If you enjoy frothy stouts, hoppy IPAs and citrusy Hefeweizens, beer festivals are about the greatest thing on earth — except for the damage they do to your wallet.
Ticket prices can range from $75 to $500, depending when you buy and how much you drink. And while walking around with an empty taster cup in your hand and a pretzel necklace swinging from your neck may seem worth it, your money could be better spent elsewhere on, say, rent.
Becoming well-versed in what’s new from all your local craft breweries doesn’t have to mean spending your entire paycheck going from booth to booth sampling the latest ales and lagers. Veteran festival-goers know there’s a way around paying the exorbitant entry fee, without sacrificing any delicious brewed beverages, if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty.
The secret? Most festivals are run by volunteers. Without them, coordinating the hundreds of booths, water stations, vendors, merchandise areas and parking would be nearly impossible. As a thank you, volunteers are treated to free admission, beer swag, food and other goodies. If you’re interested in spending your entire day at the festival anyway, why not show up a bit early or stay late one day to get an unlimited pass to try succulent stouts, perfect porters and beautiful brown ales?
Check out these perks offered at major festivals, as well as tips on landing the gigs from festival coordinators and regular volunteers.
Secure a Hard-to-Get Ticket for the Next Year’s Event
At the Great American Beer Fest in Denver — one of the biggest festivals in the country each year — volunteers are tasked with everything from setup, teardown, sorting beers for blind judging and serving beer to festival-goers, said Barbara Fusco, sales and marketing director for the Brewers Association, which hosts the festival.
“Volunteers are absolutely integral to the success of the GABF, we couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “In 2013, we had a small army of 2,345 enthusiastic volunteers that helped us pull off the event. Some of our volunteers have been with the festival for years, and many travel from outside of Colorado, making a mini-vacation of it.”
For working one to two four-hour shifts, depending on the task, volunteers are given a complimentary ticket for the next year’s festival and “the opportunity to mingle with craft brewers from all over the country, not to mention thousands of fellow happy beer enthusiasts,” Fusco said.
Because GABF sells out almost instantly, securing a ticket a year early is worth every drop of sweat.
Become a VIP and Enjoy Free Beer
Though you have to wait a year to use your ticket at GABF, other festivals let you drink right away. The Omaha Beer Festival’s more than 300 volunteers get a free t-shirt and a free ticket for another shift, said volunteer coordinator Jen Kocher. The festival even serves beer at volunteer orientation! (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)
Volunteering at the NYC Craft Beer Festival also provides you with immediate booze access. Most people who help out at the festival return year after year to serve “one of the best things since the smile,” said William Sanford, production manager for the festival.
And, because volunteers are so valuable, they’re treated like royalty.
“Our volunteers receive complimentary access to a following session as a VIP,” Sanford said.
Try New Beers Before You Buy Them
Scott Mitzner squeezes in volunteering at festivals on the weekends when he’s not working at his job at a data storage company in Colorado. Through the years, Mitzner has become somewhat of an expert on beers and brewing, and writes regularly about beer for the website Beacon.
For Mitzner, volunteering at festivals has two perks — free beer for someone who lives, breathes and sleeps brews, and a chance to find new, local favorites without forking over a ton of cash.
“Volunteering is always nice when you are on a tight budget and craft beer prices don’t seem friendly,” Mitzner said from his home in Denver. “Beer festivals can also be a fun way to try new beer and breweries before you take the time to travel to the taproom or buy a six-pack.”
Volunteer Requirements and Best Practices
Ready to give it a try? Here’s what you’ll need to know to volunteer at a beer festival.
Most festivals require you to be 21 or older since you’ll be surrounded by thousands of kegs, though some require their volunteers to be at least 25. Check with the volunteer coordinator of each festival to be sure.
More established festivals, like the Great American Beer Festival, want you to know a little about beer before they’ll “hire” you. Try cutting your teeth at brand new festivals, which will help you get a foot in the door.
Some festivals might ask you to wear a uniform of sorts, usually a solid black or white shirt, or a shirt they provide you.
To hold you accountable, some festivals require you to provide a credit card number when you sign up. If you bail on your shift after they’ve given you your complimentary pass, some will charge you the price of admission.
Don’t be sloppy. Most festival coordinators don’t mind if you have a sip or two during your shift, but getting drunk is a surefire way to get yourself blacklisted from future events.
If you’re ready to find a festival in your area, check out this calendar for brew fests around the world and get to drinking, on the house. In no time, you’ll be shaking hands with brewers all over the place. Make a good impression and they may give you a few freebies the next time you visit the taproom, too.
Your Turn: Have you ever volunteered at a beer festival?
Sarah Kuta is an education reporter in Boulder, Colo., with a penchant for weekend thrifting, furniture refurbishment and good deals. Find her on Twitter: @sarahkuta.