English language Festivals Interviews Stavanger

What’s Brewing 2017 – “This year will be fucked up!”

We’ve talked to James Goulding and David Graham – two of the men behind What’s Brewing. 

James is International Account Manager with Wild Beer Co while David is Head of Production at Lervig, so, needless to say, they are very busy men. Yet, every year they manage to pull off something truly amazing – hosting one of the world’s best beer festivals right here in Stavanger.

How did it all begin?
James: Back when I was working for Lervig, we were having a pint in Martinique – utterly fed up with the, then, current festival scene. At the time, Lervig wanted us to do it on our own (with their blessing) so we found alternative funding, met with Melvær&Co and hatched a plan. Mike Murphy was the catalyst for all the breweries saying yes that first year.
David: What James said. Essentially, we were sitting around having beers at a bar 5 minutes from our homes, thinking “Hey! Wouldn’t it be great if we could sit around and have beers 5 minutes from our homes with the best breweries in the world?”

How do you go about setting up a beer festival for the first time?
James: Lots of planning with Tou Scene. It kinda got out control, really. We never imagined it would start like that. We liked various elements of other festivals, but felt that we wanted to try create something different – a house party meets industrial space, with everyone enjoying some great beers and food. We were all really driven to pull off a special event. So much goes into planning the details, it’s almost a second job. But we wouldn’t change it.
David: We really had no idea what we were doing the first year. We just knew what we didn’t want to do: We didn’t want to have people sit in a white tent, so we found a world class venue. We didn’t want brewery representatives to give up their weekend to work, so we got the best volunteers in Norway to help out. We wanted people of all types – not just craft beer people – to attend and enjoy, so we focussed on fun and atmosphere. Luckily, while we were dreaming, the Tou Scene team took care of all the logistics and made the thing functional.

“Tou Scene is an iconic venue”


Why did you choose Tou Scene as your venue?
James: Because it’s the perfect venue for what we were and are still trying to achieve. Also, Per Arne Alstad, the manager, and his team are the fucking best.
David: Tou Scene is an iconic venue in this town – no better place to throw a big bash. Plus the staff.

Do you feel a pressure to improve the festival year by year or are you generally happy with the size and format?
James: Every year, but we want to improve elements that we identify as less than perfect.
It’s not about bigger being better. We are very comfortable with that amount of consumers, breweries and the general “feel” of being at WB.
David: The minute we don’t feel pressure to improve the festival is when we need to give up or pass it on. This is a labour of passion for us, and the challenge to create, refine and improve is what makes it all fun.

What’s new or different this year? For those of us that have been there every year, what’s the biggest change from previous years?
James: I can’t give too much away but we are focusing a lot on the production side. The food is evolving every year as is the brewery list. We decided to shelf the talks this year, we wont rule out bringing them back, but change is good.
David: We’re really pushing the conceptual side of the festival, and hopefully the theme this year not only comes across, but becomes something that is unique and fun for most craft beer festival goers. With the quality of breweries that are coming, the beer is always going to be good so we decided to try and push the boundaries of what a craft beer festival can be.

This is one of the festivals where we, as customers, actually get to meet the brewers and talk to them. How important is it that the brewers participate and was that something you set out to achieve from the get-go?
James: We think it’s extremely important. People pay a lot of money to experience WB so we want to give them the best experience we can. It’s not about profit for us, everything goes back in to pay for more beers, fly more brewers over, and to have better production.  The brewers themselves being there and representing shows that we care and that they care. It’s really a special thing when a fan of, say, Evil Twin can take a selfie and ask some questions about yeast management. I don’t want to put people on pedestals – we need to remember it’s just beer – but it’s vital that this is continued and that the faces of the breweries participate.

The branding that Melvær&Co is responsible for is mindblowingly good and seems to change and improve with every year. How do you work with them?
James: Andreas Melvær & Dag Andreas Olsen are actually co-founders (alongside Charlie and Erika Melhus, Christian Friestad and Anders Almås). So from day one Andreas has put so much effort into the branding and visuals. We don’t ever set them a theme or say “we want that”. It’s been a very organic evolution, which is really special. The design for 2017 is absolutely awesome, and that satirical edge to everything they do is really quite reflective of our personalities.
David: When your best friends who co-organize the festival are also in charge of a world class design agency, it’s easy to have full trust in whatever direction they decide to go in. The most fun part of this whole thing is brainstorming together, getting super excited (probably too excited) about some of the ideas, and then being blown away by what Melvær&Co come up with.

What’s it like hosting so many brewers in Stavanger? Are they all friends, do they all get along? Or do you have to make sure certain breweries (e.g. those run by Danish brothers) aren’t located next to one another?
James: It’s fucking awesome. I have since moved back to the UK, but I still get so humbled that these incredible brewers give up their weekends – in a jam-packed calendar – to come hang out with us and enjoy it. We’ve never had a problem with breweries not liking their locations…
David: It’s pretty special. We keep the core values of the festival, and invite the breweries that we’re friends with. There are times during the lead up to the festival where we question whether or not all the work is worth it, but when your buddies from around the world show up and you get to showcase their beers and show off Stavanger, you can’t help but feel good. One of the best things about this industry is the comradery and the down to earth people, so anytime you get to share a beer with them is a happy time.

As brewers, do you have the beer festivals in mind when you brew? Do you adapt your brew schedule to fit with the beer festival circuit?
James: I can only answer from a Wild Beer perspective. To a certain extent – I mean we tailor our beer lists, but I wouldn’t say we brew specifically with that it mind.
David: I think the nature of being a craft beer producer demands that you experiment and have a variety of different beers at all times, and there are few better places to display your more special stuff than at festivals like What’s Brewing where people expect the newest and coolest, or are ​open minded about what they’re about to drink at the very least. You try to send your best stuff always, but planning usually doesn’t revolve around festivals.

