Warszawski Festiwal Piwa — a benchmark in success

It is extremely difficult not to compare WFP9 — the ninth edition of the Warszawski Festiwal Piwa — with other beer festivals.  The focus of WFP9 is beer and its many wonderful, varied flavours, and that what made the event so popular: WFP9 offers everything correctly at every level, everything is all about enjoying the beer.

Organizers Jacek Materski and Paweł Leszczyński have managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: about 50 of the best Polish breweries (and a couple of overseas highlights) catering to 20,000 visitors without any contrivance or distraction that takes the focus away from beer in order to give the perception of a ‘successful event’.  The success of WFP9 is genuine and well-deserved, and it is achieved through a steely determination to offer visitors a great experience without any ulterior motives, self-promotion and indirect attempts to cut costs or increase profits.  Furthermore, the Warszawski Festiwal Piwa is successfully held twice per year, in the spring and autumn.  Applause indeed!

It is extremely difficult, therefore, not to compare WFP9 with other beer festivals.

Stadion Miejski Legii Warszawa im. Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego, or more simply the Legia Warsaw Municipal Stadium, has been the home of Legia Warsaw (one of Poland’s top Football Teams) for almost 90-years.  Despite its location in the city-centre borough of Śródmieście, the stadium is located a short bus journey or brisk stroll south of the main city hub in the affluent Ujazdów area, at the edge of the massive Łazienki Park.

The presence of a top-tier football pitch with its stands and terraces outside is certainly unique for a beer festival, yet it’s a shrewd move: the stadium’s 30,000 seat capacity means there is enough seating for everybody.  However, there is ample seating within the beer festival itself, so only a small part of the stadium seating is used.

Many Polish Craft Beer breweries have their own branded deck-chairs, which fill the space between the brewery stalls and lend the event a beach-party vibe without the sand-between-the-toes.  Not every beer festival can successfully pull-off the beach-party vibe; the demographic of WFP9 is youthful, chic and able to spritely stand-up from a low-slung deckchair with stylish ease, whereas experience tells us many stereotypical beer geeks may find it a challenge to elegantly settle and arise with the deck-chair approach.

Legia Warsaw Municipal Stadium’s football pitch itself is used for WFP9’s official ceremonies, to welcome visitors and participants, although the planned party-games — large-scale drinking-games outdoors, à la Jeux Sans Frontières — are cancelled due to the fragile condition of the grass.

For visitors unfamiliar with Polish hospitality, the free cloakroom facilities are a pleasant surprise.  Coats, bags, purchased beer, gifts and suchlike can all be deposited at the cloakroom — and happily received with a smile — until the end of the event.  It’s a welcoming feature for the beer photojournalist usually required to carry all accoutrements of the trade throughout an entire beer festival rather than face the wrath of an inconvenienced, service-orientation-deficient cloakroom attendant.  Much respect is due, therefore, to the cloakroom attendants at Legia Warsaw Municipal Stadium who work throughout WFP9 and still manage to remain pleasant and willing to assist.

The choice of a football stadium is logical for another key reason too: football matches, much like beer festivals, are attended by visitors who drink a fair amount of beer before and / or during the main event.  There are consequently numerous toilets in the middle and at each end of every floor — real toilets, too, with water, soap and hand-washing facilities.  Rarely does a beer festival pass without an inevitable pitstop queue, yet the abundance of facilities at WFP9 demonstrates how a beer festival can effortlessly add value where it is often most needed.

The lack of draconian restrictions and a refreshing focus on the importance of actually enjoying the beers and meeting the breweries at WFP9 is welcoming.  Breweries offer their beers in both draft and bottled format, the latter are sold to be shared among friends without constraint.  Draft beers are not limited to one size: curious drinkers are free to enjoy beers served as 0.1 L, 0.3 L or 0.5 L.

WFP9 uses a unique system of ‘tokens’ for purchasing beer, too.  We believe it is called ‘cash’, and these tokens — paper or coin — can be obtained from any bank or ATM across the country.  The option for visitors to actually pay for whatever quantity of beer they wish at WFP9 is nothing short of genius: common-sense.  The 1 token = 1 beer of a fixed size mentality seen elsewhere is rapidly losing its appeal as different disruptive models gain traction, with some beer festivals abandoning both cash and tokens altogether and choosing a one-time admission fee (with no mandatory glass) instead.

The tedious (revenue-generating?) tactic employed by many beer festivals at which visitors are obliged to purchase a mandatory ‘souvenir’ glass each visit as part of the ‘admission’ fee — sometimes even one per day! — is utterly reversed at WFP9.  The visiting drinker has many options for choosing the perfect drinking vessel.

