to dissatisfied customers.

We were just notified by the state liquor commission that we can't advertise "unlimited beer", despite having the same event twice last year without any issues. We are able to issue 20 beer vouchers, which is equivalent to roughly 5 beers. An additional voucher can be purchased for $15 (another 5 beers)

We just found this out and we wanted to communicate this as soon as possible so not to mislead or surprise you at the event. This wasn't our intent.

If you wish to get a refund, we are happy to accommodate you. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Naturally, people holding tickets to the festival were livid and immediately voiced their complaints on the Chicago Beer Festival’s Facebook page. What followed was a textbook example of how not to douse a public relations fire. (Assume this is heavily [sic’d].)

Yeah, we get it you're disappointed. A competing beer festival called the liquor board complaining that our event offered unlimited beers there's wasn't able to. So the liquor commission told us we had to change our policy for the event to be conducted legally. As soon as we knew, we emailed the attendees to apologize and let them know that refunds were available. And as the email said, we'll refund you if you're not happy. Since it's an issue of the state policy (which they either didn't know or didn't care about before the Soldier Field festival complained about us), we don't get to decide if we want to comply with it.

In their attempts to use levity to diffuse the situation and remind ticketholders they have no choice but to comply with the Happy Hour Law, organizers inferred that they were ratted out by another festival. The only other beer festival of comparable size we could think of was the American Beer Classic and we also know what happens when one assumes, so we emailed Lauren Shield of Red Dog Events, producers of the American Beer Classic, for comment. Here’s Shield’s reply:

We’re impressed with Chicago Beer Festival and want nothing but success for them and all the beer festivals in Illinois and other locations. The only conversations our representatives have had with licensing authorities are regarding licensing for our festival. We’re excited to have American Beer Classic come to life in May and provide festival goers access to hundreds of great brews from around the country, while showcasing the industry through a great experience.

(As of post time, Drink Eat Play’s Dan Silberstein has not responded to our requests for comment.)

Chicago Beer Festival’s organizers could have handled the original announcement by explaining to ticketholders that one voucher equals a three-ounce pour. We did the math: 20 three-ounce pours equals 60 ounces; using a 12-ounce measurement, 60 ounces equals five beers. That’s actually better than the number of sample tickets guests of the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers receive with their admission and comparable to the number of samples included with admission to the themed-beer festivals at Goose Island’s brewpubs.

So let’s hand it to the people who responded to the announcement on the festival’s Facebook page by going off the fucking rails and complaining about receiving only 20 vouchers for $40. We feel for you. That’s a lie. We don’t. If the small cross-section of complaints are an indication, many of you only bought tickets to the festival for the promise of unlimited beers. Now you’re complaining because you have a cap to your drinking?

If you’re pounding back 60 ounces of beer in a three-hour period (especially considering the alcohol content of many of the beers there) you might have bigger problems than wondering about whether the festival is now a good value. We have a hard time going through five sample vouchers at beer festivals during that time frame and these people are bitching about only receiving four times that amount. Pop open a beer and chill the hell out.

This could be the moment where beer festivals jump the shark.