Making THE beer run

Tips on curating a beer festival

 By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: John Sulentic pours draft selections at the 2012 MSD Brew Ha-Ha; photo © Jim Witmer

Dayton beer drinkers have unique access to an insane amount of quality beer. We import craft brew from both coasts and are surrounded by breweries in the Great Lakes region. Many local beer festivals, held year round, make it easy to sample these libations.

In addition to writing about beer, I also curate a festival, the MSD Brew Ha-Ha, which talks place this Saturday, Jan. 26. Chairing the event has resulted in some interesting – sometimes painful – lessons learned. Below are a few tips for anyone willing to give it a go – because there’s always room for another beer festival!

Pick a date and a location. Check with local distributors and DRAFT, the homebrew club, to get a sense of the best schedule. With the right location, a beer festival can be held in any season. The summer and fall can be a bit full, so maybe shoot for late winter or early spring.

Get your insurance and liquor license. Next, get your paperwork in order. You will need insurance and a liquor license. Your location may be able to help provide information related to the insurance. Research on the  type of license you’ll need. Many events use F class licenses, which are temporary licenses designed for beer events. Search the Department of Commerce section of the website to see a full list of the licenses and the application process.

Start the license application process well in advance. The process takes a while, and you’ll need the license before you can start talking seriously to breweries and distributors. Brewers and distributors are willing to help, but without a license, they really can’t set great beers aside until you can prove you will actually be able to order them.

Pick a theme. Anyone can order a bunch of beer and serve it to a crowd, but what makes most beer events interesting is the event’s theme. Try to create a one-of-a-kind experience, especially if the event is being held on behalf of a charitable organization. As Dave Boston, owner of Boston’s Bistro and curator of several beer festivals in the area, explains, “[It is all about] anything you can do to make someone smarter about the organization and the beer.”

Most Dayton beer festivals have an underlying theme. Big Beer and Barley Wines focuses on strong and rare beers. AleFest Dayton provides a chance to sample many beers. Joe Waizmann, founder of the event, notes that AleFest “has been very successful accomplishing the goal of introducing the culture of craft beer to the uninitiated and at the same time offering new palate experiences to the hopheads among us.” Cask AleFest, another Waizmann event, concentrates on beers carbonated the old fashioned way, naturally in kegs, while AleFeast pairs food with craft beer. The Jewish Cultural Festival serves kosher beer, while Big Brews and Blues and Beers, Blues, and Food pair all-draft beer with music. The MSD Brew Ha-Ha focuses on beers from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, spotlighting some of the world-class beers in our region.

Get Organized. The beer may be the centerpiece of your event, but there is a lot more to it than just serving great suds. Seek volunteers; meet early and often. You’ll need help with decorating, food, glassware, music or entertainment, sales, marketing and poster and program printing. It’s too much for one or two people to tackle, so find some eager volunteers and give them a job.

Order Your Beer. This is the fun part. Contact your local distributors: Cavalier, Premium, Stagnero, Heidelberg and Bonbright carry most of the brands in town. Find out who specializes in what. In Ohio, some smaller brewers also self-distribute. Talk to beer geeks to find out who those players are and contact the breweries directly.

When you make your beer list, adhere to your theme but also offer something for everyone. Hoppy IPAs are popular, but not everyone drinks them. Perhaps offer robust stouts, complex Belgians, and some smaller, easier to drink beers for those new to craft beer. And don’t forget soda and water.

Train Your Volunteers.  Your guests expect to learn something about what they are drinking, so either staff your event with craft beer veterans or train your servers in advance. Last year, we held a preview tasting for our volunteers so that they could try the different beers and ask questions. It made a big difference the next day.

Have Fun and Learn Something. The day of the event, you may be running around attending to last minute details, but remember to stop and enjoy it. Look around at the people enjoying the beer you’ve provided for them. Stop and talk to guests to get a sense of what they like and don’t like. Because, after all, planning for the next year starts as soon as this one is over.

Be sure to check out the Montessori School of Dayton Brew Ha-Ha this Saturday, Jan 26, from 6-10 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance/$35 day of. Tickets include a sampling glass and 10 samples of the top beers in the Great Lakes region, including many rare and hard to find beers. Light finger foods are included, and all proceeds go to benefit the school. For more information or to buy tickets, go to or call the school at 937.293.8986.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at

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