Less than two months out from the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival, controversy is again bubbling up over beer at Arcata Main Street's fundraiser. The event drew fire last year ("What is Going on with Beer at Oyster Fest?" May 11, 2018) for requiring donations rather than purchasing from local beverage companies and only pouring Redwood Curtain Brewing Co. beer alongside out-of-towners Lagunitas and SeaQuake at the event. This year, it looks like more discontent is on tap. But without any Humboldt beer.
As it stands, Humboldt Cider Company will be on offer along with wine from Willow Creek's Trinity River Vineyards, but the beer will be exclusively from SeaQuake out of Crescent City.
After canceling a March 13 "brewery outreach luncheon," the nonprofit sent out a beverage proposal to local beer and cider outfits pitching the "mutually rewarding" benefits of partnership: "With a patronage of approximately 15,000 people in the time span of only 7 hours the Annual Arcata Bay Oyster Festival is a wonderful opportunity to expand your customer base while supporting programming and activities in downtown Arcata." The proposal states that festivalgoers drain 125 to 145 kegs of beer and cider via eight taps and suggests other events throughout the year for those businesses that aren't in a financial position to partner up for the June 15 Arcata Bay Oyster Festival.
Six Rivers Brewery owner Meredith Maier says she talked with a few other Humboldt brewers and sent her best offer of a 50 percent discount on 30 kegs of beer. That offer was declined in an email from Arcata Main Street's President Victoria Joyce, calling the decision "complicated" and indicating deals had been reached with three beverage producers.
Joyce hasn't encountered pushback personally but says she's heard about it secondhand. "There seem to be some hard feelings but Arcata Main Street reached out to all the breweries and asked them to make proposals for our festival. We evaluated all of them and figured out how much they'd cost," she says, before choosing "the offer that was going to be most beneficial to our organization."
Joyce says it's hard being a nonprofit and keeping up with the rising costs of the event, which is its most significant fundraiser by far. "It's a tough position. It's a tough place to be," she says, noting the offers were "very generous" and adding, "I hope that they will be part of Oyster Fest again in the future."
Maier says she was disappointed by the rejection and she wants to support Arcata Main Street, but "not at the expense of local businesses." She notes that many of the business owners she talks to are experiencing a 20 to 30 percent downturn in sales, admitting that even Six Rivers Brewery sales declined for the first time last year and everyone, from owners to servers, is making less money. That makes it tough to offer discounts any deeper to the festival. "We have 50 to 60 employees here that we have a responsibility to," Maier says, adding that distributors getting the beer to the festival wouldn't be making money either. "More than ever we need to support each other," she says. "If you start out of spite sticking it to businesses around town, slowly but surely those businesses will disappear." She says she's reluctant to speculate on Arcata Main Street's finances, but, "sure seems to me that if you're going through 150 kegs, you should be able to make a profit."
Briar Bush, who handles sales and marketing at Lost Coast Brewery, says it's being "blocked out again. ... With a high degree of condescending, passive-aggressive pillow talk," from Arcata Main Street. All of which amounts to, he says, paraphrasing a Seinfeld character, "no beer for you."
According to Bush, Lost Coast Brewery offered a buy-one-get-one deal up to 15 free kegs, similar to Six Rivers Brewery, but was turned down. In years past, he says the company had only given a few kegs free, noting that most local festivals only ask for one to three free kegs, though he sees a trend with larger events treating craft breweries like big corporate producers and requesting larger discounts that are hard for smaller outfits to swing. "I'm not disappointed about the loss of the marketing or the sales. I feel like it's a loss to the community itself," says Bush, lamenting what he sees as a lack of local focus at the event. "I thought the oysters were local — are they going to start bringing in oysters from Seattle?"
Asked about concerns the festival is becoming less locally focused, Joyce responds, "I don't see that at all," given the fact that the food vendors are mostly local, area nonprofits benefit from booths on the plaza and "SeaQuake is in Crescent City and Crescent City is not that far away." Joyce also says Arcata Main Street's mission of supporting local businesses isn't hindered by eschewing local breweries in favor of cost savings. "What we're doing is for the downtown and for the businesses in Arcata. ... None of [the breweries] are technically in our district because Arcata Main Street is a location-based organization. They're definitely our neighbors."
The Booth Brewing's operations manager David Franklin still hadn't heard back last week on whether the company's offer to match every purchased keg with a donation has been officially rejected. "I think it's probably an oversight or an accident," he says. Still, it's frustrating. "I wanted to be there, I wanted to pour beer," says Franklin. "Oyster Fest is a good time and Arcata Main Street is a great organization." It was surprising for him to have to submit a proposal to make a donation, he says, and even more awkward to compete with other breweries to propose the best donation. "None of us wanted to compete. We all just wanted to be there and if it wasn't going to be me it was going to be you and that's great." Franklin says the breweries help one another out and have business relationships that foster camaraderie. While on the phone, he stepped away to let in someone from Mad River Brewing Company who was dropping off kegs for last weekend's Beer Mile event. "The competition isn't the other craft breweries. It's Budweiser, Miller, Coors," he says, adding he bears no ill will toward SeaQuake for seizing a great marketing opportunity.
SeaQuake co-owner Matt Wakefield says the Crescent City brewery offered "two for every keg purchase ... we're a fairly small brewery but it's a very important event," noting he's happy to support Arcata Main Street and that folks from all over, including Del Norte County, travel to the festival. "We're definitely taking on some of the costs of this. We're trying to introduce some of our newer beers to the Humboldt County community," he says. Exclusivity is part of the negotiated deal, too. Wakefield says it's "a big donation of beer and we needed to do a lot of it for it to all make sense."
Franklin's frustrations lie in the "runaround" of trying to get beer to the festival. At a 50 percent discount, Franklin thinks most breweries can pay their staff, pay for ingredients and break even, or at least come close. But SeaQuake's deal is unmatchable for most. "Go local or try to get the free beer. Don't try to do both, I guess. ... If you're going to go local it doesn't need to be on our backs," he says.
Joyce says Arcata Main Street isn't necessarily expecting the same three-for-one offer SeaQuake made from local brewers in future, only that next year "we will reach out to the breweries ... we're not trying to pit anyone against anyone else." Asked whether the organization would consider a larger-scale, out-of-area beer in order to cut costs, she says, "That's something the board has not discussed and every year is different. I would always hope and plan that we would be as local as possible."
Such assurances may not be enough for local brewery owners and craft beer devotees. "My feelings rarely get hurt after 14 years working in this industry but I feel hurt," says Maier, "I feel like damn, this is where we are?"
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.