We sat down with Chad Montgomery, Co-founder of the Big Texas Beer Fest, to learn the ins and outs of creating an extraordinary adult beverage experience. With the 2018 event approaching at the end of March, Chad was kind enough to share some insights he’s picked up from holding a beer festival convening 120 breweries with over 500 beers.
We used to think of beers as something which would enhance your experience at an event or festival, and now we have events dedicated to the celebration of this beverage. What’s it been like being on the forefront of this change, and the explosion of microbreweries in the United States?
Beer was long held as a blue collar beverage, but that’s not the case anymore. Prohibition saw the number of brewers shrink from many thousands, to something like 50. Now, we have over 6,000 and people choose beer because it doesn’t only have to taste like ‘beer’ per se. We were fortunate to be one of the first big beer events in Dallas, and it was mostly driven by a desire to make sure it was done right. We knew someone would do it. And while we had no event planning experience, my wife and I took the reigns and made it happen. I’m a craft beer enthusiast personally, so to have helped the proliferation along the way in some very small manner is really rewarding.
Over the last 6 years you’ve donated 150,000 meals through your partnership with the North Texas Food Bank. First of all, thank you. How did this partnership come to fruition?
I’ve always wanted to be more charitable, but when you’re young, you barely have enough to take care of yourself. Eventually, I ended up working in the Information Technology field and many of our clients were non-profit churches. That was my first exposure to that world. I came to understand that some charitable organizations are more efficient than others. Some are really bad, in that they only allocate 20% (or in extreme cases, even less) of their money towards their mission. Overhead and salaries can bloat greedy organizations. We see the effects of hunger in our community all the time. The North Texas Food Bank is 94% efficient, so when we give them a dollar, $.94 goes directly towards food. Those 2 factors really played a role in us ultimately working with them.
What types of technology have been introduced to beer festivals to enhance the experience?
That’s a great question. There are a lot of back end advertising tools that have been a great help to us as an organization, and obviously new social media platforms. But the guest experience for our event, is largely the same as it was in 2012 (our first event year). Some events have tried, and failed to deliver RFID as a beneficial tool at beer festivals. Coming from a technology background, I hate seeing technology applied to solve problems that don’t exist. Guests getting in quickly, getting to enjoy their beer samples, and having conversations with brewers, reps, and other attendees really remains our focus. Perhaps if I could point to one thing, it was us adding laser-based scanners to get guests in the door more quickly, which began for us in 2013. This really cut down on our entry time at the gates, but our logistics probably helped even more.
How do you meet breweries and what are their questions/concerns about getting involved?
We’re enthusiasts, so we’re at beer events and breweries all the time. I’m also a member of the volunteer committee for North Texas Beer Week, so I’m heavily involved in lots of beer-related stuff around the metro area. I got into good beer in November 2008, but Dallas City proper didn’t have our first brewery open until 2011. So I guess my love of beer and Dallas breweries sort of grew up together. All of the local brewers knew what we were putting together from day 1. We got the distributors involved very early on as well, which gave us some credibility with the national brands like Sam Adams, Stone Brewing and others who have distributed here for a long time.
Where are most of the breweries from? Have you ever had an international exhibitor?
We have about 120 brewers. Around 45-50 are from Texas, roughly 60 from the United States, and the balance are from other countries. A few years ago, the founder of Belgian brewer Chouffe flew over and did a book launch at Big Texas Beer Fest. I cut my teeth on Belgian beers originally, so we try to have brewers from all over the world. The flavor profile of Belgian beers is very unique. Even when American brewers try to replicate it, it’s not quite the same. So we’ve always felt it important to have brewers from Germany, Belgium, and lots of other countries too.
What permits are needed to hold a beer or wine festival, and how are these different than selling beer at a music festival?
The permitting process is always handled by each state’s ABC (alcoholic beverage commission). In Texas, the rules are quite strict. We can only issue 24 ounces worth of beer samples with the admission ticket. There’s no rule on how much additional samples must cost, but they most cost something. So we only charge $2 for an additional 12 samples (that are 2 ounces each). Once people are in the door, we want them to be able to responsibly enjoy their samples without additional financial burden. With respect to the different type of permits, it’s not a different permit. The ABC does want to see all of your sponsor agreements though, which just makes it a lot of paperwork to deal with.
How do you prepare and stay compliant when faced with underage drinking or over drinking?
In Texas, all our servers are hired pourers. We have a handful of volunteers who like to give of their time in exchange for free admission, but every beer pourer must be TABC certified. When someone has that certification, overserving is trained as part of that course. And responsibility shifts from the permit holder, to the individual serving the product. This keeps servers generally more honest with who they will serve, and how much. With regard to underage drinking, we machine-scan everyone’s ID at the door, no matter their age.
What types of companies are typical sponsors for a beer festival?
We don’t work with a ton of sponsors, though this year our headline sponsor for Big Texas Beer Fest is Sprint. In general, we try and work with those in the beer industry, or very closely related to it. For example, someone who makes beer-related apparel, is probably a good fit for our event. Someone who sells jewelry wouldn’t be an exhibitor we’d work with. On occasion, a brewer or local pub has picked up the cup sponsorship, or stage sponsorship. But we typically try and work with those in and around the industry.
At Big Texas Beer Fest, is there live music and entertainment, and food for sale, and how do you select the food and entertainment which is present at the festival?
We hold our event at Fair Park, which is Dallas’ largest city park. It’s a collection of buildings more so than a park with green spaces. We host our event at the Automobile Building, and there’s an outdoor food and music pavilion. For the music, we work with a local booking agent who has booked all our music for many years. We try and choose music that we would personally listen to, and that goes well with drinking beer. Usually upbeat music, and always originals. We don’t hire cover bands, because that’s just not our scene. Right or wrong, it’s just what we do. And if we can showcase local artists (which is almost always the case) that goes hand-in-hand with showcasing brewers who are themselves small businesses. For the food, we’ve always used only food trucks. Back in 2012 when we got started, Food Trucks were the new and cool thing. A lot of trucks have come and gone, but they’ve gotten better and more efficient at serving quickly. The Fair Park concessionaire has always allowed us to submit our list of preferred food trucks. Often times, we like to invite trucks who have ardent followings, and who have been to our event before. When a truck has come before, they usually know what to expect.
What are some of your favorite beers being brewed in Texas right now?
When you count all the breweries and brewpubs just in Dallas-Fort Worth alone, the number is around 60. So to name a favorite handful is tough to do. We’ve got brewers in Texas who are literally making every single style of beer right now, including some of the most traditional methods that are rarely found outside a very specific region in Belgium. So I’ll just say that Texas is making some great beers, and I’ll never run out of new options to try.