Those wishing to enjoy a wonderful ‘souvenir’ glass, which can be taken home and kept, have the option of purchasing a handmade WFP9 glass that’s only available during the festival — the so-called Tulipior is an artisanal piece costing about the same as three or four beers.  Those wishing for something simpler can purchase a functional 0.5 L glass for about the same cost as one beer.  However, many wish to purchase neither and may, therefore, receive their purchased beers in a free plastic cup.

Many breweries have their own branded glasses for sale, and a unique feature of WFP9 is that any glass or vessel can be used at any brewery stall for any beer, irrespective of whether or not it’s unique to the festival or a brewery.  Visitors are permitted to use the same glass over the following days too.  The most desirable keepsake at WFP9 is seemingly the cute, palm-sized snifter glass from Poznań’s Browar Golem that sold-out early and is omnipresent throughout the three-days of the event.

Certain countries believe in the usefulness and convenience of a branded small canvas bag that allows beer festival visitors to carry their beer glasses, hands-free, around their neck; other countries think it’s a great idea, and yet appear unwilling to adopt or try the practice; and other countries are simply too cool.  The proliferation of these at most beer festivals in Italy, for example, suggest it’s a feature aligned with style and fashion.  It is no surprise, therefore, that people at WFP9 (stylish and fashionable, too) widely utilise the festival’s small glass-carrying bags that are available for a small fee.

There is something wonderfully social and appealing about tall bar-tables around which visitors can stand, place their glasses safely, and while-away the minutes chewing the fat — far too many beer festivals overlook these in favour of a limited number of seated tables that are treated as highly desirable prizes for which visitors determinedly compete when the festival opens.  Thankfully, WFP9 has an overabundance of both: seated tables at which visitors can sit for the entire event, and tall bar tables for those visitors who would simply prefer a temporary perch for a few minutes’ respite.  It is an approach worthy of applause.

The lack of a physical paper-based festival program at WFP9 is refreshing, forward-thinking and demonstrative of an environmental conscience.  Site maps hang from the walls in many locations, allowing visitors to navigate their way towards the next beers, and small single-sheet flyers containing a map can be picked-up from various stalls.  With many, many hundreds of beers on offer, a paper-based list would be both impractical and unsatisfying to visitors seeking a particular beer that is either sold-out or unavailable.

The Polish beer industry has seemingly adopted technology in a manner far superior to most other countries, and this beer-technology revolution is evident at WFP9, too.  An online, interactive map of WFP9 details how many taps each beer-stall offers, what beer is available on each tap, which beers are available in bottles and suchlike.  This approach appears to be replicated across the Craft Beer bars in the city, too, and it is a technology slowly making inroads to other beer markets throughout the world.

An important note: there is free Wi-Fi at WFP9, so international visitors do not need to incur roaming data charges to utilise this beer-technology revolution.  This is an important point to note for other beer festivals hoping for real-time Social Media promotion and interaction: visitor value comes in many forms, and Wi-Fi is a must for the tech-savvy beer-lover.

Another unique feature of WFP9 that is seen at only the very best beer festivals is the presence of Beer Guides, impartial volunteers who are happy and willing to guide visitors in their choice of beers and breweries.  Yet another simple way in which value can be generated without increasing the oft-spurious ‘entry fee’.

There is music playing throughout WFP9, but it is broadcast at a subtle level that does not preclude conversation; an oversight at many other so-called ‘beer festivals’ when visitors wish to talk about, learn about and be festal about the beers they’re drinking.

The absence of pounding music at WFP9 seems demonstrative of an inherent Polish interest in learning about beer, an approach that wins the approval of the genuinely-interested-in-beer brigade.  Throughout the three days there is a continual programme of interesting and educational beer-related events — workshops, lectures, tastings, presentations and discussion panels — held on both the WFP9 Festival Stage and in a separate side-room (for the private, ticketed sessions).  An equal number of events are held in English and Polish.

The Festival Stage is located amid the drinking and taste-savouring on the main floor, and precisely because the volume is moderate and discreet, everybody is able to either attend a (free) event or overlook it, depending upon the drinker’s choice.

Steve Dresler, former Sierra Nevada Head Brewer, is WFP9’s special guest, and it is therefore no surprise that his lectures and presentations form the bulk of the events; whether it’s his 34-years with the Californian brewery, his 8 World Beer Cup awards and 31 GABF medals, the early days of Craft Beer or his special event: Brewing with Wet Hops.  Other lectures during the event include the history and legacy of farmhouse brewing and beers, a beer report from Mexico (really!) and perhaps most fascinating of all: bulls’ testicles, herrings and brickwork yeast (the strangest additions to beer).

