The Festival US – From the Volunteers perspective

If you read my blog post from Sunday evening you would know I had an excellent time at The Festival US in Portland, Maine last weekend, from an attendee standpoint it was a success, but you can’t gauge the successfulness of an event without looking at the whole picture. Even at the event you could sense the frustration from the volunteers, after the event was over that frustration began showing itself on social media and in the newspaper.

I put a call out on my Facebook page and twitter to anyone who volunteered to work The Festival US asking them to send me a message, I wanted to know about their experience, what their take away was from it and if they had ever volunteered for other brewfests in Maine and how they compared. I received quite a few responses but only a handful of volunteers were willing to tell me about their experience. I can only assume that these people had a less than pleasant experience; I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to share a fun day at the brewfest. The people who did share with me all had similar things to say but their experience varied from good to bad. I was unfortunately unable to find anyone from the third session willing to talk to me but I got a few people from session one and a few from session two.

The problems seem to have started well before the festival began, one volunteer told me it was such a long span of time from when they applied to when they got a reply that they were working the festival they had considered buying tickets so they wouldn’t miss the event. Lack of communication was a common theme from all the volunteers; everyone felt that between emails leading up to the event to communication at the start of the event could have been improved. Along the same lines there were complaints that they did not receive adequate “training” on serving and working the tables, this is obviously problematic as, not every volunteer is going to be a bartender, this is also an area where comparisons were made to other Maine festivals that people had volunteered for, that the training had been much more in depth even for those people who were not pouring.

The final Saturday session was late opening by 30 minutes, I’ve heard a couple different things here including an inspection by the liquor board but the most common reason is that there was a shortage of volunteers. From what I’ve been told the incentive for volunteering at this festival was attending a free session, unless you were on the third session then you didn’t get a free session, I’ve been told this was spelled out clearly in an email to the volunteers. This removes the incentive to work the final session and is one of the reasons other brewfest in Maine have found other ways to entice people to volunteer.  Sessions one and two started on time but were definitely understaffed, with lack of support volunteers were not able to take breaks, Maine laws prohibit brewers from pouring so they were not able to help relieve volunteers so they could use the restroom or get food. The pour laws are an obvious problem, they heighten  the importance of the volunteer staff and limit the ability of the brewer to assist, but the festival should have planned for this and the inevitable dropouts and overstaffed their volunteers, I’ve never attend a festival in Maine that didn’t start on time due to a lack of volunteers.

The other big complaint from volunteers was that they could not sample the beer they were pouring, and I’m not talking about drinking on the job, but knowing the product they were serving. The brewers could give them an idea of the beers but in the end the volunteer was the one who was fielding the “what do you suggest” and “what’s it taste like” questions from the crowd and they could not answer because they just didn’t know. As a consumer if I was asking the person pouring a question about the beer and I got a response of “I don’t know” I would not be impressed. I do however understand this law, it’s a public safety concern, your server is responsible for portion control, ticket collection and identifying whether an individual is “Visibly intoxicated” and able to be served, you don’t want this person to have been drinking. This is why brewers should be pouring, they know their product, they’ve been to festivals, they understand the effects of alcohol and can identify a person who should not be served and in the end they want to be able to interact with the people drinking their beer.

There were other complaints but I don’t feel the need to type out every little thing, this post isn’t intended to be a slam at The Festival US, I had a great time, the volunteers did a great job even if they were unhappy, and not all of them were, I did receive feedback from volunteers who felt there were issues but still had a lot of fun and would volunteer again. All of the volunteers seem to agree that the laws surrounding brewfests in Maine need work and the event should focus on communication, training and appropriate planning of resources, they also all agree that the brewers were amazing to work for, that they were kind, thoughtful and helped however they could and most importantly they made them feel important, because they were.

I reached out to a friend who volunteered at The Festival US last year in Worcester, Massachusetts; he told me he had a great time volunteering. He explained his duties at the festival and they were very different, in Massachusetts the brewers could pour so volunteers were responsible for ice, water, emptying rinse pails, watching exits and generally taking care of whatever busy work needed to be done. The volunteers at last year’s festival were also encouraged to sample while they worked, obviously in moderation but if they took a break they could try a couple samples.

Maine’s liquor and licensing laws are definitely part of the root cause of the problems surrounding The Festival US; the response from the Shelton Brothers is that they won’t return until things change. This large, high profile brewfest has shined a bright light on a problem that our local brewfest organizers have been dealing with for years; I am currently in the process of researching the liquor and licensing laws and will be doing a follow up post in the near future.

I would again like to thank the volunteers who stepped up and shouldered the responsibility, brewfests in Maine need them, they do important work and I hope that one rough experience won’t stop them from volunteering again.



Chad Lothian

About Chad Lothian

Chad Lothian lives in Old Town, Maine. He is a craft beer enthusiast and homebrewer. Chad has travelled to brewpubs, breweries and brewfests all over New England.