Start small, go big: thoughts on Haze Fest – 1st edition

Last week, we got the chance to attend the single, most important craft beer festival to take place in Romania this year: the first edition of Haze Fest, in Timișoara. The organizers (Bereta & Hop Hooligans) took a gamble when deciding to follow the format of western events (a ticketed venue, all you can drink tasting sessions, and international participants), but it surely paid off, and the festival brought together brewers and beer lovers for a 2 day bonanza.

Now, we have previous experience with festivals of this caliber, and so do most of the beer geeks and brewers around. However, given the fact that such an event format is unprecedented in Romania, we were also curious to hear some feedback from the breweries who participated. So, we had a quick chat with them about whether it lived up to their expectations and the type of venue it was aiming for, and got the chance to take a look at everything from their perspective.

So who did we get to say hello to?

For the first edition, the organizers did an excellent job curating the list of attendees, and the total number of breweries (both local and international) was 25 – you can find the full list here. The criteria for picking the breweries was largely subjective, ranging from friends to peers, as well as aiming to give the crowd the chance to try beers they wouldn’t normally come across in the country. The lads do admit to going a bit overboard with the number of beers ordered, and they ended up with 900 liters of beer – quick maths indicates about 11 liters per person for the entire duration of the festival, which is more than adequate when you’re dealing with an all-you-can-drink format. Not all of the beer was sold on site, but ensuing after-parties across the country made sure that the those who did not make it to Timișoara still got a chance to try some outstanding brews. Out of the 101 individual beers, the wast majority were IPAs of all shades, types and ABVs, followed closely by sours – a sure indicator that the market is becoming mature enough to veer their taste buds into the realm of unusual flavour profiles.

Out of the 25 attending breweries, only 7 had stands that were manned by volunteers, as follows: Brewer’s Tribute (DE), FrauGruber (DE), Fuerst Wiacek (DE), Lervig (NO), Van Moll (NL) and Zagovor (RU). The German breweries in particular were booked for months in advance, but they did say they’re looking forward to attending future editions – so it sounds like we already have a future lineup in the making.

But what made the brewers themselves come to Haze?

For many of the international attending breweries, this was a first in terms of visiting Romania, but it seems that making friends goes a long way. Indeed, most of them came simply because they knew the organizers, and after hanging out with them at other festivals abroad, they knew that they’d be in good hands.

Marian Reed (general manger at Dry & Bitter) met with the lads back in May at the MBCC, and was one of the many participants to come to Romania for the first time, all because of Haze Fest. Normally, she prefers to send out the Dry & Bitter brewers to such events, because it’s a good opportunity for them to socialize with new crowds, network with industry peers, and just have a good time generally. Haze was obviously an intriguing concept, so she came in person, to get a hands-on feel for both the first edition of the festival, as well as brew a collab IPA with the organizers. It was also an opportunity to test the waters of the Romanian market, and see if there’s a place for their beers in local bars and beer stores.

For Marton Sefcsik (business development manager at Mad Scientist, and organizer of the Budapest Beer Week), this event was a good opportunity to attend a festival on the lads’ turf, and also witness this type of event being implemented in neighboring Romania. After the success Bereta enjoyed with their beers earlier this year at BBW, it was Mad Scientist‘s time to shine on the other side of the festival stand, especially given the fact that their beers are currently only available in one location in the country.

Karel Röell of White Stork is no stranger to the Romanian craft beer scene (having brewed a Saison with Ground Zero back in 2016, as well as a highly acclaimed Imperial Stout with the Hooligans earlier this year), and after organizing several events back home in Bulgaria, he admits that he finds himself gravitating towards smaller festivals, which not only have a more personal touch, but are also a good chance for him to chat and spend time with folk in the industry.

Friendship was also what made Kasper Tidemann of Alefarm (who also used the visit as an excuse to brew with the lads), Tibor Rebák of Dealbreaker, and Vladimir Stojković of Dogma attend the party. Perhaps among the most surprising participants were De Molen‘s John Brus and his wife, Petra Postuma. De Molen is not only a brewery that scarcely needs an introduction, but they are also the organizers of the Borefts Beer Festival (which had it’s 11th edition this year). Bereta and Hop Hooligans have attended Borefts in the past, as both brewers and general public, so when the lads approached John asking him if he’d be interested in participating, his answer was a solid ‘yes’, without any questions about technicalities, or ‘Where is Romania, even?’. 

Does Haze stand up to the feel of other similar festivals?

