Gavin Andrews from the Hoppy Possum Homebrew Festival plays 20 Questions
In 2019 Gavin Andrews launched the Hoppy Possum homebrewing festival and competition after a lot of dreaming, planning and frustration with what was on offer to the homebrew community. He wanted to find a way that let brewers showcase their best beers – not just the ones that fit in neat style boxes and to interact with the people judging their beers.
Most homebrewing competitions have a fairly anonymous feedback system: enter a beer in a competition, and wait a few weeks or a few months for some score sheets to come back. Gavin aimed to change that using a “people’s choice” format that came with a cash prize for the top brewers.
It seems a little surreal to be writing about an event to get people together during the time of COVID-19, but if the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that community is more important than ever. Whether online or in person, we’re all connected. We’ve also learned how important and fragile those connections are.
Besides, we’re going to need a post-quarantine party to drink all the beer we’ve been brewing during the time of “social distancing” and “isolation”.
What follows is a Q&A with Gavin about where the festival idea came from, what makes it different and worth attending as a homebrewer.
HOP: How did the idea for the Hoppy Possum competition come about? What were you seeing missing among the homebrew competitions that were already out there?
HP: I have been a homebrewer for years and everyone always seems to ask "when are you going to open a brewery?" The idea never really appealed to me but I am very entrepreneurial by nature. I am always looking for a good business idea, and my love for craft beer lead me to look for ideas in that market. While I was at another beer festival serving with my homebrew club, I noticed something, the homebrew section was as busy, if not busier than the commercial section of the festival. This got the wheels turning and I started researching if a home brew only festival would be feasible, would it be profitable, and would it be legal. Through months of research, I was able to determine the answer to all of those questions is yes.
This event set out to accomplish several things that other homebrew competitions do not:
- A means for amateurs to share their craft and story with the public (which not too many opportunities for this exist)
- To elevate homebrewing in a way it never has before (through truly honoring what these brewers do and awarding them with worthy prizes.)
- Create a festival around the competition and throw out what I never liked about competitions (you just mail it in then get scores back, useful information but no memories made, no experience)
- Breakdown some of the stigma the general public still has surrounding homebrew. Showcase the talents of brewers to the casual beer drinker so they can see for themselves homebrew is as good and often better than commercial.
HOP: It’s interesting for me to hear you say that you weren’t interested in opening a brewery. While I’ve thought about it, like any homebrewer does, I also don’t think that would be a good route for me if I were going to be go full time in the industry. I would imagine that organizing and running a festival is still pretty labor intensive. How ready were you when the day rolled around? Were you able to capitalize on the experience from your day job to plan everything out ahead of time?
HP: By the time it rolled around I had been planning and working on the event for well over a year. Any new event has a fair amount of unknowns, but I was pretty well prepared. This is largely due to the experience and knowledge I gained through my day job.
HOP: Have to ask- where did the name come from?
HP: I wanted a name for the event that was fun and memorable. Making sense was not a priority. Think Bonnaroo, it means nothing but no one forgets it ‘cause it is so unique. With this in mind we hand many brainstorming sessions, most involving cold beer. One evening my good friend just blurted out hoppy possum. It was fun, and spoke to our region so we rolled with it. The fact that possums have tons of personality and I think they are crazy cute is just a bonus.
HOP: What was the process of starting the competition like?
HP: Research, and lots of it. I spoke to everyone I could about it and asked tons of questions. This helped me fine tune the idea I had in my head into something that would get people excited.
HOP: I remember seeing you start to promote the event and thinking “What’s his backup plan if he doesn’t get enough sponsors for the $10k prize”. Was that ever a concern for you?
HP: This was a bit of a gamble. The success of the event really hinges on ticket sales and to a smaller degree, sponsors. I spent a lot of time crunching the numbers and felt pretty comfortable I could reach my break-even point in year one. Thankfully I was correct.
HOP: How was your support from the community where the competition was held? Did you have any trouble planning the competition with local officials?
HP: I am lucky enough to work for Visit Johnson City as my day job. I work in sports tourism and have been involved in event management in Johnson City since 2014. This really set me up for success as I already have many great relationships in the community. That is not to say there were no hurdles. With a brand-new type of event, there was a bit of a learning curve for some community partners.
HOP: It seems like many of the brewers who went to your competition are ones that are pushing the boundaries of style. They’re brewing Pastry Stouts, Slushie Style Kettle Sours and other “cross-style” beers. Is that a fair assessment?
HP: I think that is pretty accurate. This is purposeful though. With a people’s choice format, it encourages brewers to offer something unique that will stand out. This in turn is what gets attendees excited and ultimately drives ticket sales.