Discussion Panels include an insight into low-alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers, the beginnings of Craft Beer, and a session on the causes and risks of exploding beers, which has an attorney on-hand to seemingly answer any legal questions.  For foreign-beer loving Poles, the foreign brewery discussion with some of the representatives from overseas breweries is a key event at WFP9: Copenhagen’s Amager Bryghus, Eindhoven’s Van Moll and Breda’s Brouwerij Frontaal adeptly representing the Danish and Dutch Craft Beer industries.  In return WFP9 offered the “Hoppy Poland” tasting session, designed to prepare foreigners for the delights of Polish Craft Beer.

Both Van Moll and Brouwerij Frontaal offer a ticketed tasting-session, which sit nicely in the schedule between tasting sessions that covered Brut IPA versus New England IPA and smoked beers.  A daily “Meet the World of Beer” tasting session introduces novice Polish beer drinkers to…well…meeting the world of beer.  For true connoisseurs, WFP9 offers Beer Sensory Best Practice Tasting sessions (off- flavours and taste techniques) and session about professionally evaluating beer.

One of the most intriguing features of WFP9 is the Zone of New Breweries, an area set-aside specifically for new Polish breweries — those attending the beer festival for the first time — Gzub, Wagabunda, Lasowiak, Incognito and Jarocin.  In order to present the new breweries and the people behind them to Polish drinkers, WFP9 holds an introductory event on the main Festival Stage.

Wojciech Trześniowski was a professional brewer and homebrewer who unfortunately passed away following an accident in the brewery.  He was previously involved with the Warsaw Homebrew Competition, and so it is a fitting tribute that announcing the results of the competition, now named in his honour, is an important event during WFP9.

Indicative of Poland’s relationship with its Craft Beer — especially a focus on taste and quality — is a cooking workshop detailing how great food is paired with great beer.  It’s a surprising and delightful treat to encounter a country that has a widespread interest and competence in both food and beer, and another workshop that supports this fact concentrates on how to improve bitterness in beer to make it a more pleasant experience.

Food.  The single biggest love-hate relationship with a beer festival.  The quality of food at a beer festival is largely driven by the food culture of the country in which the festival is held; and in the worst case, this can manifest itself as nothing more than a few measly snacks — inadequate for the beer-lover spending an entire day in pursuit of his or her main passion.  Poland is a foodie’s paradise, of course, so it is not surprising to see over 20 different caterers (including many Food Trucks in the outside area) at WFP9 offering more-or-less something of everything for everybody.

There is ample dedicated and covered seating for diners at WFP9; a surprising alternative to other beer festivals that suffer from the Catch-22 of having both an insufficient number of tables and an aggressive table-envy amongst visitors who want to own an entire table for the day — usually because they have brought their own picnic; both the cause and result of a lack of decent food.

Games, puzzles and pastimes have walked hand-in-hand with beer almost as long as beer itself has existed, and they’re an integral part of every warm, welcoming, hospitable and homely beer-bar, pub and café in every corner of the globe.  Besides a few progressive, forward-looking beer festivals that value human interaction above inane distractions that masquerade as ‘entertainment’, most beer festivals sadly overlook the merit of games, puzzles and pastimes and the joy they bring to beer-loving drinkers.

Not only is there a lavish selection of Pinball Machines and Retro Arcade Games at WFP9, but there are no less than two games tournaments held during the event.  Most popular, of course, is the Table Football Tournament, held amid the clatter and turmoil that dominates a popular corner of WFP9 that is dedicated to a miniature version of the Beautiful Game.

The second tournament is a Klask Championship.  For the uninitiated, Klask is a two-person Danish board-game, popular in the country’s pubs and bars, and often referred to as the Danish National Game.  It’s not too dissimilar to Table Air Hockey, but much more personal and interactive.  Each person controls a magnetic ‘player’ from underneath, and the objective is to knock the small ball into the opponent’s ‘goal’ without picking-up more than one of the three small white magnetic obstacles on the ‘pitch’.  It is rather fun.

The presence of the ‘Ameryka od Kuchni’ (America’s Kitchen) stand on the ground floor, among the new breweries, is evidence of WFP9’s official partners: the US Embassy and the US Department of Agriculture.  Like the majority of countries with a renowned beer culture, Poland has taken a huge cue from the Craft Beer Revolution that has been growing in the US over the past 35-years, and with the number of (competent and able) Polish Craft Beer breweries on the increase it is a prudent move for the US to be present here to showcase its great American beers.  Moreover, the presence of many fresh American hop varieties for both commercial brewers and homebrewers to freely try is an excellent marketing opportunity fully exploited.

Warszawski Festiwal Piwa; WFP9; the ninth edition.  Wonderful in every respect.  The only disappointment being that we did not attend the previous eight.  WFP10 is scheduled for April; flights and hotels need to be booked because this is unquestionably one not to miss.