Compared to festivals like Borefts, MBCC or even the newer but fast growing BPBW, Haze is currently just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what it could grow into – and everyone is on the same page in terms of potential. From the line-up of breweries, the beers picked for the venue, the logistics, the music (kudos to Søren Parker Wagner, founder at Dry & Bitter, for the killer beats), to the crowd itself, international breweries were very much impressed with the professionalism of it all. And it really should go without saying – after all, when you have a bunch of beer geeks running the show, it was bound to deliver.

Alefarm‘s Kasper Tidemann was pleasantly surprised by the crowd and how prepared everyone was, especially in the light of the many styles that were on tap. He says that, at festivals around the world, he still finds himself having to explain the particularities of beers to the public, from describing styles, to answering questions like ‘Why is this so cloudy?’ or ‘Do you add artificial flavouring to get it to taste like this?’. To his luck, most of those attending Haze were (proudly) on the geeky side.

Karel Röell of White Stork also noticed the same thing, and he pointed out that people attending such events (or ‘punters’, as he calls them) seem more interested in the story of the brewery itself and what drives the people behind it, rather than asking what it is they’re drinking.

Marian Reed compared it to Lyon Bière Festival earlier this year, in terms of both size as well as number of people who bought tickets – smaller than the big guns in the industry, true, but with the same good vibe and eager public. She also points out that there are many craft beer festivals across Europe, and that they each have a different set of crowds. John Brus’s feedback was in the same vein: not quite as big as other festivals, but very professionally organized – high praise coming from the organizers of one of Europe’s most iconic festivals.

Kasper Tidemann was a fan of the simple format, and also took notice of the fact that the organizers provided the branding for the stands. In doing so, the concept of competition among the vendors was removed, helped along by the free pours, leading to a more amicable atmosphere. On top of that, the brewers didn’t have to worry about bringing their own banners and whatnot in order to promote their stand – always a nice touch, especially for those who have to come from quite a way away and would rather travel light.

Dogma‘s Vladimir Stojković also has experience organizing craft beer events in Serbia (back in 2015 and 2016), and he considers it important that this sort of venue should continue to have the brewers there in person, to explain not only the beer styles they serve, but also the processes behind them, and even the packaging (keg, bottle, can), for a better understanding of the product. He also acknowledges that Haze is still ‘a baby’, and like any baby, it should be nurtured and given time to grow. Tibor Rebák of Dealbreaker concurs: in this day and age, it is difficult to stand out on a global level, both as an event organizer and a brewery, but Haze is already developing its own identity, one that is likely to grow organically, and could very well attract an international following.

But what did our local guys make of the festival? We had a small chat with Adi Oros from Blackout Brewing (who attended craft beer festivals across Europe long before he started gypsy brewing) and Radu Andrieş of Wicked Barrel (who enjoyed a tremendously positive response at Borefts last month, where they pretty much went through a keg of Imperial Porter in 30 minutes).

Adi speaks as both a member of the public and as a brewer. As a consumer, he found it mind-blowingly cheap (the price of the ticket for 2 days was roughly €40.00 – less than half of what you would pay for similar festivals across Europe). As a hardened beer geek, he enjoyed the chilled out atmosphere, and the fact that he didn’t feel pressured to tick everything off on an Untappd checklist. And as a brewer, he found it a very good networking experience, providing him with a good opportunity to chat with other breweries (he gives a special shout-out to Alina from Bere Noah, who manned his taps while he was busy being a social bumblebee).

For Wicked Barrel‘s Radu, the festival had a very international feel to it, and, as opposed to other Romanian events, he was glad he didn’t have to attend thinking about selling out. The size of the crowd met his expectations, and he’s confident that next edition will be bigger – in fact, he expects Haze to become the Romanian craft beer festival.

Are Romanian beers on par with the international ones?

You bet – all the international brewers we spoke to agree on the fact that the quality of local brews was surprisingly high. Apart from the beers from Bereta and Hop Hooligans, many of them had never tried other Romanian brews before, so for them this was a rare opportunity to get their hands on some that they wouldn’t find abroad, and assess the trends and development of the market. John Brus from De Molen says that he was impressed with what local brewers are doing, while Alefarm‘s Kasper Tidemann fondly points out that many of them seemed almost humbled by the fact that breweries they look up to not only like their beers, but also consider them on par with what is being brewed in countries with a more developed brewing tradition. Karel Röell is also on the same page, mentioning that Romanian beers (particularly the Hooligans ones) are very popular in Bulgaria – more high praise coming from someone who is both a brewer, as well as event organizer.