HOP: How would you describe the brewers who attended the event?
HP: Diverse. We had 50 brewers from 11 states in year one. You really got to see a wide range of approaches to brewing and to the competition. This was really fun to see, plus you get to meet some amazing people from all over the US
HOP: Were they the brewers that you thought would attend when you first envisioned the competition?
HP: Not entirely. What really surprised me is how far people are coming from to compete in this event. I figured we would see brewers from surrounding states and that would be it, but we say them from all over.
HOP: How far did you have brewers travel to pour?
HP: The brewer that traveled the furthest drove 700 miles last year. This year we have a brewer coming from Washington State, over 2,400 miles. Crazy!
HOP: Are you a BJCP recognized event? Is that important to you?
HP: We are not. I think BJCP events have tremendous value to the homebrew community, that is just not what we are going for. We set out to create a festival experience unlike anything else. One that pulls in the casual craft beer enthusiast and the hardcore/obsessed homebrewer and allows them to interact in a way that does not happen at other comps. We also need to sell tickets, and what gets people excited and buying tickets, is beer that is outside the box and may not even fit in a BJCP Category.
HOP: Even though you’re not a BJCP event (and I think it’s important to have some that aren’t), do you offer any formalized feedback to the brewers?
HP: We do not offer formalized feedback at this time. This year we are introducing a new festival app. One of the items we are looking at is a way for users to forward feedback to the brewer through the app.
HOP: Can you describe the audience who attended, not as brewers, but as homebrew/craft y beer fans? (number of attendees, local/regional? etc.)
HP: Attendees were mostly from the immediate region. We had about 750 attendees in year one and were pleased with that. We are preparing to double that in 2020.
HOP: I like how you’ve broken down several things about the more traditional Homebrew Competitions that didn’t work for you as a brewer, especially the anonymous part. I think it’s a great thing for brewers to hear not just from judges, but from people in general. What was the brewer response to this like? Did they find it a little intimidating at first?
HP: This is the most common comment I got from brewers. They really appreciated the opportunity to discuss their craft with the public and receive feedback.
HOP: What was the winning beer? And did you get a chance to try it?
HP: The winning beer was a Hallertau Blanc Dry Hopped Pilsner from a brewer out of South Carolina. People were a bit surprised that a pilsner won, but I tasted it and it was insanely good. No doubt it was a winner.
HOP: The winning beer sounds fantastic- and doesn’t sound too crazy. Sounds like it was really refreshing and well thought out. What were some of the other stand out beers that you remember?
HP: The Mango Lassi IPA, Hop Seltzer, and German Chocolate Coffee Cake Stout we a few that really grabbed my attention.
HOP: If you could go back and redo one step along the way to the 2019 competition, what would it be?
HP: I would change just one thing. The event went so smoothly all day, I should have known I was due for a screw up. During the very last 10 minutes of the event, at the award ceremony I accidently called out the wrong name. It was hugely embarrassing for me as well as the person I called out. I still can't believe it happened but I own it, it was a transposition error on my part, and it will never happen again.
HOP: This seems like a great event for Homebrewers looking to take the next step up in their brewing. How many of the brewers that came do you think are looking to go pro?
HP: It is hard to tell if the brewers are just really serious about homebrewing or looking to go pro without simply asking them. We are looking to add an educational component to the event, so this would be interesting to know. Looks like I will have to add it to the survey this year.
HOP: Any advice for brewers planning to go in 2020?
HP: If I were participating, I would do whatever it took to stand out among the crowded field and get as many people too my booth as possible. Things like decorating my booth, serving my beer with something (like a float or garnish), or something interactive comes to mind. You have to be a bit of a showman or at least a salesman to get people excited about your beer.
HOP: Did you pour any beers that you brewed at the festival, just for fun?
HP: I did not. I didn't even have time to drink many let alone pour any. Maybe one year.
HOP: What’s new for the 2020 version of the competition?
HP: For 2020 we have added a new category for non-beer entries such as cider, mead, and graf (a beer and cider hybrid). This category will have separate voting, judging, and a separate prize purse. We have also extended the event an additional hour and booked a killer new band I think everyone will love. We CANNOT wait to see everyone in September!
HOP: I feel like this is may be a little premature, but have you been impacted by COVID-19 yet? Do you have a plan for postponing/cancelling if things are just as crazy this fall?
HP: We are keeping a close eye on the situation. Planning is moving forward as usual until we determine hosting would be unsafe. For now, we are pressing forward.
-"Call for Brewer Applicants" flyer: https://www.hoppypossum.com/