Does SOBA’s oldest beer festival have a future?

By BeertownNZ Wed, 26 Apr 2017 Wellington

This time last year SOBA’s Winter Ales Festival sold out in less than a week. This year, though, there is no venue, no date, and no guarantee that SOBA’s longest-running beer festival will even be held again.

The SOBA Winter Ales Festival has been held every winter since 2010. The first was advertised as “SOBA's first ever Beer Festival featuring up to 20 Kiwi Winter or Special Beers”

For its first few winters it was called the Matariki Festival and held in The Boatshed on Wellington’s waterfront. That name was dropped, and the event moved up the hill to a larger venue within the Victoria University Student Union building.

Winter Ales sold out the new venue in 2015, with 500 beer fans attending. It sold out even faster last year, when I described its $50 ticket – providing entry, eight beers and a food ticket – as “ridiculously good value”.

With no news on a 2017 event, I spoke to the Society’s festival co-ordinator Barbara Joppa on Sunday, and asked if a 2017 event had been confirmed.

“Not that I’ve heard. Basically, none of the Winter Ales committee were able to run it. So basically I threw all of my chips in the fire and said, ‘Look, if somebody doesn’t step up there will be no Winter Ales’, because it’s not like I can do it, right? I mean, I’m in Auckland and I don’t even have time to do City of Ales. So we threw it out there that it might not happen, and of course everyone freaked out, because, ‘Oh, we love it so much!’ Well then step up, right?”

Barbara says the event has always been run by volunteers and the Society’s committee is steadfastly sticking to that tradition.

“SOBA’s a volunteer organisation, right? I mean, we can’t do everything for you. I had two people contact me after our Facebook post, and both of them were interested in it, but both of them were expecting it to be some sort of a job and expected to get paid. But no, we’re not paying anybody for this. 

“First of all, we’ve never paid anyone before. I put this toward the SOBA committee. I asked, ‘Are we prepared to fund somebody to do this?’ Every single one of them said no. So the committee has spoken. One of the committee members said, ‘Oh my god, that’s the worst idea ever because if you love the beer and want these things to happen you should make it happen’. SOBA already buys all the kegs and does the ticketing and the advertising and pays for it through the membership fees.”

“OMG, that’s the worst idea ever!” "We've never paid anyone before". Really? The fact is, the Society let that particular genie out of the bottle ages ago. Volunteer editors and ad reps ran its magazine, Pursuit of Hoppiness, for years, but now editor Michael Donaldson says he’s paid “a few hundred dollars” for every issue, and an advertising agency manages production as a commercial concern. The precedent is already set – SOBA pays for professional services when it wants to get a job done.

Winter Ales’ 2016 sold-out in a few days, several weeks before the event. Organisers had planned two sessions but those plans were dropped, in part because of a shortage of volunteers. Spare tickets were in hot demand and there’s no doubt that second session would have been popular. 

This growing popularity is a predictable result of the growing popularity of craft beer. SOBA’s role is to spread the message about good beer – it seems cruelly ironic that its oldest festival could fall victim to the popularity it was established to create. 

Barbara says two organisers last week accepted the challenge of organising SOBA’s event at very short notice as unpaid volunteers. Last year’s ticket sales were about $25,000 with potential to sell more, and the organisers deserve to get all the resources they need to let SOBA’s festival continue and grow. After all, I’d rather get five beers at a festival that happens, than eight beers at a festival that’s cancelled.

Winter Ales is SOBA’s oldest festival, and its continued future should be a commitment up there with the National Homebrew Competition and Pursuit of Hoppiness. It shouldn’t be brushed aside as too large, too difficult. 

Relying on enthusiastic amateurs to run an event that has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams? OMG, now that really is the worst idea ever!

Other winter beer options:

  • Auckland – GABS Auckland is all go for 16 & 17 June, and will include one-off winter brews from Choice Bros, Garage Project, Piha Beer, and other New Zealand and Australian brewers. Tickets from $45.45. 
  • Christchurch – Mid-Winter Ales Festival, 1 July, with beers from New Zealand and overseas. Tickets from $35.
  • Wellington – at least one local craft beer bar is planning to fill the gap with a Winter Ales tap takeover to be held over Queens’ Birthday Weekend. We’ll keep you updated.

Winter Ales Festival reviews from previous years: 2010 2011 2015 2016 preview 2016 review


Martin Craig

By BeertownNZ Wed, 26 Apr 2017 Wellington