Alberta Beer Festivals Inc – Growing an industry one festival at a time!

Alberta Beer Festival Inc strives to have a positive impact on the industries that they represent while supporting local charities and communities on their mission to provide the ultimate beer and spirit experience for brewers, distillers and for festival goers.  Each of ABF’s six, yes six signature events provide a forum for breweries and distilleries to share their stories, passions, and products with the beer enthusiasts of Western Canada allowing them to grow the industry one festival at a time.

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Bill Robinson is pretty comfortable saying he got into the craft beer business before most people knew there was a market.

The president of Alberta Beer Festivals just finished the 15th Annual Calgary International Beerfest, to much fanfare, but craft beer wasn’t always an easy sell in the province.

“When we started this, we were working in the communications sector initially. But we had a sharp turn into events when our clients were bought out,” said Robinson.

The company began working with rugby events, the stampede, and did a food and wine show.

“We could get a young demographic, and we noticed there were no festivals specific to beer. We thought we had a good opportunity,” he said.

There were only six breweries in the province when they began, two of those being brew pubs. But thanks to open liquor laws regarding taxation, the Calgary International Beerfest was born.

“We lacked local beers at first, but we were able to bring beers in from all over at a small cost. As things got better and bigger, we expanded to Edmonton,” he said. “They had 14 breweries there, and we thought that was huge at the time.”

Fast-forward to 2019, and the company just saw a Calgary Beerfest that had a higher coat check number than their first event’s attendee total.

“It’s just amazing now, and we’re running six festivals a year. People come from all over the place for this. Breweries have rotating, seasonal lines, and we added ciders and spirits,” he said.

There are now over 180 cideries and breweries in the province, and Robinson equates their quality to a few area-specific advantages.

“We have grown some of the best two-row malt barley in the world, and we have access to some of the best water. It goes to Banff to be filtered, and has to be by law, but they’re amazed at the clarity,” he said.

“We’ve come a long way. When we started this, no one had the idea of trying beer festivals. But when people came out, they loved it, and these things grew at such a rapid rate.”

Their sense of humility and community spirit never faltered when they became successful. Robinson says everything they do is for the people around them.

Each event has two charities that will directly benefit financially, and over 70 charities have seen that benefit through ticket donations and other fundraisers. To date, they have donated over $300,000 as a company.

“We first started doing Christmas charity funds, but we always knew from the start we needed a charitable and philanthropic arm to this business,” he said.

“What is really eye-opening is when people we gave media exposure or fundraising opportunities to in the past come of age and then show up to our festivals with such great memories.”

What Robinson loves is the rigour with which breweries and distilleries have cropped up, he’s so happy with the industry.

“We really love the courage and sense of adventure these brewers and distillers have. We have worked hard to promote craft beer in Alberta, and with the growing number of craft distilleries, we want to now do that for them as well,” he said.

“The big challenge is getting people to find a new favourite. Past experience has shown that if we can get someone to move out of their comfort zone and try something different, they will embrace not only the beers and spirits, but also the culture and community that has grown up with them.”

One thing the Alberta Beer Festivals company has been lauded for is their sly, humorous marketing campaigns.

“We’re a small shop of five, and we’re family and friends. We’re so proud of what we do. The fact we’ve been recognized for our unique festivals and the way we promote them is amazing,” he said.

They started a Beer University, meant to get people aware and thinking about the industry and what they drink. They brought malters, hop growers, canners, and home brew equipment companies together for a partnership with the Just Beer app.

“We created this Beer U Quiz, and when people visited booths, they took quizzes at the end. There was a leader board on a screen, and people loved it. If you passed at the end, you got an MBA – a Masters in Beer Appreciation,” he said.

They also ran a Cough Coach campaign, a satirical ad campaign that will help you fake an illness all week so you can go to beerfest. The campaign – built in-house — gained national recognition.

We like to be funny and market that way, but we also see the need to support these breweries. Palates change so quickly, and as a festival company, we need to draw more and more people in,” said Robinson.

We truly believe once people come and try this out they’ll be truly invested. If that sort of marketing gets people in, and makes them chuckle, we can show them these festivals are the most fun place on earth and keep them coming back.”

by Jordan Parker