Any piece of advice for the Romanian crowds attending such events?

Long story short – fuck Untappd. It’s rather curious, but even though most of the local craft brewers got a taste for the industry and making their own beers after years of tracking down rare bottles and exclusive releases, then proudly displaying them on their Untappd profiles, most of the international brewers we spoke to have come to scorn it.

Kasper Tidemann puts it in plain and simple terms: ‘Don’t come to a festival to rate beer.’ But at the same time, he recommends doing your research before walking up to a stand asking for a beer: don’t go for a Gose if you don’t know it’s going to be sour, and especially if you’re immediately going to give it a 1 star rating on Untappd, garnished with tasting notes along the lines of ‘I hate Gose’.

Mad Scientist‘s Marton Sefcsik is not overly keen on Untappd either, and believes that those attending craft beer festivals should just enjoy the vibes, and live in the moment. Everyone experiences beer differently, but at the end of the day, both brewers, event organizers and the general crowd should remember that you shouldn’t drink a beer for the sake of hype and FOMO. John Brus acknowledges the beer geeks and their propensity for Untappd, and his recommendation is trying about 10-12 new, unfamiliar beers, but ultimately, sticking to what you enjoy.

Our local guys, Adi and Radu, mention a very important thing: the price. As one of the cheapest events of its ilk in Europe, giving future editions of Haze a miss is unacceptable. And yes, one should drink what they like, try anything new that tickles their fancy, and give Untappd the proverbial finger.

Marian Reed has a more mollifying approach. While, like every craft beer industry professional, she would prefer to talk to the people, as opposed to just filling their glass and standing there while they take photos, she reminds everyone to keep an open mind: not just about the beers on tap, but also about the people attending. After all, everyone experiences craft beer festivals differently.

Vladimir Stojković of Dogma also has some very level advice, and acknowledges the fact that rating platforms (from Untappd to Trip Advisor) are a product of modern society, and are very much inevitable. Not only that, but they also provide brewers with invaluable feedback, and while not everyone will not a fan of what you brew, ratings do help you gauge your growth and they way you are perceived. But he also warns against craft beer becoming a snobbish thing. In between novel styles, specialized venues and a plethora of geeks, craft beer can come across as a ‘gated community’ that the outside crowd may feel they don’t have the credentials needed to join, and that’s not what it should be about – ‘Craft beer should be given to the people’, he concludes.

Our personal advice? You should attend such events for yourself, because you enjoy them. Go out, talk to people (chances are you already know most of them from social media platforms), make new friends, rate the beers you liked, but don’t go hunting for badges. Also, get some grub in your belly, drink lots of water, and bring some antacids – seriously though, out of the 101 beers at the festival, 17 were sours. Not only that, but hop burn isn’t overly kind on the old stomach lining either, and you’ll be thanking yourself later.

See you next year?

That goes without saying. While the first edition of Haze Fest may have been fairly contained (with 224 tickets sold for the first day, and 297 on the second), as well as treading new and exciting waters, the feedback received so far is bound to leave a lasting impression on beer lovers in the country. In fact, those who attended got a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness history in the making. There are many happenings that, when looked at in retrospect, reveal themselves to be turning points for the way the craft beer industry in Romania is unfolding, and this edition of Haze Fest will definitely leave a mark. Admittedly, the concept is still foreign to the average beer drinker, and there are many who perhaps did not fully grasp the format. But as far as the organizers are concerned, this event is meant to become a reference point for people who might attend future editions, in terms of explaining the concept behind it, as well as laying the foundation for what people should expect.

Personally, we feel that we have been incredibly lucky to have the first international-tier craft beer festival in the country organized by two of the most iconic breweries out there. Bereta have been through all stages of it: from homebrewers, to gypsy brewers, to having their own brewery, to providing a launchpad for breweries themselves, to providing a selling platform for the entire country, both as event organizers as well as bar owners. Meanwhile, Hop Hooligans have been challenging both consumers as well as fellow brewers for almost three years now, while also receiving international acclaim from all those involved in this industry. So we are, without a shadow of a doubt, in very good hands.

The second edition of Haze Fest is due some time in the spring of 2020, so keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates. In the meantime, drink local, stay informed, show your support, but above all, remember to enjoy it all.

Cheers for everything guys, and congratulations!

PS: we also want to thank Universitatea de Bere for kindly letting us use some of the figures provided via their podcast on the event. Cheers Răzvan!

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