How important is beer festival participation from a commercial point of view – I guess its more important in Norway than elsewhere because you can’t advertise here?
James: It’s huge, but it’s also a balancing act. You give up a lot of time to come and promote, so you need to choose which ones are most beneficial to the business. Commercially we don’t have advertising budgets, so festivals are the most common way to get out there and meet people.
David: From Lervig’s perspective it’s pretty important, and not only because we’re not able to advertise in Norway. It’s more about maintaining relationships or forging new ones, as well as staying fresh in peoples’ minds. We do most of our professional correspondence over email, so it’s nice to actually meet the face behind the email address, and meet new people who share the same passion as us. It gives the visitors a chance to meet the people behind the beers and see what we’re really all about, and I think that often makes a huge impression.

“There are 37 killer breweries
to choose from”


What’s Lervig and Wild Beer bringing to WB this year and why have you chosen those particular beers?
James: Wild Beer will be sending our usual crazy stuff. Lots of brett / barrel ageing and maybe one imperial stout. We’ve been chosen to showcase what we do that doesn’t get sent to Norway on a regular basis. Remember there are 37 killer breweries to choose from, everyone wants to be top of Morten Middelthon’s Untappd board.
David: We’re bringing a bunch of crazy stuff. We don’t always get to control exactly who gets what beers when. So we try to make sure we get a mix of super rare stuff, and super fresh stuff.

Your focus has kinda shifted from including a number of Norwegian breweries to now mainly being about foreign breweries. Why is that?
James: Sheer coincidence, really. This year, with Nærbø being on at the same time and plenty of other Norwegians festivals on all year round, it’s a point of difference.
David: Yeah, it wasn’t until a few weeks after we sent out invites that we said “Shit! There aren’t a lot of Norwegian breweries…”, so as James said, it’s just the way it worked out this year.

Fantastic line up once again. How do you go about attracting these breweries to Norway? And what’s the biggest brewery that got away – this year or previous years.
James: I think every year we miss out on some breweries we want. Timing, distance or just being too damn busy. The reputation does us well, and we have been around (me and Dave) a long time, and with brewing being such an open and collaborative industry we’ve made a lot of friends. How do you measure biggest? Production? Reputation? For me the proudest one this year will be Arizona Wilderness because they had to bail the past 3 years due to being over-worked.
David: We’re travelling so much, and the industry really is small enough that we’re often with the same people weekend after weekend. There’s a massive bond between breweries and they become our friends and family. So arranging something like this is similar to just guilting a member of your family that they need to come home for Christmas.​

WB is attracting a number of visitors from across Norway and from abroad. Last year only about 1/3 of visitors were local. Why do you think that is and do you see it as an issue? (Undoubtedly it’s good for the local tourism industry.)
James: I don’t see it as an issue. Of course it would be ideal if it was 100% Stavanger folk. But let’s be honest – it’s not that big a city, population wise. And it’s actually a very honouring thing to have people get on a plane and come enjoy themselves in Stavanger.

You wouldn’t be able to pull this off without the help from a host of volunteers. Are beer festivals one of the few arenas where the Norwegian thing called “dugnad” is still alive and kicking?
James: We wouldn’t have anything if not for the volunteers, and I’m the first to admit I’ve not always been the best at communicating with them. I’m working on that this year! The Norway attitude to dugnad, and overall just being helpful is really something else. I’d say I’ve not seen anything like it before. So very much alive and kicking! Trine Salvesen has also done an amazing job organising them for the past 3 years. We are really lucky to have her.
“If you didn’t get a ticket,
you can still volunteer.”


How come you and Ølfestivalen ended up going with the same dates?
James: Actually a lot of shit was written about us doing this a few months ago. We didn’t plan this at all. It’s a lack of communication on both parties. I wish every success to Nærbø, but people saying “we don’t give a fuck about them” or “What’s Brewing is only for hipsters” are just talking shit. It’s not solely our decision – the venue is heavily involved, as is the beer calendar. We felt that we couldn’t move it now given what’s on either side of WB.
David: It was pure conincidence. We were made aware of the overlap with Ølfestivalen after the dates had been locked in. It’s a shame, but I don’t think there’s any lack of people who are willing to enjoy both festivals.

What are you yourselves most looking forward to about WB this year?
James: The after party. I can relax then. In all seriousness, I get a huge buzz when we open up and people start enjoying themselves.

David: I like the night before the festival when everyone arrives and we share drinks and food and catch up. Also, we’re not hungover yet…

You’re now able to let visitors know in advance which breweries will be at the festival – will the breweries still have to tape over their logos?
James: Yeah, that rule ain’t going anywhere.
David: At this point it’s kind of part of the charm of our festival.

At some beer festivals you pay a price at the door and then drink as much as you like, while some, including WB, use tokens. How/why did you decide on the token system? Is it because of “Skjenkebevilling”?
James: Yeah, we had no choice. I also think it works for what we try to do. A lot of the “all in tickets” are starting to pop up, and they work well, I just think it’s not really possible for us in Stavanger.

Anything else you’d like to add?
James: Keep your WB passport on you! You never know when you’ll need it.
David: If you didn’t get a ticket, you can still volunteer. It’s actually super fun, you get in for free, meet all the breweries and work with a great group. Sign up here: https://goo.gl/forms/2GyasaThdHpfjG6t2

Many thanks to James and David who kindly volunteered their time to answer our many questions, and to Andreas who let us use all his awesome artwork.

See you all at What’s Brewing 2017! It WILL be fucked up.

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